Rio Tinto PLC - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Rio Tinto PLC

6 St. James's Square
London SW1Y 4LD
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives:

Rio Tinto takes a long term and responsible approach to exploring for first class ore bodies and developing large, efficient operations capable of sustaining competitive advantage. In this way, Rio Tinto helps to meet the global need for minerals and metals which contribute to essential improvements in living standards as well as making a direct contribution to economic development and employment in those countries in which it invests.

History of Rio Tinto PLC

An estimated 79 percent of Rio Tinto PLC's assets are in Australia, New Zealand, and North America, with the rest divided among Africa, Asia, and Europe. The company owns mines worldwide, for coal and such metals as copper and gold, and the industrial minerals borax, silica and talc. In addition to being one of the largest producers of copper and coal in the United States, the company's boron mine in the Mojave Desert produces 50 percent of the world's borax. Among Rio Tinto's international mine holdings are Kennecott in Utah, which mines copper, coal, and gold; U.S. Borax, which mines borates and silica; and Palabora in South Africa, which mines copper.

The Origins of Rio Tinto Predecessors RTC and CZ

It had been the policy of the previously named RTZ Corporation PLC, since its formation in 1962 through the merger of the Rio Tinto Company (RTC) and the Consolidated Zinc Corporation (CZ), to invest only in first-class mining properties with large reserves and low-production costs. Both the RTC and CZ were formed during the years between 1870 and 1914, when London rose to prominence as the hub of international mining and metallurgical activities. The number of overseas metal mining and processing companies listed on the London Stock Exchange climbed from 39 in 1875 to 913 in 1913, with the long-term capital employed in the industry rising at an average annual rate of more than 8 percent over the same period. In the city of London, for every prospective mine or group of mines, a new operating company would be created. A syndicate composed of city interests--specialist company promoters, bankers, stockbrokers, merchants, mining engineers, and others--would purchase a concession from a foreign vendor or exploration company, and a mining company would be formed to purchase the concession from the syndicate. Syndicates usually profited from the sale of the concession, and from securing contracts for financial or other services.

When launched in 1873, the RTC was by far the biggest international mining venture ever brought to market, and it remained the flagship of the British-owned sector of the international industry until well into the 20th century. The Rio Tinto mines, in the province of Huelva in southern Spain, had produced large quantities of copper, on and off, since before Roman times, most recently under the ownership of the government of Spain. In 1872, following a series of financial losses, the mines were offered for sale at a price equivalent to several million pounds sterling. The Spanish government was in a financial crisis and did not have the cash or the expertise needed to exploit the large reserves of cuprous pyrites known to exist at RTC. Substantial investments were needed to introduce opencast mining, and to build workshops, tramways, crushing and metallurgical plants, a railway from the mines to the seaport of Huelva, a shipping pier, and the many other works necessary to operate on a large scale.

The availability of the mines was brought to the attention of Matheson & Company, the London-based agent for the Far Eastern merchants Jardine Matheson, by Heinrich Doetsch of Sundheim & Doetsch, a general merchant of Huelva. Doetsch had the foresight to see that if the Rio Tinto mines were developed to their full potential, his business eventually stood to gain from a large increase in trade. A syndicate to purchase the Rio Tinto concession was organized by Hugh Matheson, senior partner in Matheson & Company, in London. The mines were purchased by the syndicate for £3.7 million, over a period of nine years, and immediately sold to the RTC. The new company was floated on the London Stock Exchange with an issued share capital of £2 million and debentures valued at £600,000. Hugh Matheson was appointed as first chairman of the RTC with Heinrich Doetsch as his deputy.

Matheson remained chairman of the RTC for a quarter of a century until his death in 1898. Matheson was a shrewd dealer in commodities, an outstanding entrepreneur with an ability to think on a scale that few could match, and a natural leader who could win the support needed to build very large enterprises in distant lands. The formation, survival, and ultimate prosperity of the RTC was the crowning achievement of his life. Matheson held together the original German and British banking, trading, and engineering consortium formed to launch the RTC in the crisis that followed the issue of its prospectus. The claims made in this document, especially the report of the mining engineer David Forbes, were vigorously denounced by the Tharsis Company, a Scottish-based firm set up in 1866 to work a group of mines not far distant from those at Rio Tinto. It was alleged that Matheson and his associates had falsely inflated potential revenues and grossly underestimated development and operating costs. The new company, it was said, could never earn a positive rate of return on the huge capital it was seeking to raise from investors. Matheson launched a massive press campaign, an early example of skillful public relations, and he won the day.

