It's duck season as profit slides

When BHP Billiton boss Marius Kloppers joked at a dinner party in December that lame duck was on the menu, he was referring to himself. Less than two months later the mining giant informed the world that lame duck was off the menu.

The sudden announcement of Mr Kloppers' exit came at the same time as BHP Billiton released a 58 per cent fall in profit to $US5.7 billion ($A5.5 billion) and wrote off billions of dollars in assets.

On the face of it the changing of the guard looks like a copycat of smaller rival Rio Tinto, which sacked its boss last month after one too many dud acquisitions. It also follows changes at the top of two other mining leviathans, Anglo American and Xstrata.

But the changing of the guard at the Melbourne-headquartered BHP is different. The board has been working tirelessly on a succession plan since it was leaked in the British media last November that a head-hunter had been hired to find Mr Kloppers' successor.

Mr Kloppers hands the reins in May to internal candidate Andrew Mackenzie, a Scottish scientist and veteran of BP and Rio Tinto. In the business world, where image is everything, it is a short handover period, presumably in recognition that the lame duck was getting larger with every week that passed.

The South African-born Kloppers, 50, was not a popular leader and his popularity had been on the skids with investors and analysts.

It wasn't that his performance was bad, it just wasn't as good as it could have been given he inherited a company in pristine condition. Besides being the biggest mining company in the world, it was debt-free and had some of the best assets and executives in the industry.

More importantly, he took the helm during the global mining boom. But his micro-managing style and a series of botched takeovers set the clock ticking.

This culminated in staff departures and destabilising leaks about him not being a team player, that he is ''obsessive'' and ''controlling'' and had hollowed out the culture.

Mr Kloppers became the talk of the business world when sources came forward with anecdotes that under his leadership staff had to keep their desks clean, limit photos to one per desk and eat hot food outside the building. There were stories that one year Christmas trees were banned from the entrance of each floor so the staff protested, albeit unobtrusively, by putting a photo of a Christmas tree on their desk. Whether such stories are fact or fiction didn't really matter, Kloppers' reputation was cast.

Against this backdrop he presided over the botched takeover of Rio Tinto, a failed iron ore joint venture proposal with Rio Tinto, a failed takeover bid for Canada-based PotashCorp, and the more recent $US20 billion ($A19 billion) shale gas purchases, including Fayetteville and Petrohawk Energy, in the US, the former resulting in write-downs.

The result? Some investors opted to reduce their shareholding in BHP, which is damaging for any chief executive. Investors wanted to invest in companies that had a good handle on their costs and provided good dividend yields. Unfortunately, they weren't getting it from Mr Kloppers, who had a list of big-budget projects the costs of which were spiralling out of control.

Even when he announced he would mothball some of the bigger projects, including the $30 billion Olympic Dam project in South Australia, shareholders wanted more.

The way they saw it BHP's shares had gone backwards from $44.50 when he became CEO on October 1, 2007. While he outperformed the overall market over that period, and outperformed his peers by 40 per cent on a total shareholder return basis, it wasn't enough.

Markets have short attention spans and BHP has slightly underperformed the market in the latest rally. Mr Kloppers took a cut to his 2012 bonus due to the shale gas acquisition write-downs.

BHP and the market is ready for a change and what the market wants, the market gets. The new-look BHP will focus on cutting costs, re-engaging staff and creating a narrative that will once again get shareholders excited about the biggest miner in the world.

This story It's duck season as profit slides first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.