After being spun out of BHP Billiton in 2015, South32 has quickly become a successful metal and mining company. Let’s take a look at its inspiring growth journey…
Headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, South32 is a locally owned public company that was formed on May 18, 2015, because of a demerger by BHP Billiton - an Australian multinational mining, metals, and petroleum company.
Over the years, South32 has garnered a name for itself and has developed a well-maintained and high-quality portfolio that makes it a major player in the mining industry. It is dedicated to its vision of developing natural resources and improving people’s lives for generations to come.
South32 is a globally diversified metals and mining company that produces bauxite, aluminum, metallurgical coal, manganese, nickel, silver, lead, and zinc at its operations in Australia, South Africa, and South America. It also has several partnerships with junior explorers around the world.
The company’s growth trajectory is guided by its strategic commitment to optimize the performance of its operations by realizing its unlocked potential while also identifying new opportunities to create value for all stakeholders.
Here are some facts and figures from FY21 that illustrate South32’s leading position in the metals and mining industry:
Even though the company is relatively very young, it has managed to create a name for itself because of its exceptional performance. Over the course of its short history, South32 has developed its own vision, which has consistently guided its growth journey. Let’s take a closer look at how South32 fared through the years…
In order to understand South32’s story, it is necessary to start with BHP Billiton - the predecessor company from which South32 was spun off. Let’s dive into the reasons behind the demerger and how South32 came to be as a result of it.
Before the demerger in 2015, BHP Billiton was a leading global resources company that sought to own and operate large, long-life, low-cost, expandable, upstream assets diversified by commodity, geography, and market.
It was formed in 2001 due to a merger between BHP Ltd. and Billiton PLC and went on to become one of the world's largest mining companies. It was involved in the extraction and processing of minerals, oil, and gas from its operations in Australia, the Americas, and southern Africa.
BHP Billiton followed a structured approach to improving safety and performance that ensured the quality of its assets across the various commodities.
Towards the end of 2014, BHP Billiton announced its plans for a demerger which eventually led to the formation of South32 in 2015.
In December 2014, BHP Billiton announced the name of the new company, South32, that would be created through the proposed demerger. Spinning off South32 would allow BHP Billiton to divest its second-tier assets.
In March 2015, the BHP Billiton Board officially encouraged shareholders to vote in favor of the demerger. They argued that the demerger would leave BHP Billiton with a much more focused portfolio which would help maximize the productivity of its core assets.
The Board also highlighted that BHP Billiton would maintain its progressive dividend policy in the wake of the demerger, which implied a higher payout ratio.
The rationale was that the demerger would simplify BHP Billiton, potentially unlock shareholder value, and create a new globally diversified metals and mining company.
The assets that would be demerged to form the new company would have a better opportunity to pursue growth and investment, which it would not have been able to do while being a part of BHP Billiton.
Moreover, to further incentivize the shareholders to vote for the demerger, BHP Billiton shareholders were offered one South32 share for every BHP Billiton share they owned. However, BHP Billiton itself would not retain any stakes in the new company.
South32 was named because the assets that were to constitute it was concentrated in the southern hemisphere. Its two regional centers were in Australia and South Africa; thus, the company’s name was a homage to this footprint and highlighted its regional approach to managing operations.
While South32 derived its identity from the southern hemisphere, it retained its global reach and ambition. Consequently, it was to have a primary listing on the Australian Securities Exchange along with a secondary listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and a standard listing in London.
South32 was also expected to have a significant industry presence in each of its major commodities. The company’s diversified portfolio of high-quality assets was expected to benefit from the attention of a dedicated board and management team.
Such a strategy reinforced the rationale behind the demerger, i.e., maximizing the productivity of the company’s assets through simplification.
The BHP Billiton Board was also optimistic about South32 starting with a strong balance sheet and its potential to adopt an independent business strategy.
On May 18, 2015, South32 was officially listed on the ASX with secondary listings in London and Johannesburg as per the original plan. The new company was led by Mr. Graham Kerr - a long-term employee of BHP Billiton who had recently been acting as its Chief Financial Officer.
The stock forecast for South32 was between $2 to $3.50. Although the company debuted at $2.13 (the lower end of the forecast range), it still became Australia's third-largest mining company, with a market capitalization worth more than $10 billion.
