Welcome to the BHP hotseat

Margins are under pressure from cooling prices and rising costs.

New chief Andrew Mackenzie will have his work cut out steering BHP through the post-mining boom era, writes Peter Ker.

And so it begins. Andrew Mackenzie's long wait to run a multinational corporation finally came to an end on Friday, at a hot and dusty iron ore mine in Western Australia's Pilbara region.

His first official day in charge of BHP Billiton came 79 days after his appointment, but there's evidence he's been plotting this moment for much longer than that.

If the 2001 manifesto he penned with colleague David Rice, Ethics and the Multinational Corporation, is any guide, his time as chief executive will be marked by a desire to use mining to deliver social and environmental progress, not to mention the occasional profit.

But he will have to do so in a far more sober era than the one predecessor Marius Kloppers enjoyed.

BHP now suffers the relative indignity of being Australia's second most valuable company by market capitalisation. Its margins are under pressure from cooling commodity prices and rising costs and the millions of people who own the business are demanding more of its spare cash be returned to their pockets.

Awaiting Mackenzie's attention are a host of pressing issues and challenges, many of which will demand huge portions of his time and the company's money. Here are just a few of the problems, challenges and opportunities that will cross his desk in the early months of his tenure.

The shale spend

When BHP bought two lots of shale gas acreage in the US during 2011, it committed to spending much more than just the $US20 billion total purchase price. US shale will soak up about one-third ($US23 billion) of BHP's total capital spending over the next five years, according to the plan mapped out by Kloppers and departing Petroleum chief Mike Yeager. Mackenzie has a big decision to make over whether to continue that ongoing capital spending, given the meagre returns coming from the division at present.

BHP's shale business has been loss-making in recent times, and the massive capital spending was designed to lift it into a profitable position by financial year 2014.

Mackenzie's ego and reputation and are less tied to the success of the shale division than his predecessor, and with shareholders screaming for better dividend flows, he will be tempted to reduce spending here.

Locking down Petrochina

A significant step in BHP's campaign to divest non-core assets was claimed in December when it signed a "definitive agreement" with Petrochina to sell its stake in the controversial Browse gas joint venture.

The deal was supposed to deliver $US1.63 billion of cash into BHP's coffers, but five months later, finalisation of the agreement remains elusive. Petrochina is rumoured to be concerned that it is not getting the project it signed up for, since the joint venture (led by Woodside Petroleum) decided in April to abandon plans to develop the project at James Price Point near Broome.

The joint venture is now investigating other ways to extract the gas and seems likely to use new floating technology developed by Royal Dutch Shell. That's likely to make the project cheaper and less offensive to environmental campaigners, yet Petrochina is thinking long and hard before it finalises the purchase. Mackenzie and new petroleum chief Tim Cutt will be very keen to complete the sale at the previously stated price within the next seven weeks.

The mining tax

There's a couple of uncomfortable aspects to this old chestnut that loom on the horizon for BHP. The Tax Office is closely investigating the amounts paid to date by BHP and Rio Tinto, to see if they have been correctly calculating their obligations. Given the highly complex nature of the tax, it is possible the Tax Office will ask the companies to pay more when final tax receipts are lodged some time after June 30.

The second issue on the horizon is how BHP will approach the mining tax if a Coalition government takes power in September. As one of the companies that helped create the "Minerals Resource Rent Tax" out of the ashes of Kevin Rudd's "Resource Super Profits Tax", BHP is awkwardly positioned as part creator and part critic of the tax.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has vowed to repeal the tax should he win power in four months' time, yet during a recent Senate inquiry hearing, BHP representatives conspicuously avoided answering questions as to whether the tax should be repealed in the future.

With yields from the tax far below what the Gillard government expected, Mackenzie and the rest of the mining sector may find some of their other tax breaks under pressure in Tuesday's budget papers.

The port

Despite widespread pessimism about the future of the iron ore sector, the ancient deposits in the Pilbara are still BHP's biggest revenue-spinner by a comfortable margin.

But the corporate landscape of this vast region is set to change in the first couple of months of Mackenzie's tenure. Iron ore rival Fortescue Metals Group is likely to open its railway line to third parties, and many expect to see Atlas Iron take advantage of the freer attitude toward sharing transport infrastructure. BHP will be an interested spectator to the process for many reasons, not least because it will dramatically increase traffic through Port Hedland, where BHP is seeking to find more export capacity. Could that be why Mackenzie spent Thursday and Friday of this week inspecting BHP's iron ore port facilities and the Yandi mine?

The next big thing

In BHP's world there are projects, and then there are "mega projects".

The latter category has been out of fashion over the past 18 months, as cooling commodity prices made big projects such as Olympic Dam look too difficult. Canada's Jansen Potash deposit falls into the "mega-project" category, but with an estimated $US13 billion price tag, it only just makes the grade. For that reason it may be the first to reappear when the company's self-imposed freeze on approving big new projects lapses after June 30. Despite still being at the feasibility stage of planning, BHP's chief financial officer, Graham Kerr, recently said Jansen "will probably come to the board next financial year". That means a busy 14 months of development work and perhaps, searching for a joint venture partner. BHP likes to own and operate its assets, but with spare cash very tight, selling a stake to a partner could make Jansen viable much sooner. Is it a coincidence that BHP this week did its first ever bond issue for $750 million worth of Canadian currency?

The other side of

the world

Britain has been BHP's second home ever since the 2001 merger with Billiton left the company a second listing on the London Stock Exchange. It is also where several of the company's biggest investors are based, including BlackRock's Evy Hambro, who controls the biggest holding in the company. Yet for the first time in many years, not a single member of BHP's 11-person group management committee will be based there. With the newly merged Glencore/Xstrata behemoth commanding much attention in London, maintaining a profile in Britain will be a challenge from the opposite side of the world, even if you happen to be Scottish.

The brownfield

Barely seven months ago, Mackenzie was hosting investors and analysts at the Spence copper mine in Chile. Now in the early months of his leadership, the low-profile asset will likely feature in more than a few conversations around the BHP boardtable. Despite the aversion to approving spending, the company believes it can extend the mine's life by over 50 years with a $3 billion project targeting underground ores.

Demand for copper is tipped to remain strong for many decades and the commodity is preferred by BHP over steel ingredients such as iron ore. But competition for expansion funding within BHP is incredibly tight, and Chile is facing many of the same rising cost pressures that are evident here. For all of BHP's complaints about the industrial relations regime in Australia, Chile's union movement is at least as volatile.

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