Terrence Edwards in Ulaanbaatar -
When the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan was expanding his empire in the 13th century, he made it a habit to take wives from the conquered people to help fortify their new bonds. Rio Tinto might have taken a page from Genghis' strategy book with the high-level appointment of a prominent Mongolian businessman as it looks to engineer a smooth launch of commercial exports from the $6.2bn Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine.
Rio Tinto's bride-to-be is Bold Baatar, a native Mongolian who has served as an advisor to the Anglo-Australian diversified miner for the past three years. He will act as president of international operations of Rio Tinto's copper group from London, effective June 3. This addresses a key complaint of the Mongolian government that it is not well represented in the management of the project.
The Mongolian government has been at loggerheads with Rio Tinto, which is leading operations at Oyu Tolgoi with a 66% stake in the project through its subsidiary Turquoise Hill Resources, claiming that the mining company has put the strategic project off budget by some $2bn and is behind on paying its taxes.
The coveted Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project is central to the country's explosive economic growth, forecast at 13% for this year by the World Bank, as well as being the focus of a growing resource nationalism movement among the Mongolian people and politicians. Members of parliament have twice attempted to amend the 2009 investment agreement for Oyu Tolgoi to increase the state's stake in the project from 34% to 51%. Such moves are popular; according to an April survey from the pollster Sant Maral Foundation, 24.7% of Mongolians polled nationwide said they would prefer that all mining projects have 100% Mongolian ownership, while 59.6% said more than 51% ownership was necessary.
Yet there are signs that Mongolia and Rio Tinto may be finding common ground. In April, an order came down from the Office of the Prime Minister to expedite any remaining permissions needed to ensure that the project remains on target for a June launch of exports to China. "This is a significant about-face, as we had been told by several contacts on the ground not to expect a resolution until after [the presidential] election, [scheduled for June 26]," said Nick Cousyn, chief operating officer at local investment firm BDSec, in a note to investors about the order. "Minister of Mining Gankhuyag was specifically instructed to 'speed-up the land, foreign labor force, customs documentation permits and take actions on solving water, environmental, power plant, third-party laboratory, and infrastructure issues'."
The appointment of Bold Baatar, who will report directly to Rio Tinto's chief executive of copper, Jean-Sebastian Jacques, will go some way to satisfying one of the government's main complaints at a stakeholders' meeting held in February, which was for more local representation in management, as well as provide a fillip to the national pride of this callow, emergent country. "It is a momentous event demonstrating global recognition of the value of Mongolian intelligence and skill," local magazine Mongolian Economy, which is published in both Mongolian and English languages, declared in response to the appointment. "Baatar Bold has opened the door to make this dream of Mongolia come true."
Bold is well known in Mongolia as an active figure in Mongolia's private sector, participating on the board of the Business Council of Mongolia as well as being chairman of the Mongolian National Mining Association and former chairman of the Mongolian Stock Exchange. "As a respected business and civic leader, his advice often is sought by government, industry and civil society organisations as they work to balance a business-friendly investment environment with protecting Mongolia's interests," says Cameron McRae, Oyu Tolgoi's chief executive officer and president, in a statement.
Though the appointment may appear purely a political move, Bold is a field-tested manager who has a lot of experience in the mining sector. Mongolian Economy lauded Bold for his role as chief executive in the transformation of mining firm Altan Dornod Mongol from one owing the Mongolian government millions in back taxes, to The Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce and Industry's 19th most admired company in its "Top 150 Enterprises" list for 2012 He is also chairman of the Mongolian National Mining Association, which has advocated to the government for favourable policies for mining activities and a stable investment climate.
Ichinkhorloo Ser-Od, vice director of the Business Council of Mongolia, recalls his impression of Bold's rise to prominence among Mongolia's young elites, when Bold was a banker at JPMorgan Chase & Co in the early 2000s. "When he was a regional director at JPMorgan, it impressed me a lot at the time," says Ser-Od. "To Mongolians, the names of big western investment firms were not so familiar, but obviously the [Mongolian] guys that worked at these kinds of businesses looked up to him at the time of his growth."
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