South32 made its entrance with an attractive book valuation and a sound long-term value creation strategy. Kerr, however, was not too concerned with the company’s share price. Instead, he chose to prioritize things that were under his control, such as safety, volume, costs, and effectively communicating with investors.
South32 had debuted on the world stage when the mining industry was experiencing substantial financial pressure from slowing economic growth in China - the largest market for natural resources for the past decade.
South32 remained unaffected by the dip in the commodity cycle because it had a significantly lower reliance on China - with estimates of only 11% of South32’s sales coming from there.
In contrast, South32 prioritized Europe and South Africa as its primary market, thereby providing investors an opening in Australia’s resources sector without a high level of exposure to China.
South32 began its journey with a minimal amount of debt which differentiated it from its rival companies and put it in a position to pursue expansion through mergers and acquisitions.
However, the CEO - Graham Kerr - was more focused on achieving organic growth instead of undertaking large spending. He believed that better opportunities would be open to the company in the future and that a disciplined approach was necessary for navigating the company’s early years.
As a new company with low debt and low reliance on China, South32 had numerous prospects for future growth; at the same time, it had to contend with some risks as well.
The assets that constituted South32 had been considerably neglected under BHP Billiton before their divestment. As part of South32, however, they were being prioritized, and the company could realize its true potential.
Unlike its parent company, South32 did not adopt a progressive dividend policy which allowed for increased flexibility in terms of managing its capital in the future.
However, being a resources business put the company at the unavoidable risk of commodity price volatility (it could not control what price to sell its mined resources).
Due to its high exposure to South Africa, the company faced political risks due to the region's overall instability.
South32 was also open to acquisition risks since it could potentially overpay for new mines and assets.
Simplification is at the heart of South32's very formation. The various assets that were neglected under BHP Billiton as it prioritized its core businesses could come under special focus as part of South32.
South32 created value for its shareholders by maximizing the potential of previously underutilized assets and pursuing a disciplined approach instead of spreading itself too thin financially in a bid for expanding through mergers and acquisitions.
South32’s management preferred to grow organically over time by managing controllable aspects of the business such as safety, volume, costs, and communication with investors. By doing so, the company stabilized itself in the period right after its formation, which left it in a better position for pursuing better future opportunities.
South32 started its journey on an optimistic note with a sound strategy for pursuing organic growth. The company focused on embedding systems and processes into its business model and prioritized structural improvement of all its assets.
Initially, the company stuck with the simple strategy to maximize value from its operations. It was committed to financial discipline and focused on optimizing its portfolio.
After ensuring a firm foundation for its business, South32 began to branch out and reached for further opportunities for growth and expansion.
During 2016, South32 transitioned to a regional model that helped optimize its operations. It undertook restructuring initiatives and ensured improved efficiency and overall organizational effectiveness by conducting functional reviews.
As a result of these efforts, the company’s operations were appropriately sized, with its corporate costs coming up to half the amount envisaged at the time of listing.
In 2016, the company reported that the Worsley operations were fully benefitting from the Efficiency and Growth Project for the first time since its completion in 2011.
South32 undertook various restructuring initiatives to reduce operating unit costs for Worsley, such as reorganizing the mining and refining into two operations and removing layers of management and financial support.
Within the same year, the operating unit costs of Illawarra Metallurgical Coal were also reduced through restructuring initiatives such as an increase in longwall utilization at the Appin and Dendrobium mines and the completion of the Appin Area 9 project that significantly increased production.
In 2016, South32 felt the need to enhance its market competitiveness and took measures to ensure that it retains its lead in specific commodity markets.
To retain GEMCO's low-cost position in the manganese industry, South32 reconfigured the operation's mining and processing plans. Consequently, labor productivity saw a substantial improvement along with a significant procurement costs reduction.
Cerro Matoso was one of the mining industry's most successful ferronickel operations. Within the context of declining ore grades and an increasing reliance on stockpiled ore, Cerro Matoso needed to undertake various initiatives to ensure competitiveness.
Firstly, the operations took steps to enhance labor productivity significantly and cut down on costs. It undertook a series of restructuring initiatives to achieve these goals, such as aggregating procurement activities in the region and bringing about a 56% reduction in sustaining capital expenditure.
