27/09/2019 - 15:39

Haegel relishes BHP fixer role

27/09/2019 - 15:39

Bookmark

Upgrade your subscription to use this feature.

Eddy Haegel has made a career breathing new life into struggling assets at BHP, including the revival of the mining giant’s nickel business; sharing his story at a Business News breakfast today, he was also bullish about the potential to develop more downstream processing of battery minerals in WA.

Haegel relishes BHP fixer role
Eddy Haegel (right) sat down with Business News editor Mark Beyer to discuss his career.

Eddy Haegel has made a career breathing new life into struggling assets at BHP, including the revival of the mining giant’s nickel business; sharing his story at a Business News breakfast today, he was also bullish about the potential to develop more downstream processing of battery minerals in Western Australia.

Speaking at a Business News Success & Leadership breakfast, Mr Haegel said he was caught off guard at the size of the challenge he faced in 2015 when asked to take over BHP’s nickel division.

A booming a business that outshone its iron ore production in 2007, BHP’s WA nickel operations were deep in the red due to a collapse in the commodity’s value.

“There was announcement in January 2015 that Nickel West would close in 2019, and I arrived two months after the announcement; my boss had forgotten to tell me about it,” Mr Haegel told the forum.

“Just a minor detail.”

But Mr Haegel hit the ground running and went on a hunt to try and find a buyer for BHP’s nickel briquettes. However, a marketing trip to China to meet with the chief executive of one of the world’s largest stainless steel producers affirmed the ominous situation.

“He looks at me and says ‘You know, actually we think the best thing is for you guys (Nickel West) to just die’,” Mr Haegel said.

“Nickel briquettes had been sought after for a long time in that industry, but time had moved on.”

There was no doubt that turning around Nickel West’s fate would be Mr Haegal’s toughest challenge yet, but he persevered and saw a glimmer of hope.

An idea emerged after he saw a talk with Tesla founder Elon Musk.

“Elon says there’s a little bit of lithium sprinkled into lithium ion batteries, but they’re basically nickel and graphite,” Mr Haegel said.

Mr Haegel moved to position the business to focus on providing production for lithium ion batteries – a strategy that has paid dividends following the resurgence of the nickel price.

“We now have 30 customers in that sector; we’ve gone from it contributing to zero per cent of our business in February 2016 to 70 per cent,” Mr Haegel said.

With plans to close Nickel West now on the backburner, Mr Haegel is aiming to push that figure up to 90 per cent within two years.

He described the recent struggles of many lithium miners, largely due to a supply and demand imbalance, as “a minor blip” at the dawn of the battery boom.

He also believes there is a significant opportunity for nickel and lithium miners in WA to move up the processing chain in battery production.

“I don’t see BHP producing batteries based on our current market strategy, but Australia has enormous penetration of residential solar power,” Mr Haegel said.

“So as the price of batteries comes down, the opportunity to manufacture batteries for home use becomes enormous.

“And WA would be a terrific place to do that.”

The Nickel West turnaround was not Mr Haegel’s first such professional challenge, but he shared some more personal experiences with the 300 guests at the Success & Leadership event.

He said his family’s experience in a ravaged post-WWII Germany, prior to immigrating to Australia, helped him put his professional life into perspective.

“I think about what they (my family) went through, so every time I get stressed, I put it in context,” Mr Haegel said.

Born and raised in Brisbane, Mr Haegel graduated as a mining engineer in 1987, and apart from a stint in London studying theology, he has been with BHP ever since.

He began his career in BHP’s coal division and was eventually tapped to play a pivotal role in turning around a loss-making coal mine, which was a success and earned him a prestigious young achievers award.

This experience and his measured approach to handling stressful circumstances sparked an interest in pursuing career pathways many others would avoid.

“I love going into struggling businesses and making them better,” Mr Haegel said.

 “I have an inherent desire to go in and leave a good legacy.”

Initially, his first post-coal career step was less arduous, as he moved to WA in 2010 to take the role of vice-president of production at BHP’s lucrative WA iron ore operations as the commodity’s value peaked.

As his tenure progressed, however, so did the steep decline of the iron ore price, and he had the “great opportunity” to help dig the mining giant out of trouble.

“We saw an opportunity to do something we’ve done very powerfully in the past, which is standardise everything, all our equipment, all of our pit designs and even something like bench height,” Mr Haegel said.

“So it became possible to leverage any knowledge that was gained more quickly.”

His reward for helping make BHP’s WA iron ore arm more efficient was the top job at its WA nickel operations.

Mr Haegel’s long-term vision for WA’s battery industry may just be little more than an idea at the moment, but he believes this type of thinking moulds successful leaders.

“It’s about not being constrained by the reality of the circumstances, but imagining what is the best thing you can do in a situation and then going about building a pathway to get there,” he said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

Subscription Options