candidates, including French passport details, a pilot's license, bank account numbers in Paris and offers to make available helicopters and jets. “Here as agreed my bank details below and attached,” one email reads. “Have you finalised the time and duration you’d like the chopper,” another says. “[We] would like to try and get the jet back by Thursday.”
The emails do not implicate Rio and are totally legal, according to those involved, because of technicalities, like the timing of election dates. The line between lobbying, bribery and banking fees is a question for lawyers. “To win you have to cheat,” says Guinea News. But shareholders can ask, why has Simandou resurfaced as an issue now?
Rio's ousted executive, Alan Davies, is a lawyer and accountant from Brisbane, who has been with Rio Tinto for twenty years. He was in charge of Simandou, bouncing emails over payments to Combret, before being promoted by Sam Walsh to head the group's diamond division. According to banking sources, Davies saw himself as a potential successor to Walsh, but the position went instead to Jean-Sebastien Jacques, previously Rio's head of copper.
Jacques immediately rejigged Rio Tinto's structure, putting all its non-core assets, from borates in California to salt in Western Australia, into one division, Energy & Minerals, which was put under Davies' control. Rio's half-yearly figures show that the division is being starved of capital, getting $134m in investment in the first six months of the year, versus $500m plus for
other parts of the business.
Analysts disagree on Jacques' plans for the division, which boasts annual sales of $6bn to $7bn, but Bernstein analyst Paul Gait has nicknamed it “North32”, suggesting it is Rio's version of “South32”, a ragbag of unwanted assets ultimately dumped by BHP Billiton. Bankers close to Rio say Gait's assessment is bang on: Jacques is shifting every asset in Davies' department, from the Jadar lithium deposit in Serbia to the Rossing uranium project in Namibia, out towards the door.
Rio's investigation into Simandou smacks of ultra-diligent housekeeping by Jacques, a former strategist at Tata Steel. The investigation was opened in August, a month after Jacques' appointment. Davies was “a rising star” within the company, according to The Australian Financial Review. Andrew Harding, another Rio veteran who was in the running to replace Walsh, likewise left under a cloud soon after Jacques' appointment, following a botched investment in driverless trains. “We are strength-ening our structure,” Jacques said at the time.
Sources close to Rio say Jacques is not purging rivals, or loyalists to Sam Walsh. Whilst Walsh was “obsessed by his own legacy”, Jacques was appointed by Rio's board because he is “rational” and non-emotional. Davies is also “highly competent”, sitting on Rio's ethics committee and the board of Rolls-Royce. But he shares Walsh's mindset, focusing on legacy and “empire-building”, resisting asset sales and opposing any moves that would run-down his
division. Davies “took the credit for Simandou for a long time, so you also take the downside.”
Rio tried under Sam Walsh to sell several hefty assets, from the IOC operation in Canada to the group's thermal coal mines in New South Wales, but few deals crossed the line. Jacques is being more brutal, dumping Simandou and the group's Bunder diamond deposit in India, where Walsh had pledged investment. Davies' departure could accelerate any sell-off, according to sources at competing banks.
One bidder circling is private equity group Warburg Pincus, which launched its own mining fund in 2014, poaching Peter Kukielski, the former head of mining at steel group ArcelorMittal. Two years on and Kukielski is yet to clinch his first deal.
Bankers say Kukielski feels he has little to prove. He has “been round the block” and is “playing it cool”, one London-based analyst says. But Kukielski's fund is populated by former bankers from RBC and with a year left on the clock, before the fund's money is pulled, they are keen to close a transaction, looking at three possible deals. “If we don't do something in the next twelve months, I'll be looking for a job.”
An ocean away, Simandou and the departure of Davies has no “material impact” on Rio Tinto, according to a note published by analysts at RBC. It is little more than “a potentially negative public relations issue”. Bankers at the group privately nod to something different. By closing the books on Guinea, Rio is opening up an entire division for asset sales.