In 2017, South32 achieved record annual production at Mozal Aluminium. It recorded strong performance at its aluminum smelters and alumina refineries.
It also increased production volumes to capitalize on higher prices, thereby demonstrating the flexibility of its Australian and South African manganese operations.
The year also saw South32 implementing various efficiency projects across the aluminum value chain.
During 2017, South32 was also on the lookout for options beyond its current portfolio that would present a series of opportunities to compete for capital. To this end, South32 had to work with credible partners that could provide access to appealing greenfield exploration opportunities.
In February 2017, South32 announced that it had signed a strategic alliance with AusQuest to consider exploration opportunities in Australia and Peru.
Under the agreement, South32 would fund AusQuest’s exploratory work in the agreed jurisdiction to identify and secure early-stage exploration opportunities. South32 would also retain the exclusive option to enter joint ventures for projects advanced to the drilling stage.
Within the same year, South32 also made a strategic investment in Arizona Mining - a Canadian company developing the Hermosa zinc, lead, and silver project in Arizona.
In 2018, South32 outlined certain strategic imperatives that influenced critical areas of safety, stakeholder engagement, operations, functions, technology, environmental and social leadership, and portfolio optimization.
These strategic imperatives involved reshaping South32’s portfolio and creating a pipeline of opportunities for future growth.
In April, South32 began managing South Africa Energy Coal as an independent business, effectively collapsing its regional model, consolidating its support structures, and changing the way the company operated.
In August, South32 completed the acquisition of Arizona Mining. The Canadian company brought the high-grade zinc, lead, and silver Hermosa project to South32’s portfolio along with a prospective land package.
The Hermosa Project was especially appealing to South32 because:
While the company focused on signing new agreements and forming crucial partnerships, it continued to invest in its existing portfolio to ensure competitiveness.
In 2018, for the sake of bolstering production rates, South32 re-established minimum performance criteria and implemented work practices for improving longwall and development performance.
The company also improved equipment productivity across multiple operations and renegotiated energy supply and logistics contracts to deliver additional value.
South32 even developed the low reactive silica West Marradong resource at Worsley Alumina, optimizing caustic soda consumption rates. By following such a disciplined approach, the company was better equipped to mitigate broader inflammatory pressures, especially in its downstream processing facilities.
South32 achieved stellar results in the year 2019 as it maintained its leadership position in alumina and manganese, with Australia Manganese reporting record sales and Hillside Aluminium delivering record production.
The company’s focus during this year, however, was on the improvement of its portfolio by assessing its current operations against its future aspirations.
As a result, South32 decided to divest South Africa Energy Coal (SAEC) to a wholly-owned subsidiary of Seriti Resources. The company considered Seriti to be ideally positioned to unlock the potential of South Africa Energy Coal’s existing domestic and export operations, including its considerable untapped resource base.
For South32, the divestment significantly reduced the company’s capital intensity, strengthened its balance sheets, and improved the Group’s operating margin.
South32 started off with a simple strategy of optimizing operations and prioritizing organic growth. However, as the company assured the stability of its business model, it shifted its focus.
The company began seeking out opportunities for growth beyond its existing portfolio and signed key agreements, and formed crucial partnerships with junior explorers. It also reviewed its operations in terms of its prospects with South32's vision for the future.
The change in strategy led to a number of significant developments, such as the acquisition of Arizona Mining and the divestment of South Africa Energy Coal.
These developments substantially boosted South32’s growth and allowed it to reposition itself for future growth.
The year 2020 brought an entirely new set of challenges with the onset of Covid-19. The pandemic prompted the company to reorient its strategy to address the risk posed to the people and the business.
The company’s journey through the pandemic was a testament to its resilience during unprecedented and challenging times. Despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, South32 was committed to delivering on its strategic imperatives.
At the outset of the pandemic, South32's management team, led by the CEO - Graham Kerr - moved to implement the company's crisis and emergency protocols. There were three crucial imperatives guiding the company's management:
South32 developed and implemented critical controls designed to minimize the risk of exposure to Covid-19 amongst its people. These controls included screening, testing, increased cleanliness and hygiene measures, as well as adjustments to work routines to allow for appropriate social distancing.
