[Meet Vandita Pant: the future of BHP – and global mining?]

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[meet-vandita-pant:-the-future-of-bhp-–-and-global-mining?]

On a hot Singapore morning, in an office overlooking the downtown district, a silver-haired woman sits at a conference table between two appointments: a briefing about commodity price forecasts and a video call with a steel mill in some far-flung corner of the continent. Most people inside the air-conditioned outpost of Australian miner BHP are starting their work days — stand-up meetings, mugs of coffee, computer screens switching on. But Vandita Pant has been here for hours.Unfamiliar to most Australians yet a heavy-hitter in our $290 billion resources sector, the new chief commercial officer of the world’s top miner — and first woman in the role — has a morning ritual that starts at 5am. After reading through newspapers and research briefs she will scan the overnight financial and economic data, pausing to ponder what it may mean for her customers’ appetites for Australian iron ore, coal, copper or petroleum. After yoga and stretches, sometimes a swim, she is in at her desk by 7, in time for the market opening in Australia.“I start early — but it’s not about the number of hours,” says Pant, unscrewing a bottle of water, easing back into her chair. “If we start counting that way, there’s a wrong metric of performance.”Choosing to focus on results rather than hours worked is sensible, and probably unavoidable, when you consider the miniscule number of hours in each day and the magnitude of Pant’s responsibilities.The fortune of BHP’s legions of employees and shareholders — and to a meaningful extent the strength of Australia’s export-dependent federal budget — hang disproportionately on her ability to read what’s happening in Asian markets. Her job is to forecast long-term commodities demand, forge enduring relationships with buyers like steelmakers and copper smelters and seal lucrative sales contracts with them.Crossing four continents, several time zones and a global value chain, Pant and her team face BHP’s 9000 suppliers and every one of its customers. Essentially, her realm is anything other than the act of mining itself. Among her divisions are procurement, shipping, warehousing, inventory and logistics, economic analysis, marketing and sales.From where she is sitting, Pant has big things to think about and plenty to be concerned about, especially right now. The trajectory of world markets remains highly uncertain, and investor pressure facing emissions-intensive fossil fuels is rising.How do we hedge against exposure to China as growth slows? What toll will the electric-vehicle transition take on demand for BHP’s offshore petroleum assets? How, when and into which new countries or commodities should the company be aspiring to diversify? And now, as China’s coronavirus outbreak locks down plants and shipping ports, how can the company offer flexibility on deliveries and discourage customers from declaring “force majeure” on contracts?These are some of the questions Pant must answer. But what’s immediately clear to all who meet her is that Pant, despite her easy charm, is razor-sharp. She knows her brief and knows it well. She is also firming up as one of the likely internal contenders to replace chief financial officer Peter Beaven if and when he retires, according to some in the market.BHP’s Yandi Yandi Iron Ore mine.Credit: Michelle MossopBeaven’s future at BHP has been questioned ever since he withdrew from the race to become chief executive last year, prompting speculation about who new chief executive Mike Henry might favour to fill his role. (This newspaper’s CBD column reported this week that Beaven will announce his departure “soon”.)Some people inside BHP refer to Pant as the “female Mike”, likening the pair’s impressive breadth of knowledge and attention to detail.Yet Pant is also unafraid to acknowledge what she doesn’t know. “You layer your experiences one on top of the other,” she says. “Continuously learning is one of those things I think are my strengths.”This, she says, is one way that her career path pre-BHP “probably has some relevance”, having spanned roles in India, Japan, United Kingdom, Singapore and mostly in the finance industry. “Unlike most bankers,” she says, “I did a few very different things.”Born and raised in Delhi, Vandita Pant describes family life in her formative years as a “very enabling environment”. As a seven-year-old girl, sitting around the dinner table, her parents (both academics) would regularly ask her to share her opinions on topics of the day. Pant says she was heavily influenced by her mother and maternal grandmother — two strong women – who placed immense importance on the value of education.When she applied for her MBA, she sat a rigorous admissions test for the best schools in the country, the Indian Institutes of Management, which had 97 seats available for more than 150,000 candidates. Pant was awarded a scholarship. Her family’s focus on education and continuous learning has “stayed with me”, says Pant, and has been cemented as one of her core values.Pant’s first job in the business world was at a small financial consulting firm which helped tourism companies like hotels and amusement parks which were under strain. She was the sixth employee of that company, and a direct report to the CEO. In 1994, she made her foray into banking at BNP Paribas. In 1997, she joined the Dutch bank ABN Amro and, with that, was given her first foreign postings.When ABN Amro merged with the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2007, Vandita Pant was propelled into the “eye of the storm” as the global financial crisis hit. Concerned that its £1.4 trillion ($2.7 trillion) balance sheet was too