Will BHP's CEO follow Top Miner's shale unit out of the door?

(Bloomberg) — BHP Billiton Ltd.’s $10.8 billion of deals to exit its troubled U.S. shale unit will allow Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mackenzie to shower investors with returns. It may also be a chance for him to bow out on top.

Mackenzie, 61, who’s held his post since 2013, has delivered on plans to simplify BHP around a tighter core of key iron ore, coal, copper and oil assets, with the 2015 spin-off of a cluster of operations into South32 Ltd., and the exit from shale. Pending and completed asset sales have topped $15 billion on his watch, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“The shale sale was one of the biggest things that he had to get done, so there’s an opportunity now to leave with dignity,” said Peter O’Connor, a Sydney-based analyst at Shaw and Partners Ltd. A change in leadership could also boost BHP’s plans to overhaul its company culture, he said.

"Sometimes, to change the dynamics you need a new person to come in." – Peter O'Connor

The sales announced Friday to BP Plc and a unit of Merit Energy Co. may help placate restive investors, including Elliott Management Corp., who’ve pressed the top miner to ditch under-performing assets and boost returns. Proceeds from the sale will be handed back, Mackenzie said in a statement.

BHP’s exit from shale does “throw up more questions for us to consider,” Melbourne-based RBC Capital Markets analyst Paul Hissey said in a Friday note. “Does this bring closure to this issue and provide the clear air for a refresh of the executive management group?”

An exit on the back of an investor windfall may have appeal for Mackenzie, after an earlier generation of leaders made acrimonious departures after failed M&A and project write-downs, including Rio Tinto Group’s Tom Albanese and Anglo-American Plc’s Cynthia Carroll in 2013. Mackenzie’s predecessor, Marius Kloppers, left BHP amid pressure over aborted deals and as profits tumbled.

BHP declined to comment. Chairman Ken MacKenzie, appointed last September, told analysts this month that succession planning is constant, though emphasized Mackenzie’s tenure as CEO has no end date, Macquarie Group Ltd. wrote in a note. The chairman last year also defended his top executive’s record amid a bout of speculation Mackenzie was nearing an exit.

It’s likely Mackenzie would want to remain as CEO at least until the resolution of legal issues and other work related to the 2015 disaster at BHP’s Samarco joint venture in Brazil, according to Camille Simeon, an investment manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments, which holds BHP shares.

The company has “been fairly transparent in terms of outlining projects internally to drive growth, and the issues around Samarco that are still outstanding,” Simeon said. “I would think that Andrew would absolutely want to see that through.”

(By David Stringer)