One way in which the company responded to the uncertainties brought about by the pandemic was by suspending its on-market share buy-back. Doing so helped the company preserve the strength of its balance sheet.
The company also addressed price volatility in the market for its commodities, reduced capital expenditure, and pursued cost-efficient policies across its operations.
Although the pandemic took its toll on South32’s business, the company did manage to deliver a strong operating result for the year 2020.
Australian Manganese ore, Hillside Aluminum, and Brazil Alumina reported record production. Worsley Alumina also recorded a 2% increase as it transitioned into sustainable production at nameplate capacity.
South32 also took significant measures to reshape its portfolio, such as the decision to divest Tasmanian Electro Metallurgical Company (TEMCO) to an entity within GFG Alliance.
TEMCO was South32’s manganese alloy business that had significantly contributed to the local economy. GFG had acquired TEMCO because it presented an opportunity for further vertical integration of its steel business.
During 2020, South32 strategically continued to develop partnerships in early greenfield exploration projects.
The company acquired a 50% interest in the Ambler Metals Joint Venture by exercising its option with Trilogy Metals. Ambler Metals is an independently operated company controlled by Trilogy Metals and South32.
Despite the pandemic, South32 ended the year 2020 with a strong balance sheet and managed to improve its performance across multiple operations.
Besides advancing developmental projects and operations, South32 was also conscious of its environmental and social impact. In 2020, the company became a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a voluntary CEO-led initiative concerned with corporate sustainability.
The UNGC outlined Ten Principles for businesses to follow, which South32 had committed to implementing across the group. These principles ranged from concerns such as human rights, labor rights, the environment, and even anti-corruption.
South32 also demonstrated its commitment to creating a positive impact by progressing decarbonization studies at Illawarra Metallurgical Coal and Worsley Alumina. It specifically focused on targeting Scope 1 emissions from these two sites.
The company also remediated 2 million tonnes of tailings from a legacy mine to reduce the risk of contaminating local waterways through run-off.
South32 invested US$24.5 million in community initiatives and activities. The company strove to enhance the impact of its investments in areas like education, economic participation, health, social wellbeing, and natural resource resilience.
Towards the end of 2020, South32 reviewed its approach toward cultural heritage management and identified opportunities for strengthening its systems and processes.
It also transferred over 390 hectares of land to seven indigenous Councils of the Zenu community in Columbia and the Black community Council of Bocas de Ure for sustainable agriculture.
Early on in the financial year 2021, commodity prices continued to be volatile before stabilizing towards the end of the year. As such, the operations performed relatively well throughout the year.
South32 continued to uphold the precautionary controls designed for the pandemic to ensure minimal risk of exposure to Covid-19. The company lent support to government vaccination programs by procuring vaccines for its workforces in Colombia and Mozambique.
In an effort to support employees through the pandemic, the company increased engagement activities across the business and shared resources to aid the leadership in engaging with their teams during an uncertain time.
The year 2021 saw South32 increase its exposure to the base metals, which was critical for ensuring a low-carbon world.
The company released an updated Mineral Resource estimate for the Taylor Deposit at Hermosa following a pre-feasibility study which reported 138 million tonnes - 5.3 million tonnes of zinc, 5.9 million tonnes of lead, and 360 million ounces of silver -
The study confirmed the potential for a long-life zinc-lead-silver project that pursues a dual shaft development that prioritizes early access to higher grade mineralization.
South32 also continued to develop its pipeline of opportunities during the year and had more than 20 greenfield exploration partnerships and projects focused on base metals.
To allow for better development opportunities regarding metal investment and better overall efficiency, South32 shifted its carbon intensity to develop a low carbon future.
Its efforts included decarbonization goals that are heavily focused on energy efficiency and initiatives that explore various commodities, aside from simple carbon. In May 2021, the company set the goal to halve its carbon emissions and become sustainable by 2035.
In 2021, South32 invested US$22.2 million into community activities and initiatives that fell in perfect harmony with the company’s strategies and community investment priorities.
The company’s partnership with the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre and the Anindilyakawa Future Leaders Program helped it launch a program to enable and empower young people and develop their leadership abilities and skills.
