“I just get on and do what I need to do. I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it and I never have. I think the results speak for themselves.”
— Cynthia Carroll, 2009
The mining world is well-known to be a male stronghold. Traditionally, the industry has preferred men over women for roles ranging from the actual miners working in the depths of the earth to the corporate head in the corner office. So when Cynthia Carroll became the CEO of Anglo American in 2007, it was a quantum leap over tradition.
In the 90-year-old history of Anglo American, Carroll might have been the company’s first woman CEO, and the first non-South African to take over the helm, but she was definitely not new to the corporate world. Armed with undergraduate and graduate degrees in Geology, and an MBA from Harvard University, Carroll began in 1982 as a petroleum geologist with Amoco, today owned by British Petroleum. Eight years later, she joined aluminum industry leader Alcan as a business analyst and assistant to the President. Just as the company was transformed through multiple mergers and acquisitions, commercial development, and joint ventures over the next few years, so too did Carroll’s career at Alcan evolve. And by 2002, she had moved up the rungs of the corporate ladder to become President and CEO of Alcan’s Primary Metal Group.
By then, Carroll had come into her own. Under her watchful eye, Alcan successfully negotiated a $4.4 billion takeover of the French aluminum company Pechiney in 2003. The deal gave Alcan a significant boost in the aeronautics industry and expanded its share of the European aluminum market. A string of aggressive acquisitions and expansions later saw Alcan’s facilities and businesses increasing, and the Primary Metal Group achieved its highest profitability and returns ever in the company’s history.
After 18 long years of turning Alcan’s fortunes around, Carroll became CEO of Anglo American in 2007. “Cynthia Carroll has a very strong track record of improving operational performance, transforming culture, including improving safety performance, and of integrating and realizing synergies from newly acquired assets,” said the then Anglo American Chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart.
And Anglo American needed Carroll’s expertise. Carroll, who by now had earned the nickname of “Cyclone Cynthia” for her hard line stance in the business world, joined the South African company at a time when it had lost its bearings. To make things worse, the global financial recession dealt the company a body blow. Its net profit crashed by 31% in the first half of 2009, as earnings from its core businesses plummeted. During this time, profits halved to just $2.97 billion compared to $4.28 billion a year earlier, even as revenues plunged 38% to $11.1 billion. In fact, Anglo American’s position had become so shaky and vulnerable that the relative newcomer Xstrata, the Swiss mining company, even suggested a merger.
Carroll is not just the first woman CEO in Anglo American’s history. She is also the first non South-African chief as well as an outsider to the company.
Yet, Carroll’s deft decisions pumped new vigor back into the company’s veins. Carroll began to actively reshuffle the management, replacing supervisors and infusing the company with deep cultural changes. Carroll, a mother of four, launched cost-cutting measures that included trimming away $2.4 billion in non-core assets. Carroll then refocused attention on Anglo American’s platinum, base metals, coal and diamonds businesses, which formed the heart of the company. The safety of miners was given a much higher priority and Carroll’s prompt measures slashed worker mine deaths nearly by half in 2009 compared to earlier statistics. And in response to the global financial crisis, Carroll moved courageously and decisively, laying off 23,400 workers or 25% of the company’s staff.
In many ways, 2009 was the year of survival not just for the company but for Carroll herself. Her performance came under fire from edgy shareholders who felt she had weakened the company by overspending in her acquisitions prior to the crisis. Shareholders were famously quoted as saying that the three reasons why Anglo American was in trouble were, “Cynthia, Cynthia and Cynthia.” Carroll remained unshaken. “We’re on the right path. We’ve taken the right decisions,” she firmly maintained.
And it turned out Carroll was right. By July 2010, Anglo American reported more than a 40% rise in its share prices. The mining giant’s operating profits amounted to $4.1 billion in the first six months of this year, up from $1.9 billion in 2009.
Initially, Carroll’s appointment as CEO had sent Anglo American shares into a freefall, causing a 36% plunge in prices. But she sent the stock soaring recently when she announced that Anglo American would be developing long term projects in the near future worth a hefty $50 billion. For the three past years, Cynthia Carroll has ranked as one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbes. Now it appears that the commanding winds of Cyclone Cynthia have come full circle.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019