Swanepoel plays down disharmony whispers

[miningmx.com] — HARMONY Gold has seen five senior managers, three of them board members, leave the company in 2005, a year characterised by the failed takeover of Gold Fields. It was also a period in which Harmony failed to post a quarterly profit, shed thousands of jobs in an effort to do so, and consequently suffered the upheaval of restructuring.

“I’ll be bloody glad when the year’s over,’ said Bernard Swanepoel, Harmony CEO, in an interview with Miningmx.

The turmoil of the year has led some analysts to observe that it’s the perfect backdrop for the end of Swanepoel’s own tenure.

The retirement of Ted Grobicki, a mining veteran, and the resignation of Ferdi Dippenaar this week, sets Swanepoel virtually bereft of counterparts who knew him as a kingpin of the class of ’95. Ten years ago, this was the new face of South African gold mining, delivering it from the excesses of its past with a lean, no-frills logic.

I’ll be bloody glad when the year’s over

Peter Flack was its dean; Swanepoel, a star pupil among the glittering talents of Mark Bristow (Randgold Resources) and the late Brett Kebble (JCI).

So was the slow deterioration of Swanepoel’s support base behind Harmony’s struggle to impose its rigorous cost control structure on its ageing mines this year?

Certainly, direct mining experience is thin in the Harmony boardroom. The departure of Rick Menell, deputy chairman, takes another old head out of the picture just as Frank Abbott, the former financial director left before him in 2004, though Abbott maintains a non-executive position at Harmony.

When the board meets to assess important mining issues – as it will early next year to discuss whether to proceed with the R5bn Target North mine in South Africa’s Free State province – who will provide independent counsel? Will it be Nolitha Fakude or Dr Simo Lushaba or Modise Matloba even, recent non-executive appointments at Harmony. They bring broad business and political experience. But with formal training in literature, psychology, specialised finance and biochemistry, none of Harmony’s non-executive knows his or her carbon leader from his or her pre-cambrian Ventersdorp.

Is this even important? AngloGold Ashanti’s Bobby Godsell and Kelvin Williams read the Arts at their universities. Anglo Platinum’s Barry Davison was another Arts graduate. Perhaps the mining decisions at Harmony are already made at lower levels in the organisation where coltish talent lies, certain to break through in later years? (Certainly in Patrice Motsepe, Swanepoel has a highly successful mining entrepreneur, though he too is short of formal mining knowledge).

The valid concern is, however, that without Dippenaar and Grobicki, there’s no-one in Harmony’s executive that has run a mine except Swanepoel himself. Only Abbott of the non-executives could be described as a miner, and he’s actually a bean-counter. Mike Pleming left in July. Brenton Saunders, a geologist by training, but with mining analytics for a profession, barely had time to hang his hat before he doffed it in farewell.

New heads have also quit the company such as Pine Pienaar, an up-and-coming new business manager, and Mohamed Mardi, a business strategist.

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Swanepoel concedes that the flat structure of Harmony means young talents are quickly nurtured and, sometimes, quickly move on. “We’ve probably provided the industry with more senior managers and potential CEOs than any other mining company,’ said Swanepoel. It’s true: Dippenaar is the third CEO (he leaves for Great Basin Mines) to have worked at Harmony after Pienaar (Mvelaphanda Resources CEO) and Neal Froneman (CEO of Aflease Gold & Uranium, to be renamed SXR Uranium One).

“It means we have a good system and any company not producing people of quality, that will occasionally get snapped up, needs to worry about itself,’ Swanepoel said.

As for Swanepoel, he remains wedded to a job he’s occupied for eight years. “I’m having fun and I’m quite excited about what’s coming in the next two years.’

Asked by Miningmx last week whether Dippenaar was leaving, Swanepoel – bound by the strictures of corporate governance – said he had no such knowledge. He’s unlikely to be any more fulsome about his own future, particularly if he has a change in mind.