The Tharsis assault, however, did some damage, and this was further compounded by a three-year price war between the two companies. The pyrites mined in southern Spain and in Portugal were first burned to drive off the sulfur content. The sulfurous gases were used to make sulfuric acid, one of the fundamental products of the chemicals industry. The burnt ore from the chemical works was then treated to remove the copper and other valuable metals it contained. The iron cinders that remained were sent to ironworks for smelting. During these difficult years, revenues were low and development costs were running at more than £100,000 per month. The purchase agreement with the Spanish government was renegotiated on more favorable terms; the company was financially restructured, and additional funds were raised through the issue of mortgage bonds. Eventually, in 1876, a favorable price-fixing and market-sharing agreement was made with Tharsis, and the prospects for both companies began to improve.

The RTC was the major beneficiary of the 1876 agreement. Under this, the company gained control of the lucrative and rapidly expanding German market for pyrites, and within a matter of years it had become the dominant firm--with a 50 percent market share--in an oligopolistic world industry, with some degree of control over prices. At the same time, more of the product of the mines was treated locally to recover the copper contained therein. By the end of the 1880s, RTC was the leading producer of copper in the world. The company had smelters in Spain and a smelter and refinery in south Wales. In 1887, when the French entrepreneur Hyacinthe Secrétan attempted to corner the world copper market to raise prices, RTC at first reaped the benefits of its participation in the scheme, whereby Secrétan undertook to buy all its copper at fixed prices, and was not severely affected when Secrétan's scheme backfired in 1889, resulting in a spectacular collapse in the copper market. The strong market position of the company--by 1887 it was responsible for 8 percent of the total world copper supply--was reflected from the 1880s onward in high profits. The larger part was returned to shareholders as dividends.

New Technology at the Dawn of the Century

Hugh Matheson laid the foundations for the subsequent prosperity of the RTC, which rose to a high level under the leadership of Sir Charles Fielding. In his first ten years as chairman, 1898 to 1908, the company paid an average annual dividend of 41 percent on a share capital of £3.5 million. Fielding built solidly on the achievements of the Matheson era, assuming personal responsibility for the introduction of a range of new technologies such as pyritic smelting. He also streamlined management, accounting, and decision-making practices, and, at a time of strong market growth, these innovations helped elevate the company to a higher level of profitability. The Spanish government, under pressure from nationalists of all descriptions, tried to lay claim to a larger share of company revenues, but these efforts were generally thwarted; nor did the laborers of the mining district have much success in raising the level of wages paid by RTC. The company showed scant regard for the argument that it could afford to pay much more than it did, pointing out that it already paid more in cash and kind than most other large employers in Spain. The real wages per head of the 15,000 workers employed by the RTC in Spain in 1913 were actually less than those paid to 10,000 workers employed 20 years earlier. Low-cost housing; discretionary pensions; and company stores, schools, taverns, and other recreational facilities as substitutes for higher wages began to cause resentment among the workers and their families.

Strikes of varying lengths and bitterness became commonplace at RTC following the outbreak of World War I, exacerbated by ever-rising prices and declining real wages. A violent and acrimonious nine-month strike in 1920 ended with the exhausted unions and resentment toward the company in many sections of Spanish society, across the political spectrum. From this time onward, the fate of the RTC in Spain was bound up with the turbulent course of national politics. There was a period of relative stability between 1923 and 1929 under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, and the company was fortunate to escape lightly when it was discovered to have been evading export taxes through under-recording of the copper content of minerals shipped from Huelva. After Primo de Rivera left office, however, there followed a long period of disruption and uncertainty that lasted until the mines were sold to Spanish interests in 1954. As left- and right-wing political factions vied for power between 1929 and 1936, the RTC came to be seen as an economic Rock of Gibraltar that must concede more in the interests of Spain. Damaging labor laws and taxation policies were introduced at the very time when the company was suffering from depressed trading conditions around the world, and when the copper content of the ores mined at Rio Tinto was plummeting. The decision was made by the third chairman of the company, Sir Auckland Geddes, who served from 1925 to 1947, to invest only as much money in Spain as was needed to sustain the operation.

