Peter Munk to officially retire from Barrick at the company’s next AGM

TORONTO, Cananda – After 30 years as the face of Barrick Gold Corp., Canadian business magnate Peter Munk will hang his hat and retire next year from the board of the world’s largest gold producer.

Barrick announced on Wednesday that Munk will officially step down at the company’s 2014 annual meeting as part of broad changes at the gold miner, including the hiring of a chief operating officer and the nomination of four new independent directors to the board.

Former Goldman Sachs executive John Thornton, who has shared the chairman’s duties with Munk since 2012, will be named chairman.

Munk, 86, said he had hoped to leave the company in 2012, but remained as Barrick wrestled with many issues including its troubled Pascua-Lama project in South America.

He called the decision to retire “sweet and sour,” but noted that it was easier to leave knowing that Barrick was in good hands.

“I know it has to be done. I know it’s in the interest of Barrick, which is my foremost concern. And I know that I’m handing it over to the right guy,” Munk said.

Munk said Thornton’s extensive experience in China, along with Barrick’s strong management team, will help propel the company forward in the decades to come.

“Take it from somebody who has gone through hard times and good times,” he said.

“When the weather is good, anybody can sail… But when the weather is stormy, that’s really where you can tell really the difference between those who can sail, those prepared to sail, and able to sail and those who cannot. This has been a stormy year for Barrick.”

Thornton said his goals include helping Barrick build a long-term relationship with China, noting that the company is going to need a lot of money to develop its holdings in South America, and China could be the right kind of partner.

“Both as a financial matter and as a political matter it makes great sense — one could argue — to have a Chinese partner, or partners plural, in that process. That’s the kind of thing that I have in mind,” he said.

Thornton added Barrick will also look at diversifying into other commodities, as the price of gold continues to fall.

In addition to Munk, Barrick said long-time directors Howard Beck and former prime minister Brian Mulroney will not stand for re-election.

Barrick said Dundee president and chief executive Ned Goodman, Frum Development Group chief administrative officer Nancy Lockhart, former University of Toronto president David Naylor and Xcoal Energy and Resources founder Ernie Thrasher will be nominated as independent directors.

“These four individuals will bring a diverse range of required experience and expertise to Barrick’s board,” the company said.

The additions will increase the number of independent directors to 10 on the 14-member board. Barrick currently has seven independent directors on its 13-member board.

In addition to the new faces around the board table, Barrick said Wednesday it has hired Jim Gowans as chief operating officer.

Gowans most recently worked at DeBeers SA, where he held several positions including president and chief executive of DeBeers Canada.

Barrick has been looking to strengthen its governance practices and add new independent directors since its annual meeting in April when it was criticized for a $11.9-million signing bonus paid to Thornton and shareholders voted against a largely symbolic executive pay resolution.

The company said Wednesday it would bring a new executive compensation plan to the 2014 annual meeting that would “align fully with the principle of pay-for-performance, further linking compensation with the long-term interests of shareholders.”

“The company has consulted extensively with shareholders in the development of this plan and continues to do so,” said Barrick, adding that details would be announced at the meeting.

Barrick (TSX:ABX) has faced difficult times recently as it has taken billions in writedowns, suspended work at its massive Pascua-Lama project in South America and slashed its dividend. Company shares have fallen more than 50 per cent so far this year.

Munk launched Barrick in 1983. Its first acquisition was a half-interest in Renabie, a gold mine in northern Ontario. The company later become American Barrick Resources in 1985 and, with the acquisition of Placer Dome in 2007, became the world’s largest gold miner by production.

Though the company has more than 20 mines around the world, the majority of its production comes from just five: Cortez and Goldstrike in Nevada, Pueblo Viejo in the Dominican Republic, Lagunas Norte in Peru and Veladero in Argentina.

While it is difficult to separate Barrick from Munk, the company founder has also established himself as a major real estate investor though Trizec Properties, which was sold to Brookfield Properties in 2006.

Munk fled Hungary for Switzerland with his family to escape the Nazis before coming to Toronto. He graduated from the University of Toronto in electrical engineering and co-founded a hi-fi stereo company called Clairtone Sound Corp.

The company took off and its products found their way into posh shops and celebrity homes before the company eventually collapsed after a move to Nova Scotia.

Munk then launched a second career for himself building a chain of hotels in the South Pacific before returning to Canada and founding Barrick, first as a oil and gas company and then a gold miner.

Munk has also made a name for himself as an extraordinary philanthropist.

He founded the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at Toronto General Hospital. He has also supported the Centre for Research, Innovation and Technology at Technion University in Israel and helped establish the Aurea Foundation to help support the study and development of public policy.