These initiatives proved the company's willingness to go far and beyond for the sake of the community. They established South32 as an organization with a green thumb and lots of growth opportunities, with a strong base.
The idea of minimizing the long-term dangerous geological and geographical impacts of mineral mining and metal extraction on the earth was something that South32 had consistently been working on. The company's long-term goals of social and environmental value and sustainability were considered a priority.
The scope of its operations to create long-term sustainability goals and reliable production methods included the mining of materials like nickel or lead, silver, and bauxite and the refinement of alumina, and finally, the smelting of aluminum and ferronickel.
The raw materials procured from internationally recognized markets ensured that the end products were sold well and that there is sustainability and care going into the construction, transport, energy, and final consumer goods.
For the sake of its long-lasting sustainability goals, South32 considered a cyclic structure where the supply chain follows a healthy regulated process and where tenacity and perseverance are key.
Four such key commodities being marketed include Consumer Goods, Construction, Energy, and Transport, which link directly to the minerals South32 was mining and extracting, such as Silver, Nickel, Aluminum, Zinc, and Steel, among others.
South32’s priorities and strategic imperatives reflected an immense concern for its communities and the environment. The company pursued sustainability goals and invested in community initiatives because it believed in long-term value creation.
With a healthy and empowered community, South32 could tap into improved resources and increase productivity. The sustainability goals ensured that the company was utilizing its resources in an energy-efficient manner and not sabotaging future growth opportunities for short-term gains.
By focusing on long-term value creation, the company was able to optimize its operations, improve energy efficiency, unlock potential, and ensure the sustainability of the business.
Innovation and adapting for the future is the primary driving force behind every industry, and mining is no exception.
Digital technologies have revolutionized traditional industries, and companies that have adopted these new technologies into their operations have gained a head start on the competition.
To stay relevant and retain its competitive edge in the readily transforming mining industry, South32 needs to incorporate digitization into its business model.
Unlike most other industries, the metals and mining sector has been slow in adopting digital technologies. However, the COVID-19 pandemic raised issues such as supply chain challenges and falling commodity rates, etc., which prompted the industry to reimagine its mode of operations.
Companies can generate large volumes of data for analysis and enable communication among machines by embedding various sensors in their equipment. This allows them to monitor their operations remotely and provides a more accurate picture of on-field reality.
Companies can work with an artificially created software environment that utilizes real-life data by incorporating virtual reality. The virtual environment can enable them to analyze their processes and plan new projects without stepping into the field.
The mining industry is in dire need of interconnected machinery and an open flow of critical data and information. For this purpose, they require a robust network infrastructure that can process large volumes of data and is also flexible enough to be set up anywhere.
To gain an edge, companies are looking toward developing new partnerships to reinforce their digital ecosystems and leverage the experience and expertise of these partners.
In February 2027, Graham Kerr indicated that South32 would undertake digitization and focus on incorporating information technology into its business model to boost productivity.
In April 2017, South32 announced that it had signed a three0year strategic partnership with GE (General Electric) to develop its technology roadmap.
As part of the deal, South32 accessed GE’s Industrial Internet of Things platform, Predix. Predix is an edge-to-cloud architecture that augments industrial operational technologies to connect industrial equipment, run data analysis, and provide real-time insights.
Through Predix, South32 can streamline informed decision-making and optimize the entirety of its operations instead of just individualized assets and equipment.
South32 can now monitor equipment and systems remotely and predict future behavior, thus granting it the opportunity to identify and solve problems before they affect operations.
In September 2019, the Australian telecommunications company Telstra announced its partnership with South32 and its plans to develop a private 4G LTE network for the latter.
The technology was geared towards improving on-site safety and automation while allowing staff to directly access vehicles and sensors all over the mine. Its high throughput and low latency enabled staff to control critical equipment without interruption.
The standalone mobile network will have its own equipment, SIM cards, and unique network codes for full autonomy and complete control. The system can also be upgraded to 5G in the future.
In November 2021, South32 announced its plans to consolidate its IT infrastructure management and service desk operations. To this end, it partnered up with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).
Instead of multiple service providers handling South32’s critical infrastructure, it would now be managed by TCS which will also provide a unified service desk for all South32’s Australian operations.
