Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) has appointed a seasoned management consultant and outgoing Canadian ambassador to China to lead its board of directors as the miner strives to put the destruction of ancient rock shelters in Australia behind it.
In April, Dominic Barton will join the board and succeed current chairman Simon Thompson after Rio’s annual general meeting on May 5.
Rio Tinto has had a tumultuous period since destroying a historic site in Western Australia that was of great cultural significance to the Indigenous population. Barton’s appointment comes after Rio Tinto killed a landmark place in Western Australia that was of great cultural importance to the Indigenous people.
Following the incident, the company’s then-chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jac ques, and two other senior executives resigned.
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Thompson indicated earlier this year that he would stand down once a successor was selected after his four-year tenure as chairman was tainted by the collapse of the Juukan Gorge caves.
The outgoing chairman admitted he was “ultimately responsible” for the explosion at Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore mine at the time.
“It is a great honor to succeed Simon as Rio Tinto’s Chairman. “I am pleased to return to the private sector and join a firm with world-class people and assets as it navigates a changing competitive landscape and aims to emerge as a frontrunner in the climate transformation,” gave Barton.
UK senior independent director Sam Laidlaw and Australian senior independent director Simon McKeon oversaw the global hunt for Thompson’s replacement.
Discussions with a cross-section of the company’s shareholders on the traits, expertise, and talents they expected in the next chair were part of the process.
Barton, a Ugandan-born Canadian, worked at McKinsey & Company for nearly 30 years, including nine as global managing partner and six as Asia chairman. He was also the chairman of Teck Resources (TSE: TECK.A) (TSE: TECK.B) (NYSE: TECK) for a year before becoming Canada’s ambassador to China in 2019.
There will be challenges ahead.
Investors put more pressure on Rio’s environmental and social programs, but trade and political tensions between China and Australia might cause Barton a significant headache.
China has banned Australian goods ranging from coal to copper, wine, and lobsters due to a diplomatic conflict that began in 2018 and worsened last year.
Barton will also be tasked with assisting Rio in resolving challenges surrounding two of the company’s most significant expansion projects: the $2.4 billion Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine expansion in Mongolia and the $2.4 billion Jadar lithium plant in Serbia.
Last week, the business agreed to forgive a $2.3 billion debt owed by Mongolia as part of the government’s contribution to the development costs of the Oyu Tolgoi underground project.
Rio is also encountering opposition in western Serbia, developing a lithium mine. Local opponents launched a campaign earlier this month that shook the administration and brought cities to a halt as thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets. Authorities then put a hold on a land-use plan for the proposed mine, though they didn’t outright reject it.