Live & Learn: Dick Evans

Rio Tinto Alcan’s ex-CEO talks about Canada’s biggest corporate takeover and says the current downturn isn’t yet the worst the mining sector has seen.

Dick Evans • Born Sept. 24, 1947, in Eugene, Ore. • Ex-CEO of Rio Tinto Alcan • Proud Canadian citizenship candidate

My introduction to the aluminum business was in my sophomore year. I received a scholarship from Alcoa. When I graduated, I had offers from Alcoa and Kaiser. I was getting married, we wanted to see the world, and the offers were roughly the same. I asked Gretchen which one she thought I should accept, and she said, “Which one is farther from Oregon?” The Kaiser job was 100 miles further away, in Spokane, Wash., so we took it.

Our decision to stay in Montreal evolved over time. While I was CEO of Alcan, we got actively involved with the community. We’ve been here for about eight years as residents. We started to see the benefits and appreciate some of the advantages that Montreal, Quebec and Canada offer.

I guess it all depends what you grew up with and what you like. I grew up on a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Coast range. My mother still lives on the ranch. My younger sister and her husband live there as well.

One of the aspects of Montreal that is somewhat unique among major metropolitan areas is the access to the outdoors. I’ve always liked the outdoors. Growing up in Oregon, I learned fly-fishing and have stuck with that. That’s something I’d like to do more of. I’ve also gone back into my other passion, outdoor photography.

Some of the values, attitudes, tolerance, diversity, value on the arts, all in conjunction with a serious business purpose, and the ability to balance those in your public and private life, are the attributes of Montrealers that we aspire to, if don’t represent. We’ve developed a lot of friends here. It’s also a six-hour flight to Paris or London or Zurich, and we enjoy Europe.

There’s no question the winter can be a little rough, but we’ve been through eight of them, and it doesn’t bother us that much. We’ve got two four-wheel-drive vehicles.

My French is, unfortunately, de minimus. It’s something that I’ve had very little time to work on. The irony is that my mother was a French teacher for 25 years, and I took German instead.

We started the permanent residency application process a year ago. Our intent and hope is to end up with dual citizenship. We were told we passed the interview.

Do I feel cheated by having a short stint at the top? I really don’t. It was a period when we were being recognized for some of the things we had done. Our preference would have been for Alcan to stay an independent company. We thought we had a great future ahead.

It was quite clear the market saw great value in Alcan. I doubt anyone would have expected the price would go to $101 per share. It stands as the largest transaction in Canadian history, and also as the largest mining and metals transaction worldwide. Our shareholders did well, and Rio Tinto paid a fair price, because others were prepared to pay a nearly equal price.

I don’t think the recent cuts at Alcan would be any different had it stayed independent. Aluminum prices are down sharply. I think there’s no connection to the Rio Tinto debt. If we knew what we know today, we — Rio Tinto — would have termed out the Alcan debt, accelerated asset sales and got our balance sheet in better shape.

I have no desire to be a full-time CEO again. I had a short but great run, wouldn’t change it for the world, but I don’t feel any burning need to repeat that. I remain quite interested in business.

I’ve accepted the non-executive chairmanship of AbitibiBowater. I think I will find that very challenging and interesting. I think there is more upside in this opportunity than downside.

AbitibiBowater could be forced into a restructuring. That certainly is not our objective, and we’ll explore all avenues to protect shareholder value short of that.

I’ve been asked if this is the worst downturn by far. My answer is no. The 1982 recession, at least for our sector, was worse. Now, this could get to that point. In 1982, we had unemployment in the 15% range, interest rates as high as 20%, whole sectors of the economy were just wiped out. People did not feel they knew that it would recover.

There’s certainly anxiety now, but there’s a confidence that the right things will be done, that it will be tough for two to three years, but then we’ll get back on a positive growth path and a stable economy.