It is after dark in Montreal and Michael O'Keeffe, the Australian mining boss, wraps his arm around a reporter from Toronto, directing her eyes up into the sky to his twentieth floor apartment, a short elevator ride away from the downtown bars that blink their red and pink neon into the warm street around us.
The following morning and a matt black twin-engine plane is parked up on the edge of Montreal airport, red chocks jammed under its rubber wheels. We taxi off and are promptly soaring above the suburbs, puncturing a layer of cloud, emerging into the empty sky above.
A steel scrap reporter from Platts is rattling off the odds of Donald Trump becoming US president, whilst an Australian press handler tries to explain the rules of cricket. O'Keeffe gets out some maps, covered in red blocks, the iron
ore concessions his company has bought up across Quebec and Labrador since he moved from Sydney to Montreal two years ago.
Distress is deep in the Labrador Trough, Canada's iron ore capital. Steel giant ArcelorMittal is still operating its Mont-Wright mine, but Rio Tinto has failed to offload its Carol Lake operation, whilst companies including Alderon, Century, Cliffs and Adriana have all come close to failure, as depressed seaborne prices threaten to force Canadian production off the market. Chinese steel groups, from Wisco to Hebei, once busy in the region, have gone quiet.
O'Keeffe is flying in the other direction, folding companies, concessions and royalty rights into ASX-listed Champion Iron, buying the idled Bloom Lake mine last year. Cliffs paid $4.9bn for Bloom Lake in 2011, spending a
further $2bn expanding the plant, but failed to lower costs in line with prices and the asset slipped into bankruptcy relief. Champion has now picked it up for C$10.5m ($8m). “It just shows,” O'Keeffe says, “in today's market, in such a great area, what you can acquire.”
O'Keeffe has done similar deals. In 1999, as head of Glencore's business in Australia, he paid $2m for the Cobar copper mine in New South Wales. It was losing money, copper had fallen for five years and the mine had tried to make up for lower prices with ever-higher production, chasing ever-lower grades. Glencore mined its highest grades and immediately made money. Copper spiralled higher over the following decade and Glencore is now trying to sell the mine.
O'Keeffe did a similar deal in South African...