C-suite moves rock lithium as industry expands in battery boom

(Bloomberg) –Unexpected leadership changes within a day at the world’s two largest lithium producers underscore concerns over a lack of executive experience in the industry amid a nascent boom for the battery metal.

On Wednesday, Albemarle Corp. announced the replacement of its lithium president John Mitchell, who was named chief of a Chilean exploration company hours later. Also on Wednesday, Soc. Quimica y Minera de Chile SA said Chief Executive Officer Patricio de Solminihac will leave the company by the end of the year. Both executives will be replaced internally.

New capacity coming on and new players entering the market creates some uncertainty as we head into a critical year for the lithium industry.

Demand for lithium, a key component of rechargeable batteries, is booming as carmakers ramp up production of electric vehicles. Prices have reached historic highs this year as the handful of companies that control the market rush to expand their production capacity. Albemarle and SQM, which together produce over half of the world’s lithium carbonate supply, will each invest about $500 million this year to boost output.

"The lack of technical talent is one of the biggest risks in lithium and one that you rarely hear about," said Chris Berry, a New York-based energy-metals analyst and founder of House Mountain Partners LLC. "That’s because lithium has never seen this type of growth dynamic which requires a certain level of expertise to run an operation profitably and efficiently."

Albemarle’s Mitchell will be replaced by Chief Strategy Officer Eric Norris starting Aug. 1, while SQM Chief Financial Officer Ricardo Ramos will step into de Solminihac’s role on Jan. 1. At the same time, Orocobre Ltd., which operates in Argentina and produces 5 percent of the world’s lithium carbonate, is looking for a new chief executive after Richard Saville announced in April that he would be leaving within a year.

“It is curious to see a turnover at the top of the two main lithium companies, although their replacements are experienced," said Christopher Perrella, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. “This creates uncertainty as we head into a critical year for the lithium industry, with new capacity coming on line and new players entering the market."

Shares of the world’s top lithium producers are down this year and the Solactive Global Lithium Index, which tracks lithium miners and battery makers, has fallen 16 percent this year. Still, the outlook for the mineral is positive as demand is expected to remain strong over coming years, Berry said.

“It appears that the new executives will continue with their existing lithium strategy, so these changes should have no adverse effects on the companies,” Berry said. “The key is execution and expanding capacity in a cost-effective manner."
(By Laura Millan Lombrana)