< BACK ...O'Keeffe was typically monosyllabic, occasionally launching off on non-sequiturs. “The world's round,” he'd say, in reference to a hotel bill. But there was usually an invisible logic. If you didn't understand what O'Keeffe was on about, he was simply referring to something you hadn't been let in on.
Eventually, I clocked onto his formula. O'Keeffe would float big ideas, creating the space for other people's eagerness to run into. He was impeccable at compartmentalising information. Different people were given different details at different times and he'd answer a question in pieces, over several days. When he was angling for something, however, O'Keeffe was always transparent.
His tactics created a paradox for whoever was on the other side of the table: continue on O'Keeffe's terms, or talk yourself out of an opportunity.
He was always focused on lining up the pieces, creating a path to the outcome he wanted, without doing any undue heavy lifting. Why build a new plant, when you could create the capacity on paper by putting “the footprint down”, which meant getting permitting done. Company building for O'Keeffe was a process of lining up capital, logistics and a large resource, then letting the world know.
In addition to Bloom Lake, Champion has bought several billion tonnes of iron ore across Quebec, which will kick-in, O'Keeffe says, once the logistics are in place: “Not today, not tomorrow, but the day after that... Once that happens, there'll be a huge amount of interest in all of those assets around that area.”
There was another explanation for why O'Keeffe, who sold his previous company for $3.9bn, was so good at selling an asset. If there was one thing he believed in, it was the scale of what he was doing, so inevitably, when he lifted the bonnet, to let someone look inside, they were made to feel like they were looking at
He'd also get excited about the nuts and bolts. “Look at the coal!” he said, flicking through photos of the coal project he had built and sold in Mozambique. “There's your waste and there's the coal, there's one metre of overburden. We had 15 kilometres of outcropping coal.”
In the six to eight weeks that I was flying around with O'Keeffe, he was constantly looking at new deals and was never in the same country for more than three or four days.
He'd fly to Australia to look at a coal mine on behalf of a private equity group in London, head to Sydney for a board meeting, then land in New York to drum up money. His underlings would fly to Sept-Ils to talk to the port, or to Germany to look at a smelter. The assets that crossed their desks were invariably distressed.
One bank in London was briefing O'Keeffe on two strategic options; later I realised they were both red-herrings. He was keeping the bank busy, looking in the wrong direction.
O'Keeffe's comments were invariably macho, even bloody-minded, but he could also surprise you. He said he admired “the guys” at Glencore who came from wealthy backgrounds and weren't entirely driven by money. “If that was me, I'm sure I'd show off about it, but they don't.”
He gave the most away discussing the small number of people he looked up to, from actor Jack Nicholson, who drinks champagne at breakfast, to Australian cricketer Keith Miller, who'd be out all night at parties, before putting on his whites and hitting an innings.
In the mining industry, O'Keeffe respected anyone who could “operate on their own”, without needing a large organisation around them. He recounted how he had met Mark Creasy, a British prospector in Australia who is so reclusive, he is seen as eccentric. O'Keeffe said the opposite, remembering how he had sat in Creasy's garden in Perth one evening,