“Guess what,” says Australian mining boss Michael O'Keeffe. He is sitting in a glass office overlooking a park in Montreal pinging emails with his finance director in Switzerland about shipping rates and iron ore premiums. “Before you know it, the caterpillar will have eaten the mulberry leaf.”
O'Keeffe ran Glencore Australia, building it into one of the biggest divisions in the biggest commodity trader in the world, alongside Glencore's chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg. “Ivan did all the coal,” O'Keeffe says. Michael's “a good guy”, Glasenberg says.
But O'Keeffe left Glencore. He founded his own coal group in South Africa and Mozambique, Riversdale Mining, which he sold at the top of the market in 2011, turning a 20 cent stock into a $3.9bn payday.
O'Keeffe has spent the last few years largely out of view. As metal prices tumbled, he shipped his family to Montreal two years ago, quietly using the downturn to hoover up iron ore assets
in Quebec. In total, his company, Champion Iron, has bought over five billion tonnes of iron ore in the ground, including the Bloom Lake mine, a sprawling complex of pits, plants and railway loops, linked by conveyer belts and covered in snow.
Bloom Lake changed hands for $4.9bn five years ago, when iron ore was trading at $190 per tonne. O'Keeffe was less generous, buying the mine after it entered administration last year, paying C$10.5m ($8m). Increasingly, it looks like the deal of the downturn.
When Champion signed the agreement, iron ore had fallen for four consecutive years, tumbling into the thirty dollar per tonne range for
the first time in a decade. It has risen ever since, more than doubling in twelve months, pushing through $80 per tonne at ports in China last week. O'Keeffe's acquisition caught the very week of the low.
Outside, a cloud has parked itself over Montreal, blocking the view and closing the airport. A truly cold wind hints at the winter ahead. Mining engineers are strolling around in Champion's office, chatting into their mobiles in French about dam design and metal flow sheets. “Champion-bonjour,” O'Keeffe's secretary says into the telephone, every few minutes.
Up at Bloom Lake, where temperatures...