It’s not often that Mick Davis, knighted by the UK’s queen in 2015, has been called an asshole; at least, not to his face. Enter Bernard Swanepoel, the former CEO of Harmony Gold, who first bumped into Davis during the 1980s, early in their respective careers.
“When I first met you at Genmin [General Mining], I thought you were an asshole,” said Swanepoel, who was about to pose online audience questions during the Joburg Indaba conference he convenes, and at which Davis was a star turn. “Then I got to know you, and I realised you were a clever asshole.”
If Davis was taken aback, it didn’t show, maintaining to a tee his reputation as a cool customer.
A former colleague recalls a work-related dinner with Davis that was carried off in an awkward, near-complete silence; conversation difficult, and certainly not encouraged by Davis. Anecdotes of this ilk have led to a reputation that Davis is icily cold, a view assisted by his (highly successful) managerial style, which was to decentralise management functions and delegate responsibility to the mining operations.
In a frank interview with Fiona Perrott-Humphrey, a banker for UK banker Rothschild & Co, Davis touched on what he nearly acknowledged was a character flaw. “One of the biggest challenges if you’ve had years of success is arrogance. The arrogance of success that not only are you convinced that everything you’re doing is right, but you’re convinced that people who observe you, think that you are right as well,” he said.
The most significant moment where this happened for Davis was in underestimating the opposition investors would put up to a £240m pay-out and incentive scheme he’d proposed in 2012. The scheme was for employees of his company, Xstrata following its £60bn merger (or takeover, as some call it) with Glencore, the Swiss-headquartered commodity miner and trader.
As part of the package, Davis was set to benefit to the tune of £29m in a three-year retention incentive once the merged company was created, which he would head. The incentive scheme never happened and, following four months of acrimony, and a falling out with Ivan Glasenberg, Glencore’s CEO, Davis left the company – a turn of events he described as a career nadir.
“The lowest point, without a doubt, was the ultimate merger or takeover by Glencore of Xstrata. Everything that I built up was essentially snatched away and that was a tough thing to actually deal with,” he said.
It’s arguable whether Davis has really recovered from those events. He re-emerged in 2016, having raised at the time half a billion dollars in a private equity fund mischievously named X2 Resources, hinting at his previous success at Xstrata. But X2 Resources closed in 2017, having failed to make a single investment, citing a lack of decent opportunities.
Davis describes his career as one of unrequited ambition. As a young auditor, he felt he should have been made a partner, but management thought he was too young. After serving a period as Eskom’s financial director in the 1990s he was “passed over” for position as CEO, so he left. Davis was in his mid-thirties.
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