Côté’s exit leaves Rio Tinto at crossroads – by Sophie Cousineau (Globe and Mail – May 28, 2014)

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It is a bittersweet end to Jacynthe Côté’s distinguished 26-year career at Rio Tinto Alcan.

The Laval University-trained chemist who rose through the ranks at Alcan became head of Rio Tinto’s aluminium business in January, 2009, just as the financial crisis was ripping through the world economy. No other woman had accomplished such a feat in the company’s 112-year history.

On the day she was appointed, though, she announced the closing of the Beauharnois, Que., smelter she once directed, and that pretty much set the tone for her five-year term. As aluminium prices fell and Rio Tinto suffered from an acute case of buyer’s remorse over its $38.1-billion (U.S.) acquisition of Alcan – in cash no less – Ms. Côté closed smelters, laid off employees and turned every rock she set her eyes on to cut the producer’s costs.

Last year, the unit’s underlying earnings, at $557-million, were 10 times higher than in 2012. Now that the worst of the mining downturn appears behind Rio Tinto, Ms. Côté is leaving the company’s aluminium unit to “pursue other interests.” However, her replacement by BP veteran Alfredo Barrios as chief executive comes at a time when Alcan’s future within Rio Tinto is clouded.

One cannot disregard how big a job Ms. Côté accomplished. She may look unassuming in her understated dark suits and her discreet jewels, but the 55-year-old executive put the former Montreal-based producer through the wringer. No geography was spared, notably Alcan’s home country, where another plant, in Shawinigan, Que., was shut down last year.

However, Ms. Côté was able to pursue the expansion and upgrade of the Kitimat, B.C., smelter, a $3.3-billion project that is reportedly running over budget. She also oversaw the construction of a new Jonquière, Que., production centre, although completion of the second and third phase of this new Saguenay-region smelter that uses energy-efficient technology has been deferred for three years, until 2019.

As a whole, Rio Tinto is in a much better shape, after pursuing the most aggressive spending cuts in the industry – the company already excised $2.3-billion of the $3-billion targeted in the two years leading to December, 2014. Its debt fell to $18.1-billion at the end of 2013. The company’s chief executive, Sam Walsh, is even weighing new investment projects that could be submitted to the mining company’s board in 2015.

Those investments won’t be predicated on current commodity prices. Still, the aluminium industry looks about as attractive as a faded painting in the storefront of a second-hands goods store.

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