South32’s strategic objective of standardizing, simplifying, and streamlining its IT operations prompted the partnership with TCS as its global network was compatibly aligned with South32’s operations.
Despite South32’s attempts at a digital evolution, it still faces numerous challenges that require it to incorporate digital technologies further to improve productivity and optimize time and processes.
South32 needs to address environmental issues associated with mining operations which are becoming a societal concern. Society expects mining companies to operate responsibly and sustainably within the current context of increasing environmental degradation.
Incorporating technologies such as water optimization, dust management, reduction of energy consumption, and blasting processes can help South32 become more sustainable.
To successfully undertake digital transformation, South32 also needs to ensure its staff and personnel adapt and transition to a modern digital mode of operation. A digitally enabled workforce is essential for maintaining its productive efficiency.
South32 needs to speed up its digital transformation as industry trends shift. Companies that capitalize on this trend and adapt their business models before the rest of the industry are sure to outperform and perhaps even outlive the competition.
In such a context, South32 must ensure its survival by integrating digital technologies into all parts of the production process. Doing so will not only improve its productivity and optimize its operations, but it will also position South32 for tremendous future growth.
The future is digital, and South32 has recognized this truth which prompted it to pursue strategic partnerships with companies specializing in innovative digital solutions. Although the company has a lot of ground to cover in terms of digitization, it has taken substantial steps down the path.
Over six to seven years, South32 managed to differentiate itself from other companies in the industry by sticking to a sturdy strategic framework.
Throughout its growth journey, the company stuck to its three-tiered strategy that included:
South32's strategy underpinned all its decision-making until now, allowing it to create value for all its stakeholders.
However, being a socially responsible corporation, the company is also committed to making a difference and leaving a positive impact on the environment and the communities it works with. South32 has woven its values of care, trust, togetherness, and excellence into the very essence of its way of doing business.
South32's sound strategic framework provides the perfect basis for its business model that is designed to generate long-term value. In just a few years, the company has amassed a pipeline of development options that allows it to reshape and improve its portfolio. At the same time, it is working extensively to minimize the impact of its operations while enhancing its competitiveness.
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For any business to flourish, it is necessary to have capable individuals leading the decision-making and strategic process. South32 was fortunate to have people like Graham Kerr at the helm.
South32 owes its initial success to Kerr's prioritization of variables that he could control instead of worrying about the company's early share price and M & A from the get-go. He steered the company towards stability and emphasized the need to optimize its current operations' performance.
Because of his disciplined approach and simple strategy for organic growth, the company developed a strong foundation.
Although South32 favored a disciplined and straightforward strategy, it did not hold back from adjusting its approach in accordance with its vision for the future. It carefully integrated its vision with its strategic imperatives, which imbued all its initiatives and activities with purpose.
After establishing a stable foundation for itself and optimizing its existing operations, South32 looked toward consolidating its exploratory initiatives through partnerships with junior explorers.
The company was also particular about minimizing the impact of its operations on the environment, so it reconfigured its strategy to include a bias towards investing in base metals exploration and emphasizing decarbonization initiatives.
Adopting such an approach allowed the company to develop an authentic and integrated corporate identity.
South32 is not just a business pursuing corporate gains; it is a responsible player on the world stage that is deeply concerned with leaving a positive impact.
In a context fraught with uncertainties due to Covid-19 and climate change, South32 is playing its role in addressing the risks posed to its people, communities, and the environment.
It invests heavily in community initiatives and is progressively pursuing decarbonization goals in a bid to become more energy efficient.
By incorporating an attitude of care, trust, togetherness, and excellence into its business strategy, South32 established itself as more than just a business chasing profits.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the unpredictable climate change phenomenon tested South32’s resilience in unexpected ways. These developments introduced variables that were largely out of anyone’s control.
Nevertheless, South32 devised operating mechanisms and support networks that helped the business survive through the pandemic and ensured the safety and wellbeing of its people and communities. It also set specific goals for itself to address climate change concerns.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, South32 demonstrated extreme resilience. Despite the inevitable hit from the pandemic, the company not only managed to stay afloat but had positioned itself for an improved future outlook.