The 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War brought further problems. From an early date, the Rio Tinto mines were occupied by the Insurgent forces led by General Francisco Franco. The mineral wealth of the district was seen by Franco as a means of procuring arms from the Axis powers, and within months the RTC found itself caught up in a complex web of diplomatic intrigue involving London, Berlin, Rome, and the Franco regime. Control over the company's Spanish assets had been lost, and was never effectively regained. During World War II and the period of reconstruction that followed, the RTC had little control over production, prices, or the numbers of workers employed in Spain. The company was held in check by restrictive laws and regulations, causing the real value of its assets to fall with the passage of each frustrating year. It was with great relief that the RTC managed to sell its Spanish operations in 1954. After many years of negotiations, involving Franco himself, the business was sold to a newly formed Spanish company in exchange for a one-third interest in the enterprise plus £7.7 million in seven annual installments.

Global Expansion

Auckland Geddes involved the company in ventures in other parts of the world and brought to the RTC a new style of business leadership. Unlike previous chairpeople, he eschewed close involvement in day-to-day administrative matters in favor of major questions of policy and organization. He delegated responsibilities to full-time directors recruited from outside the business, and he initiated a search for major new investment opportunities in mining and related fields. Exploration subsidiaries were formed and research stations opened. A large minority shareholding in the Davison Chemical Corporation, a leading United States artificial-fertilizer manufacturer, was purchased. Together with Davison, the RTC set up a series of subsidiaries throughout Europe to manufacture and market the versatile chemical absorbent, silica gel. Substantial minority shareholdings were also acquired in several other companies devoted to exploration and the development of new products.

By far the most significant of the new departures inspired by Geddes was the involvement of the RTC in the development of the Northern Rhodesian (now Zambian) copperbelt. The opportunity to secure a stake in the field came early in 1929 when U.S. interests attempted to take over the promising N'Changa deposits. Along with Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and other members of the British-cum-South African business community, Geddes judged this move to be detrimental to British business interests, and led the resistance to it. By the time the struggle was over, the RTC had acquired sizable copperbelt holdings and valuable information which suggested that the deposits were amongst the richest and most extensive ever discovered. Further shares were purchased in major copperbelt development companies in the months following the N'Changa struggle, and by 1930 the RTC had become a major economic force in Northern Rhodesia. In that year Geddes and Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, whose Anglo American Corporation was the leading company in copperbelt finance, forced through the merger of three of the biggest development companies to form the Rhokana Corporation. Geddes was appointed chairman of the new company. Under his leadership Rhokana emerged during the next 17 years as one of the largest and lowest-cost copper companies in the world.

Not all of Geddes' business initiatives were so successful. The RTC's venture into chemicals proved in the end to be a financial disaster, and the firm's exploration activities never yielded anything of worth. Failure in these fields was largely a consequence of the world economic depression but in part such losses were due to ill-informed and hasty judgments on the part of the RTC board. The returns on the Northern Rhodesian investments, however, more than compensated for these setbacks, enabling the firm to survive the protracted decline of its Spanish business and laying the foundations for its emergence as a modern multinational enterprise.

