Andrew Forrest. Picture: REUTERS
Andrew Forrest. Picture: REUTERS

Melbourne — Nev Power’s successor as Fortescue Metals Group’s top executive will be charged with leading the world’s fourth-largest iron ore exporter’s drive into new businesses.

"We are going to look for and consider other opportunities, where other investors can join us," chairperson and founder Andrew Forrest told reporters on Friday on a conference call after announcing Power will step down on February 16. "I don’t see ourselves as only a mining company, I see ourselves as a great management and operating company."

Fortescue’s shares tumbled 4.5% on Friday on the news of Power’s planned departure after almost seven years in the job. Candidates for his post likely include chief financial officer, Elizabeth Gaines, and director of operations, Greg Lilleyman, a former Rio Tinto Group executive, according to Peter O’Connor, an analyst with Shaw and Partners. "Lilleyman would be the favourite, and Gaines is the wildcard." Lilleyman has relevant prior experience in iron ore, Citigroup analysts said in a note.

Last month, Fortescue boosted dividends and reported that full-year profit more than doubled on higher prices to $2.1bn. Power has also overseen a programme to rapidly lower borrowings, trimming net debt to $2.6bn from a peak of more than $10bn four years ago.

While the incoming CEO will fund a strong balance sheet and modest plans for future spending, "the turbulent waters of iron ore price and discount volatility, and the growing questioning by investors of diversification away from iron ore, will still need to be navigated", Citigroup analysts said in their Friday note.

I don’t see ourselves as only a mining company, I see ourselves as a great management and operating company

The outgoing CEO’s replacement will need to maintain Fortescue’s existing strengths, including in operational performance, as the producer considers potential expansions, according to David Coates, a Sydney-based analyst at Bell Potter Securities. "It is a milestone transition," he said by phone. "Fortescue can genuinely leverage off bringing that corporate culture to whatever new assets they acquire or develop."

On the call, Forrest declined to identify potential areas of interest, but previously flagged renewable energy and the recycling of nuclear waste as among options. The company is already exploring for copper and gold in areas including Australia’s New South Wales, and Ecuador, according to filings.

Fortescue has declined about 13% since Power replaced Forrest as CEO in July 2011, though has outperformed competitors in the sector as iron ore prices retreated from a peak. A Bloomberg Intelligence index of 13 suppliers has slumped 68% over the same period.

Iron ore prices are likely to retreat in 2018 as producers including Brazil’s Vale continue to boost supply, Goldman Sachs said in July. Fortescue is holding annual iron ore shipments at the current rate of 170-million tonnes amid prospects of broadly flat demand, Gaines said in July.

In the short term, the ore has rebounded since mid-June on strong steel demand in China and a slower-than-expected rise in low-cost supply. Australia’s biggest producers, including Fortescue, are preparing investments of as much as $10bn in replacement mines to maintain output levels as existing mines are depleted.


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