WestMet chief ponders his future

In his first interview since being ousted as the chief of Western Metals last November, Rod Webster tells Business News he is ready for another challenge. Mark Pownall reports

DESPITE being one of WA’s best paid chief executives until recently, Rod Webster sports an older style mobile phone, heavy enough to date it back more than a couple of years.

It’s a solid piece, very reliable, he reckons.

The only call he takes on the mobile during an hour or so with Business News is from something else that is reliable, a friend who has rung Mr Webster to tell him that his replacement at Western Metals has been made, though the stock exchange announcement is not made that day.

“Its Geoff Wedlock,” he says, after the call.

He is referring to the former managing director and chief exec-utive officer of Portman who quit there in late December, a little over a month after Mr Webster stepped down from Western Metals.

Mr Webster greets the news with ambivalence.

Unlike most CEOs that fall on their sword after their company takes a hammering in the market, Mr Webster’s departure has not left him entirely free of the business he founded and ran for almost seven years.

With a significant position on the register, he can’t just turn his back on the situation and start afresh.

“It is very difficult for me and it is difficult for someone replacing me,” he said.

“I am in a strange dilemma, I am seeing something I created and something I have a big share-holding deteriorate outside my control, despite a return to profitability. ”

After 18 tumultuous months of falling commodity prices, punct-uated intermittently by disastrous weather, bankers withdrawing finance and institutional heavy-weights turning his refinancing plans on him, his plans to build a mid cap miner of substance are over.

It seems someone else will end up with his seven year’s work, probably in a takeover.

Having just turned 50, Mr Webster can’t see this as the end. The experience he has garnered riding the peaks and surviving a few troughs have not worn him out.

“I am not one of these people who simply wants to play golf,” he said.

“I have done enough of that in the past few months and my handicap is not improving.”

Its not only golf he reckons he can wait for.

Already the approaches have come for non-executive board positions but so far he has turned them down.

“It is not to say I would not take them, but it is early days,” he says.

“You give away a lot of your knowledge for a token amount of money and you put yourself in the sights on the compliance side, I would need to have a big stake in something like that.”

“I suspect in these situations if it goes well you don’t get much credit and if it goes badly you end up copping the flak.”

Instead, Mr Webster may have to uproot himself from Perth, a city he has spent much of the past 15 years in but which has really only been another home in a long list of places he and his family have stayed since he graduated from university in Sydney in the 1970s.

Places like Zambia and Indonesia were home to the Webster family, managing copper and tin mines was his work until mid-1980s when his then employer, BHP, beckoned him to Melbourne to work in head office.

There he worked on the development of new projects like Telfer and Boddington, before moving to Perth with BHP’s base metals group.

A period with Homestake saw work move from Perth to Adelaide and back again until the chance to create his own mining company came along with the founding of zinc and lead miner Western Metals in 1994.

“Being the founder of a company, you build it in your own likeness, you create all the systems as you go,” he said.

“I have always been a touch autocratic, I have always pushed people.”

“People get turned on by going outside their comfort zone and taking some risks, even if they don’t realise it at the time. Western Metals was always on the leading edge in every way. It was the first mining company in Australia I know of that offered shares and options to all its employees.”

Mr Webster believes the Lennard Shelf mine in the Kimberley has the efficiency rate of any comparable underground mine in the world, based largely on the flexibility of its workforce.

“It set a benchmark,” he says.

It is this experience Mr Webster plans to take to Britain in a few weeks time – visiting some old contacts to check out the lie of the land – largely in the resources sector.

“I would consider options in other industries but when you have spent so long in resources it would be a bit of a waste not to use it,” he said.

“In a way going forward is very exciting. I like it here but…normally you have some constraints on you, usually its financial constraints or family or community.”

“For me it is a lifestyle choice.

“In many ways, I’m facing a number of issues I hadn’t planned to face for another five years or so”

“I am canvassing whether or not I want to go back into public life as a CEO or stay here and use my skills in some sort of consulting role.“

“It is almost too much choice.”

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