“We'll take this sucker out,” says mining boss Michael O'Keeffe, peering at the Financial Post through his spectacles.
He is doing the sudoku on a night flight into London. The puzzle oddly resembles Canadian iron ore, where O'Keeffe has been buying-up assets during the mining downturn. Shipping rates, rail corridors, port-sharing agreements and distressed bank loans are the interlocking pieces, as unions, steel groups and politicians all edge forward their interests, over several overlapping railways and mines. “I see you're very conservative in filling in the boxes until you're absolutely sure.” “Why wouldn't you be?”
O'Keeffe lands in London at seven in the morning, takes a black cab to his hotel in St James's and goes into a full day of meetings with hedge fund managers, steel groups and private equity investors. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether they were looking to work together, or sounding each other out.
When O'Keeffe's company, Champion Iron, bought the Bloom Lake mine in Quebec, iron ore was trading at a 10-year low, the mine was newly shuttered and investors winced at the idea of buying into a troubled asset. “I was off looking for money, but everyone was going, oof.”
He had one meeting with a fund manager in New York who was so bearish, everyone left speechless. “I said look, it's not a lot of money,” O'Keeffe says smiling.
Now, with prices rising and Champion's shares going up in a straight line, the mood has changed. “Well done on your exceptional deals,” says the former head of Glencore's Moscow office, when he is reintroduced to O'Keeffe.
Just after midday, Champion's free-wheeling finance director bounces down Jermyn Street, fielding calls on two phones, piling into an oyster bar and a plate of wild salmon. In thirty seconds, with a Swiss accent and a mischievous smile, he has explained Bloom Lake's turnaround strategy.
The mine's previous owners paid nearly $5bn
for the asset, so to earn a return in percentage terms, they had to move huge tonnage, which was marginal at best. O'Keeffe paid $8m, so is in a very different position.
According to banking analysts, the world's largest iron ore miners can churn-out tonnage at costs as low as $13 per tonne. Factoring in everything, from tax to interest payments, Champion believes the figure is much closer to fifty. The proof? When iron ore dipped below $50 per tonne in 2015, mining giant Rio Tinto quickly lowered its dividend.
Using that as the industry's breakeven point, Champion could work backwards, locking-in shipping rates, re-negotiating rail agreements and remodelling the resource at Bloom Lake, leaving a minimum margin per tonne, at least on paper. It was ingenious and brilliantly simple, offering an insight into the profit that could be turned on a distressed asset. However complex the difficulties, if sunk capital can be bought cheap enough, there is room to twist and turn.
Each evening in London, O'Keeffe ensconced himself in a French restaurant in Mayfair with dark green walls. One of Glencore's top copper traders under founder Marc Rich joined O'Keeffe's table upstairs. The conversation flitted from copper tolling agreements to bird watching in the Lake District. “Surely tonnes of people are trying to get that asset.”
There was also a former British intelligence officer (who now sits on the board of a refinery), a restructuring specialist (who used to race dirt bikes around Baghdad) and a 40-year-old private equity investor (who buys into companies at a rate of three a week). The only reference to any of them online was a one-page rebuttal to an article in Gossip Monaco.
“If there's utility to a relationship, he'll continue,” one of O'Keeffe's longstanding underlings says. “He'll probably ring up in June and say happy new year.”