Will Barrick Gold's CEO Departure Revive Newmont Merger Talks?

Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX  ) this week announced that its CEO Jamie Sokalsky will step down in September. Interestingly, Barrick has not announced a replacement for Sokalsky. Instead, the company has split the duties between two co-presidents. The management shakeup leaves more power in the hands of John Thornton, who succeeded Peter Munk as Chairman earlier this year. The big question is whether the departure of Sokalsky would revive merger talks between Barrick and Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM  ) .

Barrick's big shakeup
Barrick Gold announced major changes at the senior management level. Jamie Sokalsky, who had been in charge of Barrick for the last two years, will step down from the post of President and CEO effective September 15, 2014. Sokalsky's departure was anticipated after Barrick's merger talks with Newmont, which were apparently led by Chairman Thornton, fell apart. Reuters, citing sources familiar with the situation, reported that Thornton and Sokalsky were not on the best of terms, and therefore Sokalsky's departure is not surprising. What is surprising though is that Barrick has not named any replacement for Sokalsky.

Instead of appointing a new CEO, Barrick has split the role between Kelvin Dushnisky, who currently serves as Senior Vice President for Corporate and Government Affairs and Chairman of African Barrick Gold, and Jim Gowans, who currently serves as Executive Vice President and COO. Barrick says the reason behind the new management structure is that it will allow the company to meet the distinct demands and challenges of the mining industry in the 21st century.

Chairman Thornton noted that the structural changes put an even greater emphasis on operational excellence, and will accelerate the company's portfolio optimization and cost reduction initiatives, while fostering a partnership culture both inside the company and externally. What the splitting of the CEO role also means is that Thornton will have more powers. It could also possibly revive the merger talks with Newmont.

Thornton taking charge
Thornton became the Chairman of Barrick earlier this year following the departure of founder Peter Munk. The departure of Sokalsky and the fact that he is not being replaced suggest that Thornton is now in effect the CEO of Barrick. Thornton, though, has played down the issue, saying that the management shakeup doesn't change his role on iota and that he has no interest in being the CEO. However, there will certainly be changes in the way Barrick functions. Thornton, as I noted in a recent article, comes from a banking background. He already has some different ideas when it comes to running a gold mining company.

Earlier this year Thornton said that he would consider a hedging strategy, given the volatility in the price of gold. Barrick and other gold miners such as AngloGold Ashanti (NYSE: AU  ) had spent billions of dollars a few years ago to unwind their hedged positions. Since then, the gold mining industry has been averse to hedging. Barrick itself has maintained a no-hedge position since 2009. But Thornton believes that given the characteristics of a commodity like gold, it makes sense to hedge. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes in Barrick's policy toward hedging with Thornton now possibly in charge of the company. What will be more interesting to see is whether the merger talks with Newmont Mining are revived.

Merger talks
The merger talks between Barrick and Newmont ended earlier this year without a deal. The merger talks were apparently led by Thornton. The departure of Sokalsky has fueled speculation that the talks would be revived. This is because at the time the merger talks were on, there was speculation that Newmont's CEO Gary Goldberg would become the CEO of the merged company and Sokalsky would be in charge of the spun-off assets.

Following the management shakeup, Thornton has said that Barrick remains open to a merger with Newmont; however, the two companies are not in talks currently. But with Thornton effectively in charge of Barrick and given that he apparently led the merger talks earlier, it won't be surprising if the two companies return to the negotiating table. 

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