The Postwar Period

The regeneration of the RTC after World War II was, to a great extent, the work of two men, Mark Turner and Val Duncan, who formed one of the most creative business partnerships of modern times. Turner, the elder of the two and an investment banker by training, was appointed acting managing director of the company in 1948 on a part-time basis. He was charged with finding a full-time replacement, and for the position he groomed Duncan, a younger lawyer he had met during the war. Duncan was appointed managing director of the RTC in January 1951, allowing Turner, who remained a leading member of the RTC board and Duncan's closest colleague, to devote more of his time to the banking business of Robert Benson, Lonsdale--later Kleinwort Benson. Together, Duncan and Turner persuaded their colleagues and leading shareholders that RTC should aim to become a growth-oriented, broadly based natural resource company with operations concentrated in politically stable parts of the world, especially the Commonwealth countries. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, interests in a range of potential mines were secured, from tin and wolfram in Portugal to diamonds in South Africa and copper in Uganda. Between 1952 and 1954, a network of amply funded exploration subsidiaries was established to search for mineral deposits that might be exploited on a large scale in Canada, Africa, and Australia.

The sale of the Spanish mines in 1954 released further human and financial resources for the task of rebuilding and reorienting the RTC. An intense period of exploration followed, which sent Duncan and other executives to all parts of the world to supervise exploration agreements and consider the mine-development deals put to the company from time to time. The first tangible result of this activity came in 1955 with the purchase of a majority interest in the Algom group of uranium mines in the Elliot Lake district of Canada. The authorized capital of the RTC was raised from £8 million to £12 million to accommodate the purchase, and a loan of US$200 million was raised against various supply contracts to fund the development of seven major mines. The company's position in the uranium industry was consolidated by the simultaneous acquisition of a controlling interest in the Mary Kathleen mine in Australia. By the end of the 1950s, RTC was responsible for the production of 15 percent of the world's uranium oxide, and along the way the company had gained control over two highly promising mineral prospects: the vast Hammersley iron ore deposits in Western Australia and the Palabora copper deposit in South Africa.

Merging RTC and Consolidated Zinc

By the early 1960s, Duncan was confident enough to take the decisive step toward realizing his vision of the RTC as a first-rank multinational enterprise. Merging was the obvious means of speeding the process of building up the organization, and he found an ideal prospective partner in the London-based Consolidated Zinc Corporation. This company had steadily expanded its activities since 1905 when it was launched to recover the large quantities of zinc remaining in the tailings dumps of the legendary silver-lead mines at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia. CZ's operations were still concentrated in Australia, but had been progressively extended to include a wide range of mining and metallurgical activities. The compatibility of CZ and the RTC was both strategic and structural. Strategically, the leading directors of CZ wished to attain major-company status through geographic diversification and the development of important new prospects, particularly the vast Weipa bauxite deposits of northern Queensland. Structurally, the company was about the same size as the RTC with net profits running at a little over £1 million per annum, and its major interests were in complementary rather then competing areas. The merger would, at a stroke, produce a large and broadly based organization with financial and technological resources to undertake a range of promising new ventures. In July 1962 the two companies came together to form RTZ. Duncan was appointed managing director of the new concern, and in 1963, on the retirement of A.M. Baer, he became chairman and chief executive of RTZ--positions which he retained until his death in December 1975.

Under Duncan's leadership, RTZ rapidly rose to prominence in the natural resources industries of the world. In partnership with Kaiser Aluminum, the firm established an integrated aluminum business in Australia, Comalco Limited. The Hammersley iron and Palabora copper projects were brought to fruition. Extensive exploration was continued, eventually yielding large-scale mines in Papua New Guinea (Bougainville Copper), Canada (Lornex Copper), and Namibia (Rössing Uranium). Meanwhile, the scale and the scope of the business was further expanded through the purchase of going concerns: Atlas Steels (high-grade specialty steels) in Canada; Borax Holdings (industrial raw materials) in the United States; and Capper Pass (tin refiners) and Pillar Holdings (aluminum fabricators) in the United Kingdom. By the early 1970s, RTZ had achieved the geographically and geologically diverse pattern of operations long pursued by Val Duncan.

Duncan made an important contribution to advancing the fortunes of the enterprise. He was the principal architect of the strategy of promoting growth through involvement in a stream of large-scale, capital-intensive natural resources projects. Potential financial limits to growth were overcome through the funding of massive projects with a high ratio of loan capital to equity. Multimillion-dollar loans were raised by Duncan and his team throughout the by offering long-term supply contracts as collateral. Potential organizational and managerial limits to growth were overcome by the progressive devolution of responsibilities to a series of nationally based companies, each charged with the goal of involving RTZ in substantial new projects. By the early 1970s, RTZ had emerged as a loosely knit family of companies with the activities of the parent concern limited to the provision of group services, the controlling of major strategic and financial decisions, and the appointment of top personnel.

