< BACK ...surrounded by space debris, which Creasy had collected looking for gold mines in Western Australia. “Who else has that? And it's probably worth a fortune.”
“We were looking at different things at the time, and I regret not staying in touch with him.”
On balance, however, O'Keeffe had the sentiment of a brick. He'd probe for weaknesses, put people on the back foot and wouldn't lose sleep about leaving the other guy empty-handed. He was also meritocratic, so when people fought back, O'Keeffe responded. “If it works, it was my idea,” was his basic approach to teamwork. Unsurprisingly he was surrounded by people who felt the same. “I'm a Darwinist,” one colleague says. “But sometimes its best to work in a team.”
To survive and thrive at Glencore, “you need to go fifteen rounds,” another colleague said, “unless you have a strategy to take out the other guy after round five.” I put the idea to O'Keeffe and he laughed. “If the boiler-boy has an idea, I want him to be heard. If I hear he wasn't heard, I'll be pissed off. It's about creating that culture, but you don't go too far the other way, because it's a false smile.”
O'Keeffe's key meetings in Montreal were all held in Ferrera, a Portuguese restaurant under his apartment block, or in the Ritz, one block up. The bars, the jet lag, the atmosphere of ever-bigger deals just around the corner, hanging out with O'Keeffe was intense. People would come and go and some, like myself, would burn up quickly, like a very small rock crashing into the atmosphere, as the meteorite tore on.
I was suddenly up to my eyeballs with an Irish-Australian who was hellbent on building a multi-billion dollar operation in the next two to three years, with a staff of approximately five. No one was too sure which country they'd be in at the end of the week. There was no distinction between work and time off. There was no time
off. The ball was always rolling. One of O'Keeffe's lieutenants described it as a process of continually “marching on to new projects.”
After a week of sitting in restaurants and bars, I walk up one of Montreal's steeper streets, to get a new view of the city. The street ends in a park, with dead grass and granite buildings. Seagulls were stomping about in the mud, with domed heads and thick necks. “Michael's so bloody resilient,” one friend of his says. “Once he's made it up in his mind, he'd die in a ditch just to get it done.”
“There was no-one else interested in iron ore projects and he's got a project that's ready to switch on. This isn't someone from BHP's executive programme. He's a tradesman who has worked himself up, paid his way through university... ” Did O'Keeffe set out to make a load of money? “We had nothing growing up.”
On the last day, O'Keeffe wanders into the hotel to watch Spieth, a racehorse he owns in Australia, run in the Darley Classic, a short sprint for Australia's fastest horses. The prize money is a million dollars. Spieth, a four-year-old chestnut, is the youngest colt in the race, having won his four previous races on the trot. “Under no illusion as to enormity of task tomorrow,” Spieth's 30-year-old trainer tweeted the night before.
Spieth settles at the back of the field, letting the leaders set the pace. 400 metres from the line, his jockey lets him go. He is blocked by other horses, then sandwiched in, but blasts through, bolting from the back to the front. At the post, he is beaten by a nose. On camera, his trainer bursts into tears. “I just don't get these opportunities. It's only my second season training. I'm so proud of him. He's a real high quality colt. He'll have his day in the sun.”
O'Keeffe's mind quickly flicks back to mining deals. “People say, hey, what a great deal you did in Mozambique. Well wait till you see this one.”