Rio Tinto Did Everything Wrong In A Deal That Was One Of The 'Worst Decisions Ever'

tom albanese

Photo: Wikimedia/World Economic Forum

Former Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese made a big splash when he joined the company in 2007. Shortly after coming on board, he bought out aluminium maker Alcan in what’s still the largest mining deal of all time. The same deal that started off his tenure ended it. He resigned last month and the company has had to massively write down the deal and its assets. Last month, the company said write-downs related to the deal had reached an incredible $25 billion. That means they’ve written down more than two thirds of the original $38.1 billion deal. 

How bad was the deal? Historically awful, according to Alcan’s former CEO Dick Evans. He told The Wall Street Journal that the deal was one of the “worst decisions ever, the largest metals and mining transaction in the history of the world at the high point in the commodity cycle.”

Rio Tinto did all of the things you aren’t supposed to.

  • It paid a massive 65 per cent premium.
  • Got involved in a bidding war with other giants.
  • Bought at a 20-year peak in aluminium prices .
  • Increased its debt from $2.4 billion to $46.3 billion, constraining it for years to come.

Add increased (and vastly underestimated) Chinese production, followed by a complete collapse in global demand after the financial crisis, and you’ve got a real disaster.

This isn’t to say Alcan is a bad company. The timing was just spectacularly bad. 

This deal is an important strategic lesson about the perils of success. Rio Tinto was flush with cash after a decades-long commodity boom, which ended up leading it to an incredibly poor strategic decision. Success made it feel stronger than it was, leading it to pay far, far more than it should have. When a company’s succeeding, they don’t think about what could go wrong, don’t leave themselves enough of a buffer, and aren’t careful with their cash.

Rio Tinto’s now paying the price for its past success.  

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