RTZ Becomes One of the Largest Producers of Gold

The strategy, organization, and policies devised by Val Duncan remained in place in the 1980s. Duncan was succeeded as chief executive by Mark Turner. He continued in office until his death in December 1980. Turner saw no need to change course, nor did Anthony Tuke who replaced him, nor has Alistair Frame or Derek Birkin, the latest in the long line of distinguished chairpersons that began with Hugh Matheson. The essential integrity of RTZ was maintained while growth continued. New mines and smelters were brought on stream and new processing facilities developed. Some businesses were bought; others sold. The biggest boost to the enterprise came in 1989 with the acquisition of BP Minerals for £2.6 billion. This deal brought to RTZ one of the greatest names in world mining, the Kennecott Corporation, and a portfolio of assets in 15 countries, including the world's largest opencast copper mine and the world's largest producer of titanium dioxide feedstock. RTZ immediately became one of the world's largest producers of gold outside South Africa. The shares of world output accounted for by the much-enlarged company in 1989 were 55 percent of borates, 30 percent of titanium dioxide feedstock, 13 percent of zircon, 15 percent of industrial diamonds, 14 percent of vermiculite, 8 percent of talc, and 5 percent or more of uranium, copper, and molybdenum. RTZ also ranked amongst the world's largest producers of tin, bauxite, silver, iron ore, gold, lead, and zinc.

Sir Robert Wilson played a vital role in closing the BP Minerals deal. He joined the company in 1970, becoming managing director of its European zinc and lead smelting subsidiary in 1979. He moved to the head office in 1982 and was appointed to the main board in 1987 as executive director responsible for planning and development. It was in this capacity that he led the significant purchase that brought with it Kennecott Corporation. Wilson would go on to be named chief executive of Rio Tinto in 1991 and be appointed chairman in 1997.

When the London-based RTZ Corporation PLC and its Australian subsidiary CRA Limited completed a dual-listed companies merger in December 1995, the largest mining company in the world was created, RTZ-CRA Group. Combined revenues for the next year were US$8.4 billion, double the US$4.22 billion in sales reported by RTZ alone for 1995. As a result of the unique merger, both companies maintained separate identities and stock market listings.

The 1995 RTZ-CRA merger pulled in all of Kennecott's holdings, making the company an international giant in the mining and minerals industry. Kennecott had become a subsidiary of BP Minerals in 1987, when BP purchased an outstanding minority interest in Standard Oil in June 1989. BP Minerals was then acquired by RTZ Corporation PLC, Britain's largest mining company. The merger, while creating a multinational mining giant, also created the need for a management restructuring, which ultimately shook up the Kennecott operations.

In March 1997, RTZ-CRA announced a management restructuring into six new global product businesses, with three to be based in London and three in Australia. As a result, operations for copper, gold and other minerals, as well as operations for industrial minerals, were now based in London. In Australia, aluminum operations were headquartered in Brisbane, energy in Melbourne, and iron ore in Perth. These businesses were supported by the worldwide technology and exploration groups that remain headquartered in London. In June 1997, the company changed its name to Rio Tinto PLC.

Kennecott Corporation, the world's leader in copper output throughout most of the 20th century, by 1997 ceased to exist as a separate entity. That year it was divided into a group of wholly owned subsidiaries of Rio Tinto, who continued to operate Kennecott's chief U.S. businesses: Kennecott Utah Copper, Kennecott Minerals, and Kennecott Energy. However, these operations were absorbed into Rio Tinto's copper and energy units.

In the mid-1990s, Rio Tinto's exploration of mines around the world continued, with projects for gold in Papua New Guinea, prospecting in northern Norway's Finnmark region, and expanded coal-mining by buying U.S. operators Nerco and Cordero Mining. In 1997, copper and gold exploration looked promising at Famatina in northwestern Argentina.

