By Clara Ferreira-Marques
LONDON (Reuters) - Mining companies were too slow to respond to changing investor demands from mid-2011 as sentiment deteriorated, failing to spot the wave of change which eventually swept out a generation of executives, the former boss of miner Rio Tinto said on Tuesday.
"We didn't react fast enough," said Tom Albanese, chief executive of Rio Tinto (LSE:RIO) (ASX:RIO) until he was ousted in January - one of a string of executives toppled by writedowns at the world's largest mining firms, as boom-year deals soured.
Recalling Rio's half-year earnings, released in August 2011, Albanese told an industry gathering that the company had felt at the time that it was announcing positive numbers. Indeed, it reported record cash flow and record profits.
Investors, though, were watching screens "filled with red", he said, and the mining group's shares fell. Instead of demanding more growth, investors had begun to feel nervous.
"It felt like panic was setting in... We said this is not us, this is not our problem. We should have said this is us, this is our problem," the U.S.-born mining veteran said, in one of his first public appearances since his departure from Rio.
"At that point the sentiment changed very quickly - a matter of three weeks - and it never turned. It probably took us 18 months to get that."
Albanese left Rio in January 2013, ending his six-year tenure at the top after the world's third-largest mining company announced a $14 billion writedown almost entirely on the value of his two most significant acquisitions, the Alcan aluminium group and Mozambican coal.
The deal to buy Mozambique-focused coal miner Riversdale - pursued as Rio came under pressure to move into what was seen as the next coking coal frontier - completed in June 2011, just months before the turning point Albanese identified.
"Even if we had had that clairvoyance in August 2011, it would have been very hard to turn back," he said of projects approved before that turning point, arguing investors were pushing for growth only months before.
Since the spring of 2011, five of the world's six largest diversified mining companies have changed their chief executive. Most of these former bosses of major listed firms have since chosen to eschew public markets, preferring private ventures.
Albanese is the only one of the big names to have stayed in the industry with a full-time job at a listed company, albeit a smaller one. He announced last month he had taken a senior advisory role at Indian mining firm Vedanta (VED.L).
But he said on Tuesday there would be opportunities for rivals who, like Xstrata's Mick Davis or Vale's (SAO:VALE5) Roger Agnelli, have chosen private firms to pursue deals at a time he said would prove fruitful as some firms struggle - ahead of an improvement in the sector from 2015.
Davis, ejected from Xstrata after the takeover by Glencore (LSE:GLEN) earlier this year, has gone on to set up X-2 Resources, which last month announced it had received $500 million each in backing from trading house Noble (SES:N21) and private equity group TPG. Agnelli set up B&A Mineracao last year.
"The market is going to be weak this year and for a period of time," he said. "I look at that, from a mining perspective, as the time to go for consolidation, to build the foundation for the next few years ... to strengthen your position for what should be a pretty good run."
(Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques; editing by David Evans)