August 19, 2010 / 10:00 PM / 7 years ago

Newsmaker: Price rules for Potash Corp's suave CEO

TORONTO (Reuters) - Bill Doyle, the consummate salesman, may be closing in on the biggest sale of his career.

The company he leads -- Potash Corp of Saskatchewan -- has spurned a $38.6 billion offer from the world's largest mining company, BHP Billiton, saying the bid was "grossly inadequate."

But the plain-spoken Doyle -- who was once described by his former boss as "the best guy in the ... sales department" -- wasted no time in saying what was at issue -- the price.

"I am not saying that we are opposed to a sale, but what I am saying is we are opposed to a steal of the company," Doyle said, responding to the initial $130-a-share offer, which BHP now plans to take directly to Potash Corp shareholders.

Most investors are betting Doyle will get what he wants, and if he plays his cards right, that could mean a half-billion-dollar payday for the chief executive.

Looking like he stepped off the cover of GQ magazine, the suave Doyle has become one of the most powerful figures in a decidedly frumpy industry - fertilizer.

Together with his mentor, former CEO Chuck Childers, he helped resurrect Canada's Potash Corp -- once a "crown corporation" owned by the state -- in a market plagued by oversupply. They built the company into the world's largest producer of an agricultural input that's now a hot commodity.

Doyle and Childers worked on a simple principle -- price rules. It's a strategy that may now apply to Doyle's stance on the BHP bid.

Many believe that Doyle's single-minded focus on price will see him work to extract every last cent from Australia's BHP before agreeing to a deal.

Eric Cline, a former provincial minister who worked closely with Doyle, expects him to do everything possible to maximize benefits for the company's shareholders.

"Bill Doyle is a very, very articulate and persuasive person. Highly skilled at dealing with people and pursuing the agenda he wants to pursue," said Cline. "I think he is one of those people who could sell refrigerators to the Inuit."

While it is unclear whether Potash Corp will eventually surrender to BHP's overtures, many analysts think a deal is likely -- at the right price.

Doyle, now 60, joined Potash Corp back in 1987, after being lured away from International Minerals and Chemicals, where he was head of international sales.

He became Childers' right-hand man and was groomed to take the reins. In 1989, the two men took Potash Corp public.

During the past two decades, as head of sales and later in his role as CEO, Doyle has walked a tight-rope in maintaining a delicate balance between demand and supply of the crop nutrient.

In 2009, when potash demand collapsed along with a decline in grain prices, Potash Corp operated only about 30 percent of its operational capacity.

The crop nutrient sold for more than $1,000 a metric ton at the height of the commodity boom in early 2008. It has fallen to about $350 a metric ton today, but it still remains well above the $100-$150 level where it traded through the 1990s and early 2000s.

"SUGAR DADDY"

Married with three children, Doyle lives in Chicago, not Saskatoon, the largest city in the Prairie province of Saskatchewan and home base for Potash Corp. He commutes between the two cities regularly.

Doyle has a reputation for speaking his mind.

Last year, when asked about the fate of potash exploration companies that were struggling during the global economic downturn, Doyle said: "They really need a sugar daddy like me to come along and bail them out."

If BHP eventually clinches a deal, Bill Doyle will get elevated to a new category of "sugar daddy."

At the end of 2008, Doyle owned more than 3 million stock options in the company -- the majority of which can already be exercised and cashed in at profit. If BHP's bid is successful at $130 a share, Doyle stands to gain roughly $400 million.

Potash Corp's shares have already surged well above BHP's offer price, indicating that investors expect a sweetened offer or competing bids to materialize.

Most analysts and some investors have said that it may take at least $160 a share to clinch a deal. If so, Doyle's stake could be worth close to $500 million.

Doyle, dubbed by the media as the "Fertilizer King" when potash prices spiked in 2007-2008, has worked in the fertilizer industry for close to four decades, becoming one of its most well-respected figures along the way.

A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, Doyle now sits on the boards of numerous industry associations.

Even BHP's own chief executive, Marius Kloppers, is effusive in his praise of Doyle.

"I met Bill for the first time in Chicago about a week ago and he was what the industry said he is -- a statesman within the industry," said Kloppers on a conference call this week.

Analysts believe that Doyle has prepared for this moment for his entire career, carefully cultivating his company's potential and honing a strategy to maximize its value.

"I think that (Doyle) has thought about this day for years and he knew at some point he would have to address this (a bid). And I think he did it very successfully. I think he said just the right thing," said Soleil Securities analyst Mark Gulley.

"It is gone, it is so gone," Gulley said, referring to a sale of Potash Corp. "All we are talking about out here is the price."

(Reporting by Euan Rocha in Toronto and Rod Nickel in

Saskatoon; Editing by Frank McGurty)

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