It’s good to be Ivan Glasenberg’s neighbor.
When the Glencore chief executive took his giant mining company public in 2011, he earned so much money that he was taxed more than $300 million by Rüschlikon, the Swiss village where he lives. Thanks to Mr. Glasenberg’s largess, residents of the picturesque town on the shores of Lake Zurich promptly voted to cut their tax rate by 7 percent.
Mr. Glasenberg, a South African who rose from humble origins to become one of the most influential men in the global commodities business, exerts an outsize influence wherever he goes. Beyond single-handedly altering the economics of his hometown, he has recently revealed his ambition to create the world’s biggest mining conglomerate.
A combination has a “credible strategic rationale,” JPMorgan analysts said in a note on Tuesday.
But now that the companies have acknowledged their fleeting talks, any tie-up between Glencore and Rio Tinto will have to wait for at least a half year, a technicality of the British takeover law. Nonetheless, Mr. Glasenberg’s opening salvo serves as confirmation that his ambitions remain unfulfilled.
“He really aspires to make Glencore one of the top mining and commodities companies out there,” said the journalist Kate Kelly, author of “The Secret Club That Runs the World,” a book about the commodities business.
Born to a Lithuanian father and a South African mother, Mr. Glasenberg grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg. A fitness buff, he became a competitive speed walker. After studying accounting at a South African university, he earned a master’s in business from the University of Southern California in 1983.
He went to work as a coal trader in South Africa for a company then called Marc Rich & Co. and now known as Glencore.
Mr. Glasenberg worked under Mr. Rich, the company’s controversial American founder. Mr. Rich was a wunderkind commodities trader, but was charged with tax evasion and illegally selling oil to Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-81. Mr. Rich fled to Switzerland, maintained his innocence and was ultimately pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Glasenberg rose through the ranks, and ultimately participated in a buyout of the company from Mr. Rich. The company was renamed Glencore, and Mr. Glasenberg became chief executive in 2002. Since then, he has expanded Glencore through a series of acquisitions.
The biggest was the takeover of Xstrata, a deal he worked on for years. Xstrata’s chief executive, Mick Davis, was an old friend of Mr. Glasenberg’s. But Mr. Davis did not want to sell. Mr. Glasenberg persisted, though, enlisting Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, to help mediate talks. Glencore acquired Xstrata for $41 billion in 2012.
Mr. Glasenberg declined to comment on Tuesday. But in previous interviews, he has revealed glimpses of his intense character.
He is dismissive of concepts like work-life balance. “You don’t come here to take life easy,” he told The Wall Street Journal last year. “And we all got rich from it, so, you know, there’s a benefit from it.”
Mr. Glasenberg owns 8 percent of Glencore, and is worth an estimated $6 billion, according to Forbes.
There are several reasons Mr. Glasenberg believes now is a good time for Glencore to make its move. Glencore has fully incorporated Xstrata, leaving it flush with cash and stable after years of transition.
Rio Tinto is the world’s second-largest supplier of iron ore, an area where Glencore does virtually no business. And iron ore prices have hit five-year lows, sending Rio Tinto’s share price down over the last six months, making the company somewhat more affordable.
Finally, Mr. Glasenberg may be looking for a bigger role for himself. Rio Tinto’s chief executive, Samuel Walsh, is expected to retire at the end of next year, potentially opening the door for Mr. Glasenberg to run a combined company.
Still, Mr. Glasenberg faces numerous obstacles.
Investors reacted coolly to news of the talks. Rio Tinto shares were down 4 percent in New York on Tuesday, and Glencore shares were down 2.5 percent. Antitrust officials around the globe will scrutinize the combined company’s influence, possibly requiring costly divestitures. And, Mr. Glasenberg will have to win over Chinalco, the Chinese aluminum producer that is Rio Tinto’s biggest shareholder. And he will also have to pay a rich premium.
Moreover, there is Rio Tinto’s apparent lack of interest in a deal. “The Rio Tinto board, after consultation with its financial and legal advisers, concluded unanimously that a combination was not in the best interests of Rio Tinto’s shareholders,” the company said in a statement.
The JPMorgan analysts suggested that a deal might take time to come together and was not beyond Mr. Glasenberg’s reach. “We regard an imminent merger as unlikely, but in our view a tie-up in time would carry strategic appeal for Glencore’s management,” they said.
The New York Times