Another year and another Melbourne Mining Club dinner has come and gone in London. Other than being located at the Nursery Pavilion in Lord’s cricket ground, this year’s dinner was nothing like its predecessors. An incisive on-stage interview with Graham Kerr, CEO of South32, rather than the more usual speech, captured the audience’s attention as he unreservedly illustrated the complexities of conducting business in South Africa, leading the newly-formed South32 and working in a shrinking coal industry.
Official proceedings kicked off at 7 p.m. with a pre-recorded speech by Australia’s High Commissioner Alexander Downer, which was later followed by the live interview with Mr. Kerr. The change of format paid dividends as consummate interviewer Lionel Barber (Editor of the Financial Times) teased Graham into candid commentary. Graham noted that South Africa was a challenging place to do business, indeed the most challenging in South32’s business, with the recent revision of the Mining Charter a good example of increased political instability. Nevertheless, he felt that there was great potential in both the country and its workforce.
In response to Lionel’s suggestion of increasing governmental intervention in mining, Graham noted that this was a situation that was prevalent in both developed and developing world, and was a natural tendency of governments, which operate on a short-term focus. The counter to the trend was to build a strong relationship with the communities in the regions where mining operated.
Graham also touched on the challenges of leading South32. He described the company’s asset portfolio, at the time of his entry as Chief Executive, as underperforming. The key to the successful turnaround, Graham argued, was improving the company’s culture, ranging from increasing safety standards (notably in South Africa) to encouraging a ‘speak-up’ mentality. Lastly, Graham briefly spoke about the thermal coal industry. He noted that despite it being becoming increasingly difficult for a public company to remain invested in the commodity, thermal coal had an integral role to play in the energy mix of developing countries such as India.
Swann CEO Lorraine Meldrum thanked Graham and all Swann guests and other attendees for their participation. Swann was a proud official sponsor of the event.