A Great Time to Take Over as CEO of a Miner

Potash Corp. (NYSE: POT  ) had been run by Bill Doyle for about 15 years. Now, when the industry is facing an almost existential crisis, a new leader is coming in. Believe it or not, it's a great time for Jochen Tilk to be taking over.

A broken market
The problem for the potash market was the 2013 breakup of a European selling consortium. That single event sent buyers to the sidelines and potash prices plummeting. The global potash market, once dominated by two sales consortiums, quickly began to look like an every-man-for-himself world.

Source: US Government)

While it hasn't exactly played out that way, Potash and its close competitors have definitely felt the pinch of lower prices. For example, late last year Potash announced plans to cut costs, and fourth-quarter earnings came in over 50% below year-earlier results. Although on the surface it would seem taking over a retrenching company would be a bad move, it's actually a great one because it allows Tilk to make changes that Doyle may have had more difficulty pushing through.

Not alone
But Potash isn't alone in this. BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) switched leaders in early 2013. After years of expansion, BHP's new boss, Andrew Mackenzie, has come in and slashed spending and refocused around productivity. Through the first six months of the company's fiscal year (years end in June), the company highlighted a 25% reduction in spending on investment activities and, "annualised productivity led volume and cost efficiencies totalling US$4.9 billion."

While the old CEO could have done the same thing, he might have been perceived as fixing a mistake. Mackenzie, on the other hand, is benefiting politically from following through on the company's renewed commitment to its shareholders. In fact, with earnings up over 80% in the first half of the current fiscal year, Mackenzie is getting to look like a genius.

And BHP wasn't the only big miner to make a change last year, Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO  ) did too, appointing Sam Walsh. That said, Rio's move shows that every leadership transition isn't smooth. In this case, the shift came after Rio posted its first ever full-year loss. That led some to suggest the departing CEO was "sacked."

A sea of change?
Mining equipment maker Joy Global (NYSE: JOY  ) highlighted the CEO trend in its fiscal 2013 conference call (years end October). Executive vice president Edward Doheny noted at the time that, "In the last 24 months, we've seen over 25 new CEOs at mining companies take over with a focus on cost reduction and returns to shareholders after years of focus on growth and investment." Essentially, as the mining market struggled, miners brought in a raft of new leaders to shift gears.

(Source: Joy Global, via Wikimedia Commons)

That's generally good news for the mining industry, but for Joy it's been bad news. For example, Joy's Doheny noted that the industry's directional shift -- and new CEOs -- have "resulted in a reduction in CapEx spending of approximately 40% last year and has been reflected in our OE order rates, which were down 36% over the year."

It ain't easy
Running a company isn't easy, particularly when an entire industry hits the skids. That said, a downturn in a cyclical industry can be a great time to take over. The new CEOs get to make changes that might have been difficult for their predecessors and reap the benefits of the upswing as investors attribute at least part of the recovery to the new CEO's skill.

The comments from Joy, however, show that the real shift may have less to do with a single CEO and more to do with the industry. There may be good things going on at Rio and BHP, and good things to come at Potash, but don't get too excited about the new CEOs. They may be less important than you think. Oh, and it's worth noting that Joy Global recently announced its own plans for a leadership change...

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