As the 1990s drew to a close, Rio Tinto was looking at a strong world economy that would demand primary raw materials, such as copper, gold, and coal. Prices were holding, as well, but competition was a possible concern from emerging markets such as Russia and China.

Rio Tinto Hangs Tough in Difficult Market

But this stability would not hold. In January 1999, Rio Tinto deferred construction on its Hail Creek Coal Project, in Queensland Basin in reaction to an economic recession in Asia. (Development would resume in June 2001.) In April the company moved to shuffle chief executives in its copper, gold, and technology groups in an attempt to exchange best practices between the business groups. This came just two months after Rio Tinto declared a 10 percent drop in earnings to US$1.1 billion and a 2 percent decline in sales to US$9.2 billion. In September, Rio Tinto sold its Las Cruces copper deposit in Andalucia, southern Spain to MK Gold Company for US$42 million cash.

In February 2000, Rio put up a for-sale notice on its 40 percent stake in the rich Nevada gold mine, the Cortez Pipeline. Three years previously, Rio had considered spinning off its gold mines, but since a sizable proportion of production is a byproduct of copper companies, the idea was shelved. The sale never went through, but this period continued as an era of a fragile global economy.

Despite a tumultuous couple of years, a growth in demand would lead Rio Tinto to declare first-half net earnings in 2000 at US$677 million, a 33 percent increase over the previous year. Copper prices were averaging 23 percent above the low levels of first-half 1999 and aluminum prices were up 25 percent. Rio Tinto would go on to achieve a record level of earnings, helped by the full ownership of Comalco Limited and the acquisition of North Limited. Unfavorable economic conditions abounded in the United States, the European Union, and Japan, weakening demand and price for many Rio Tinto products. And yet, protected by the quality of the company's asset base, strength of its margins, and strong economic growth in China, Rio Tinto's adjusted earnings in 2001 would reach US$1.62 billion, up from US$1.51 billion in 2000.

By November 2001, Kennecott Utah Copper was taking steps to cut costs and improve productivity to secure its future. Record-low copper prices led to the permanent closing of its North Concentrator. In February 2001, Rio Tinto posted a 23 percent drop in pre-tax earnings to US$1.93 billion in 2001 after taking an exceptional charge of US$583 million primarily due to the reduction in value of Kennecott Utah Copper.

In keeping with its reputation for high environmental and community standards, Rio Tinto stopped its incursions into aboriginal land in Queensland, Australia in early 2002, after increased pressure from the public and the NGO. The company also abruptly ended a decade-long battle against unions over individual workplace contracts, instead offering collective agreements in line with federal law to 4,000 workers at four mines in Western Australia. With its long view in production and project development, many new projects, open management style, and responsiveness to opportunity, Rio Tinto is expected to remain the world's top global mining company.

Principal Subsidiaries:Angelesey Aluminium Ltd. (UK; 51%); Bougainville Copper Ltd. (Papua New Guinea; 53.58%); Coal & Allied Industries (Australia; 71.46%); Comalco Ltd. (Australia; 50%); Cordero Mining Co. (U.S.); Dampier Salt Ltd. (Australia; 67.4%); Hammersley Iron Pty. Ltd. (Australia; 64.94%); Kennecott Corp. (U.S.); Nerco, Inc. (U.S.); New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd. (79.36%); Novacoal Australia Pty. Ltd.; Palabora Mining Co. Ltd. (South Africa; 64.9%); P.T. Kelian Equatorial Mining (Indonesia; 90%); QIT-Fer et Titane Inc. (Canada); Queensland Coal Pty. Ltd. (Australia); Rio Paracatu Mineracao SA (Brazil; 51%); Rio Tinto Zimbabwe Ltd. (Zimbabwe; 56.04%); Rössing Uranium Ltd. (Namibia; 68.58%); Talc de Luzenac SA (France; 99.75%); U.S. Borax Inc. (U.S.).

Principal Operating Units:Minera Escondida (Chile); Argyle Diamonds (Australia); Talc de Luzenac (France).

Principal Competitors:Anglo American; BHP Billiton Ltd; WMC Limited.


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