The day after announcing he will step down as chair of the company he founded, Peter Munk is ready to take the blame for Barrick Gold’s setbacks in the last two years.
“The way my mother brought me up, you take the blame on yourself,” Munk said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.
“I think as head of the company, I’ve been given all the credit for all the good things for 25 years. I think it’s appropriate.“
Munk was forced to give his position at the head of Barrick Gold by shareholders critical of results at the world’s largest gold miner, which has had to retrench quickly after gold prices plunged. Gold currently trades at just over $1200 US an ounce, after hitting $1800 in 2012.
Barrick Gold stock has fallen by 50 per cent this year, trading today at $16.43 Cdn, down from the 52-week high of $35.50.
In addition to Munk’s retirement, Barrick Gold announced two long-time directors would leave the board at the annual general meeting in April 2014 and four independent directors would join. John Thornton, who has been co-chair of Barrick with Munk, will take his place.
Shareholders were not overjoyed at news, leaving the stock to languish on Thursday.
Mike Morris of U.S. hedge fund Two Fish Management said he wants Barrick to focus on returning cash to shareholders.
He’s concerned that Barrick will continue Munk’s growth strategies under Thornton.
'If I had a choice I would prefer to do what Gordon Nixon did, leave when the stock is high. Should have done it two years ago' - Peter Munk
"My concern is that Thornton, according to some of the reports I've read, is interested into potentially diversifying into other metals and actually having more capital injected into the company through partnerships with the Chinese," Morris said.
"That is exactly the opposite of what we are looking for."
Munk believes his legacy is in capable hands in Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs executive.
“The legacy from my perspective, to create a Canadian global leader and hand it over to somebody who I believe can do what I am not destined to do for Canada, for Toronto, and for the shareholders makes me feel good,” he said.
Munk says the timing of his retirement leaves something to be desired.
"If I had a choice I would prefer to do what Gordon Nixon did, leave when the stock is high. Should have done it two years ago,” he said, referring to the retirement of the Royal Bank CEO announced today.
Munk, an entrepreneur who founded companies such as Clairtone, which sold high-end stereos, Southern Pacific Hotel Corp. and later Trizec Properties, established Barrick Gold in 1983.
From Placer Dome to Equinox
Barrick became the world’s biggest gold producer in 2006, when it took over Placer Dome.
But its 2011 takeover of Equinox, beating a bid for China Minmetals, has been a mistake, Munk said.
“I shouldn’t have paid cash for Equinox,” Munk said, describing how the cheap money of the past few years and the boundless confidence that shareholders and banks had in Barrick itself seduced him into paying cash outright for the company.
Barrick Gold paid $7.3 billion for Equinox but demand from China for gold and minerals was cooling and earlier this year it was forced to announce a $3.8-billion writedown on the deal.
Wrong time for Equinox
“If you conduct your business over a decade and you grow because you’re powerful and you’ve got cash and your calculating is good by acquisitions , if you do 15 of them, it’s almost mathematically inevitable that one or two of them you’ll pick at the wrong time,” Munk said.
He believes Barrick is in good shape still, though forced to pull back on many of its operations. Munk believes it will bounce back up.
“Commodities are the most cyclical of all businesses, whether it’s copper, whether it’s gold, whether it’s nickel it’s all up and down,” he said.
One of his regrets is not diversifying into different minerals and becoming a multinational more like BHP Billiton.
“You are talking about a business that derives its income from one single commodity. If I had my druthers, I would by now have broadened our income base. Never in the mining industry has a $50 billion market company been maintained with one single metal,” he said.