big, RBS tasked Pant with shrinking it. She took the role of head of global liquidity and balance-sheet management for the investment bank in August 2008, just one and a half months before the extent of the subprime mortgage crisis became brutally apparent with the collapse of Wall Street brokerage Lehman Brothers.Once the money had “literally run out”, Pant’s mandate became to build the balance sheet up from scratch. Pant’s lasting lesson from the GFC? “This is what happens when you lose your way” — when you become so focused on growth that you neglect the ‘what-if’ scenarios. “Being there gave me resilience,” she says. “But it also gave me a way of thinking in a very strategic way.John Cummins, RBS group treasurer from 2007 to 2016, encountered Pant during the integration of ABN Amro and RBS treasury functions. Pant’s talent and intellect were not difficult to recognise. “She had very strong commercial instincts as well as understanding and mastering many technical treasury matters from foreign exchange to interest rate hedging to debt issuance,” Cummins recalls. “It was an easy decision to keep promoting her to more responsible positions.”For Cummins, it was Pant’s intense energy, focus and determination to master any topic that he remembers most. “I was not surprised that she was appointed treasurer of BHP … and now has since had further promotions to the executive committee,” Cummins says. “She is a wonderful example of how talent and hard work will take you very far.”When she’s not charting the economic trajectory of markets around the world, Pant loves to read — she’s just finished historian Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change.She also loves to travel with her husband and teenage son. On one such trip, in August 2015, Pant was hiking along a steep forested trail near Banff in Canada when a phone call came in that would upend her career. On the other end of the line was a headhunter with an offer. “A corporate role,” the headhunter said. “BHP is looking for a treasurer to come and take it to another level.” Pant said to call back in a couple of days’ time. Once back in Vancouver, she took the call again but wasn’t convinced. She’d always been a banker.The longer Pant thought about it, however, the more compelling the proposition became. In banking, she’d already done “some of the heaviest lifting that can be done”, she thought to herself. And if she was going to take a corporate treasury role, she wanted it to be somewhere she could make a difference. In a cyclical industry like mining, she thought, treasury is at the heart of enabling strategy. “It can be a competitive edge if you do it right,” says Pant. “That was a real attraction.” On her return to London, meetings were arranged with BHP’s then chief executive Andrew Mackenzie and CFO Beaven.LoadingWhat Pant brought to BHP was a skill set amassed over years “be it funding products, cash-management products, how to hedge your risks on foreign exchanges,” she says. In late 2018, when BHP was preparing to pay out a special dividend following the sale of its onshore US shale assets, word began filtering around the organisation about how Pant had skilfully managed to buy $US5 billion worth of Australian dollars in just four days — quietly raiding the market without causing a ripple — and ensuring shareholders dividends were maximised.Glyn Lawcock, one of Australia’s top mining analysts who has covered BHP for two decades at UBS, said promoting Pant from treasury to CCO appeared a deliberate decision to bring on someone with a more diverse background instead of other internal candidates with “deep, ten years-plus experience”.“This is the CCO role. It’s across more than just purely commodity supply and demand — it’s about contract negotiation, freight, shipping, you name it. By choosing someone who has got a diverse background in finance and banking, they wanted someone with a broader remit who can look across all the different areas. If they’d gone internally, it would have been more of the same.”Lawcock says the pressing focus for Pant and her teams would be trying to understand the severity of what’s happening in China and speaking to contacts on the ground about product demand flows. But longer-term, the challenge will be stripping out costs and finding growth.LoadingWith Western Australian iron ore now sold by BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue, the ability for Australia’s top miners to grow their businesses through volume is far more limited than it was 20 years ago, says Lawcock. Part of Pant’s job, he says, will be to find growth without volume, including through keeping a lid on costs.“She and her team are pretty much going to drive the top line which is all about finding these opportunities in the market, whether it be through product lending, product strategy, different customers, different avenues to market, that will drive that top line,” he says.“That’s now where you can squeeze out the extra dollar out of your business.”Over Vandita Pant’s shoulder, the sweeping view out the window tells much about her job and why it is based here: the Singapore skyline — the meeting centre of Asia — and beyond the horizon: India, South-East Asia, China.The world is changing, Pant explains. Financialisation is creeping into commodities. Asia is becoming more Asian. While big challenges could lie ahead, exciting new demand centres such as India are rapidly emerging.“This is where 80 per cent of our produce goes,” says Pant. “And Asia is not one region. Each market, each country is different. Living and breathing and knowing everything there is to know about Asia is a major part of the job.”The author travelled to Singapore as a guest of BHP.Most Viewed in BusinessLoading

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