FOCUS: Will Glasenberg’s departure signal a shift in Glencore direction?

Glencore chairman Tony Hayward was not understating matters when he described the company's succession transition as coming "at a time of huge change."

Glencore’s share price has risen 3% since its announcement on Friday December 4 that 18-year chief executive officer Ivan Glasenberg would be retiring from his role next year and coal assets head Gary Nagle would stepping up to the plate.

The move came suddenly, but was well-forecast, with Nagle’s career to this point fitting neatly into Glasenberg’s hint to the markets that his successor would “look like me.”

And with the announcement happening the same day as Glencore said it would be targeting net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the company’s market announcements offered a vision of the future while making clear it will not be making a clean break with the past.

“Gary will print his own mark eventually but there is a sense of continuity here, a relay baton pass to somebody who has been very close to Ivan for many years,” Jean-François Lambert, founding partner of the consultancy Lambert Commodities, told Fastmarkets.

A fellow Glencore lifer, Nagle, who is little known outside close-knit commodity trading circles is said to be out of the same mold as a direct-speaking, tough negotiator with a trading mind-set despite a largely assets-focused background.

“Gary can take this company forward into future. He will maintain the culture and the style this company has,” Glasenberg told investors on the Friday call.

As well as Glencore’s trading and mining business, Nagel will also inherit some problems which have arisen from recent probes into its dealings in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The company is currently under investigation by the US Department of Justice, the Swiss Attorney General and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office over its practices there. 

These inquests and the potential for fines to be paid have seen the company’s share price lag competitors despite consistent profit making.

“This sword of Damocles over Glencore’s head has made it very difficult to articulate a longer-term strategy, I believe from that perspective [the transition] may trigger an opening and a potential settlement,” Lambert said.

Indeed out of Glencore’s billionaire “old guard” of deal-making trader bosses, just coal marketing head Tor Peterson remains after a raft of senior departures in recent years.

“The fact that there’s a new person at the helm may alleviate the situation… you can start to argue that the management and the culture has changed,” Investec mining analyst Hunter Hillcoat told Fastmarkets.

Glasenberg’s rise to commodities kingpin
Glasenberg started out at Glencore’s coal department in 1984 when the company was still Mark Rich & Co, rising to departmental head in 1991 shortly before a management buyout and becoming CEO in 2002.

His departure sees him exit as the most prominent figure in commodities for the past several decades, having led the 2012-2013 mega-merger with Xtrata and subsequent transition to a behemoth miner-trader, betting on assets that would provide leverage in an increasingly competitive trading market.

“He’s labeled a trader but Ivan is an exceptional financial person so that’s why he’s been so successful at creating that change from Marc Rich to the modern Glencore,” Lucio Genovese, a former senior trader and Moscow office manager at Glencore said by phone.

“He’s kept an incredible momentum at the company and there are very few people with that drive and who can do this,” Genovese added.

Where to next?
Despite stepping down from the Glencore board as well as direct management, Glasenberg has maintained he will not sell his 9.1% shareholding in the company of which Nagle will be a “custodian”.

“The question is how far Glasenberg is going – he’s stepping down but is he really going too far away or not?” Lambert said.

Glasenberg told Bloomberg in an interview on Friday that he had ruled out remaining in the mining industry after his retirement.

But associates are not so sure that the one-time Olympic-standard race walker will be able to sit on his hands for long.

“I’ve seen it many times when it’s not long before [executives] get lured back into the business,” Investec’s Hillcoat said. “You can only cycle up the Alps and go fishing for so often so I could see him coming back, not necessarily as an executive but certainly on boards.”

“I don’t know what his intentions are but he is highly energetic and it’s my impression that he’s not going to stand still,” Genovese said.