Barrick Gold's Peter Munk to step down in 2014

Barrick Gold Corp. has announced that founder Peter Munk will retire next year at its 2014 shareholders’ meeting and two other directors are to leave the board at the same time.

John Thornton to take over as chair as investors chafe at poor results

The Canadian business titan behind the world's biggest gold company will step down in 2014. Havard Gould looks at his legacy 2:54

Barrick Gold Corp. has announced that founder Peter Munk will retire next year at its 2014 shareholders’ meeting and two other directors are to leave the board at the same time.

John Thornton, who has been co-chairman with Munk since 2012, will take over the role of chair at the AGM, probably in late April. The two departing directors are former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Howard Beck.

The gold producer has been under pressure from shareholders seeking changes at the board, especially the appointment of more independent directors.

The new directors named include Ned Goodman of Dundee Corp., Nancy Lockhart of Frum Development Group, former University of Toronto president David Naylor and Ernie Thrasher, CEO of Xcoal Energy & Resources.  

James Gowans, a former De Beers Canada chief executive who brings mining expertise to the role, takes up the post of chief operating officer in January.

Munk, 86, is founder of Barrick, but has been criticized for overseeing rich bonuses for executives when company shares have fallen 45 per cent in the past year.

The company is struggling with falling gold prices and escalating costs at its Pascua-Lama project in South America.

It suspended work at the Pascua-Lama project in November so it could renegotiate contracts with its suppliers at the mine perched high in the Andes.

"We're going to be looking at talking to every one of our contractors about doing things cheaper and more efficiently," chief executive Jamie Sokalsky told an investor conference Tuesday.

Investors are skeptical and have backed away from Barrick’s latest financing efforts, said Richard Powers, associate dean at Rotman School of Management.

Very few changes have been made to the Barrick board for the last 10 years, he told CBC News.

Investors are looking for better results and for “different independent directors with different skill sets,” Powers said.

“Austerity programs are starting already. It'll play out over the next 20 years. This company’s not going to go down; it's not failing, but it's not going to achieve the success they had over the last decade. Things are tougher in the mining business,” he said.

Powers said he believes the company will have good leadership after Munk's departure, as he has clearly signalled his replacement.

John Ing, president of Maison Placements in Toronto, said both Goodman and new COO Gowans bring welcome mining experience.

"The addition of Gowans as a COO harkens back to when they had Bob Smith and his team," he said, referring to Barrick's legendary president from 1987 to 1996, who helped build the miner into a global powerhouse.

Munk's savvy management of Barrick included hiring Bob Smith, one of the world's great mining engineers, and relying on him as the company expanded its gold holdings.

Equinox deal goes sour

But Barrick's $7.3-billion acquisition of copper-producer Equinox in April 2011 came at the wrong time, as demand from China cooled, and Barrick was forced to announce a $3.8-billion writedown earlier this year, largely because of the Equinox deal.

Munk’s biographer Donald Rumball says Munk has always gone for the “big, big move”

“He wanted to become the biggest dominant television manufacturer in North America; when he started the hotel business in Fiji and Australia, he wanted to become the biggest hotel company in the South Pacific and he succeeded. He started in oil and he wanted to become the biggest oil company and he failed and then he started Barrick Gold and he's had success,” Rumball told CBC News.

“He's always shot for the moon. He's totally fearless and very determined with enormous energy.”

But that entrepreneurial spirit has not always lent itself to the management of a more mature company and Rumball says Munk made mistakes.

“He was an innovator when he started his hedging program but then he discontinued it when the price of gold dropped. That was a major mistake and it wound up costing him a lot more,” Rumball said.

“He fell into the trap that all the big mining companies fell into – allowed costs to get completely out of control. That was surprising for Peter.” 

Rumball ranks Munk high among Canada's business aristocracy, not least for his philanthropy, which includes sponsoring the provocative Munk debates.

"He combines great economic success with considerable cultural philanthropy," Rumball said.

Watch CBC-TV's Lang & O'Leary Exchange on Thursday for Amanda Lang's interview with Peter Munk.

With files from The Canadian Press


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