BHP Billiton’s Chairman Don Argus came under attack yesterday at the Company’s Annual General Meeting in Melbourne.
Several board members questioned the longevity of Argus after reading various reports that BHP was preparing itself for the retirement of its long-standing chairman within the next couple of years.
“As a result of BHP Billiton’s takeover bid for Rio Tinto withdrawal, there has been some speculation in the press about how long Don will remain on the board,” one attendee said.
According to one Fairfax newspaper, the Company’s shock decision to back out of the Rio Tinto bid cost the company $698 million in advisory fees and 18 months of management time.
“This type of press can have a large effect on the share price of the company and although I am not opposing the re-election of Don, I think it is imperative to ask what processes would be implemented in the instance that he did step down,” the attendee continued.
Argus didn’t address the question directly, instead, BHP’s senior non-executive director John Buchanan addressed the board.
“The board is not going to speculate about the length of time any one member has left,” he said.
“What I can say is the Company is aware that future plans need to be made. In the same way we concentrate on succession planning for executives, succession planning for board members is also in place.”
One attendee championed the induction of former Westpac Banking Corp chief David Morgan as a potential replacement Chairman.
According to the BHP Billiton employee, Morgan’s arch conservative position towards the company’s takeover bid helped them “dodge a bullet”.
Morgan was said to be eyeing the top job despite his relative greenness.
Don Argus, who has been the Chairman of BHP Billiton for the past 9 years, was present during the company’s dark period in the 1990’s when BHP Billiton had to clean up the mess of a string of poor investments, the most notable being the $3.2 billion purchase of Magma Copper in 1996.
The investment was later written off and the chief executive John Prescott and chairman Jerry Ellis lost their jobs.