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Last updated: February 25, 2011 10:27 pm
Nicky Oppenheimer, patriarch of the South African family that founded miner Anglo American, is to retire from the Anglo board while remaining chairman of De Beers, its diamond mining affiliate.
The departure of Mr Oppenheimer, owner of 40 per cent of De Beers shares, removes any conflict he could have faced if Anglo, which owns 45 per cent of De Beers, decides to make an offer for the diamond company.
The billionaire, however, said in a statement on Friday that he had spent nearly four decades on Anglo boards and felt it was simply time to retire.
“There comes a time when it is right to stand aside and allow others to carry the baton,” he said. “For me, that time is now.”
The Oppenheimers’ shareholding in Anglo has dwindled from 8 per cent in 2000 to slightly more than 2 per cent today. While the family’s most visible investment is its interest in De Beers, it has diversified its holdings far beyond mining.
Mr Oppenheimer’s retirement from Anglo’s board marks a symbolic break, however. The family appears to have given up any direct influence over the company founded in 1917 in the mining boom town of Johannesburg by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer.
Before announcing his decision, Mr Oppenheimer asked Sir John Parker, Anglo chairman, to consider nominating his son, Jonathan Oppenheimer, to replace him on the board. But Sir John said it was impossible for corporate governance reasons, according to James Teeger, managing director of Ernest Oppenheimer and Son, the family investment company.
Mr Teeger said the Oppenheimers “currently have no intention to sell their stake in Anglo American. We are very positive about the future outlook for Anglo.”
He added that Mr Oppenheimer will “not at all” relax his duties at De Beers: “He is fully committed to his current position as chairman of De Beers.”
The question of whether Anglo would buy out the Oppenheimers’ stake in De Beers, or whether, in fact, the Oppenheimers would gain full control, has generated speculation in the mining industry for many years.
When questioned about this by analysts last week, Cynthia Carroll, chief executive of Anglo, said that for any transaction to occur there would have to be a willing seller, among other considerations. “You would have to ask the Oppenheimers about that,” she is reported to have said.
Anglo has stated repeatedly in the past year that it has no intention to change the present ownership structure of De Beers, whose third shareholder is the government of Botswana, with 15 per cent.
De Beers, whose profitability rebounded sharply in 2010, has been without a permanent chief executive for seven months. Mr Oppenheimer has led the search for a new chief, and the unusual hiatus has helped fuel speculation about possible changes of control.
De Beers still owes Mr Oppenheimer and its other two shareholders a combined $790m (£491m) that was extended in emergency loans during the worst of the financial crisis.
He has been on the board of London-listed Anglo and its predecessor companies for 37 years since the days when his father, Harry Oppenheimer, ran what was then a South Africa-based industrial conglomerate.
Mr Teeger said Mr Oppenheimer “has felt for a while that 65 years of age is a point in time when he would want to step down [from Anglo]. He has made his contribution.”
Anglo now faces the prospect of having only one South African on its 10-person board. Mr Oppenheimer’s retirement follows that of Fred Phaswana in late 2009, leaving Mamphela Ramphele as the only national representing a country that remains crucial to Anglo’s earnings.
“Given the complexities of navigating the South African environment this looks strange, and I would expect them to increase the number of South Africans on the board,” said a banker in South Africa.
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