SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Mining giant BHP on Friday named successful packaging executive Ken MacKenzie as its next chairman, handing him the job of tackling calls to dump its oil business and overhaul the board.
MacKenzie, 53, succeeds Jac Nasser from Sept. 1, after activist shareholders have challenged the world’s biggest miner to revamp its structure and improve returns.
Investors welcomed the appointment of MacKenzie, who said he plans to meet shareholders in the coming weeks to listen to their views. He was seen as one of Australia’s most successful chief executives in his 10 years of running Amcor Ltd.
Sacha Sadan, director of corporate governance at Legal and General Investment Management - the fifth biggest shareholder in BHP’s London listing with 2.48 percent - said he welcomed the announcement of “a forward-thinking chairman”.
“We will continue our discussions on the prospects of the business,” he said.
Canadian-born MacKenzie presided over a long stretch of prosperity at Amcor, which makes packaging for food producers, industrial companies and pharmaceutical firms, that coincided with the end of a boom period for mining companies.
Hedge fund Elliott Management has fired a barrage of criticism at Nasser and BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie since releasing a roadmap of changes it wants at the company, most notably an exit from U.S. oil and shale businesses.
Elliott also wants BHP to collapse its dual listing, and earlier this week called for a board shake-up, blaming long-tenured directors for bad investments and ill-timed share buybacks.
That could place MacKenzie, who joined BHP’s board only last year, in good standing. Focused on capital discipline, he replaced 75 percent of Amcor’s top 80 managers in his first two years at the company.
On Friday, Elliott said it supported the appointment of MacKenzie as a “constructive step in bringing much needed change to the direction of BHP.”
Portfolio managers at another activist shareholder, Tribeca Investment Partners, were not available to comment.
Nasser has defended the company’s $20 billion investment in shale acquisitions in 2011 against Elliott’s criticism.
BHP also faces a significant juncture in the Samarco mine dam liability saga in Brazil, which is meant to be settled in September.
In late 2015, a burst dam at Samarco, a joint venture between BHP and Brazil’s Vale, killed 19 people and caused the country’s worst environmental disaster as mud and waste destroyed a village and polluted the Rio Doce river.
Shaw and Partners mining analyst Peter O‘Connor said MacKenzie would face a chorus of shareholders seeking change and rejuvenation of the board.
“He really needs to hit the ground running,” he said.
Despite being the world’s biggest mining house, BHP has a history of appointing executives from outside the sector as chairs. Since 1984 only two out of six chairmen had mining backgrounds.
BHP’s shares were little changed on Friday but have suffered a stretch of underperformance against arch rival Rio Tinto. The stock is down about 18 percent from its 2017 peak in late January.
additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in London; Editing by Richard Pullin and Adrian Croft