Rio Tinto – Corporate Governance and Asia

Jan 23, 2013

Since 2007 Rio Tinto has written off $US 35 billion in failed investments. It must be a world record. There are probably more write-downs to come with its investments in Mozambique coal and in aluminium in North America.

Tom Albanese has been sacrificed but the remainder of the Rio Tinto board are apparently unscathed. They have been too lax with shareholders money that they have washed so comprehensively down the drain. The boards of some of our mining companies in the mining boom must think that they are playing with monopoly money. Booming commodity prices and demand lulled them into being careless on major investment decisions. They became very gullible. Not only have they been lax in investment decisions but they have been careless in allowing costs to balloon.

The board of Rio Tinto oversaw the company’s operations in China when the iron ore price quadrupled. But in the business euphoria, Rio Tinto took its eyes off the ball and left local staff in charge. Four of Rio’s staff in China admitted to bribery in a Chinese court. They are now languishing in Chinese jails for up to 14 years. This sorry performance was described by our former Ambassador in Beijing, Geoff Raby, as a ‘management failure’. He was being polite. It was a debacle. So far it is not clear that any senior executives or board members have been held accountable.

Sam Walsh was on the board of Rio at the time he headed Rio’s iron ore division, with its substantial trade with China. He is now the CEO of the whole organisation replacing TomAlbanese.

It is also suggested that the problems in Mozambique related in part to Rio’s management style, including its relations with the Mozambique government. Rio did not appoint Portuguese speaking executives in Mozambique to manage the business.

Our large mining companies have an excellent record as geologists, explorers and people skilled at digging up and transporting minerals but they are yet to demonstrate business skills particularly in countries that are culturally and linguistically different. I do not know of any major Australian mining company that has a board member or CEO who can fluently speak at least one of the languages of our major customers – China, Japan and Korea. Few would have even a cultural understanding of how business is conducted in these countries.

These large companies pontificate about sovereign risk when the Australian government attempts to introduce reasonable tax regimes. These companies also tell us that we should all be raising our productivity with upskilling and improved work practices. But they don’t practice wheat they preach.

The disasters which Rio Tinto has brought upon itself were predictable.

John Menadue

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