TORONTO, Ontario — Shareholders of Barrick Gold. Corp. (TSX:ABX) voted against an executive pay resolution at the company’s annual meeting on Tuesday as the gold miner launched a plan to slash at least half a billion dollars in costs across its operations.
Barrick had come under fire for a $11.9-million signing bonus paid to co-chairman John Thornton that was part of a $17-million payment package he received last year.
The motion that was voted down asked shareholders to approve the way the company pays its executives.
The largely symbolic vote results followed a lengthy speech by founder Peter Munk who insisted that Thornton’s pay was necessary for an executive that was being hunted by other organizations.
“We had to secure him … because of the competitive environment,” he told shareholders in the packed theatre at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Munk said he believes in paying executives on their performance at the company, before insisting Thornton was an exception to his rule.
“It was hard to have someone paid on performance if he would not have been able to join to perform,” he said of Thornton, who took the co-chairman job last year.
Munk also weighed the signing bonus against using that same money to invest in extra mining equipment, in this case six shovels for a mine.
“I promise you that John will do more for you than six more shovels,” he said.
But shareholders weren’t convinced, though it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Last week, eight organizations, which include pension funds from across Canada and elsewhere, said they would vote against both the executive compensation resolution.
Last year, Munk earned nearly $4.3 million in total compensation, up from $3.7 million in 2011, while Sokalsky, who was promoted to chief executive from the job of chief financial officer, earned nearly $11.4 million in 2012, up from $5.1 million.
Sokalsky said the board would “carefully consider our shareholders’ perspectives.” He did not provide any further details on the vote.
Executive pay is one of many concerns plaguing the company, which has been hit hard by weaker gold prices and delays as its Pascua-Lama project in Chile. Shares of the company, which fell to a 20-year low last week, closed up 7.6 per cent, or $1.37, at $19.38 Wednesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
The annual meeting was attended by more investors than usual and a heavier police presence, a factor Munk pointed out in his speech.
“Bad times bring out more people,” he said.
Sokalsky told the meeting that Barrick was determined to be disciplined and focus on producing returns for investors.
“This has been a tough year for Barrick and our shareholders. It seems as if our company has been under siege by several disappointments and setbacks,” the CEO said.
“I feel your disappointment, and I give you my commitment that we will do everything we can to ensure Barrick remains a strong and prosperous company, and improve our share price.”
Before the meeting, Barrick reported weaker first-quarter adjusted earnings of US$923 million or 92 cents per share, down from US$1.1 billion or $1.10 per share in the comparable period last year but better than analyst estimates.
Net income before adjustments, reported in U.S. dollars, was $847 million or 85 cents per share, down from $1.04 billion or $1.04 per share in the first quarter of 2012. Those results beat the consensus estimate of 85 cents per share or $852 million of adjusted earnings and 81 cents per share or $865 million of net income.
Barrick said the main reason for the lower profit was lower gold and copper prices and reduced volumes sold during the quarter.
The company said it plans to cut at least US$500 million from spending on major projects this year and may sell non-core assets.
“We have a huge amount of levers that ultimately we can pull in an environment of lower gold prices,” Sokalsky said.
He outlined various possibilities such as closing expensive mines, cutting costs further or running fewer mines at a higher profit.
In the meantime, Barrick will reduce capital spending to between $5.2 billion and $5.7 billion — down from the previous budget of $5.7 billion to $6.3 billion.
Barrick is also cutting exploration spending to a range of between $300 million and $340 million, which is $100 million lower than before.
The gold miner is also evaluating the impact of a regulatory decision that’s affecting its Pascua-Lama mine, which straddles the border of Chile and Argentina.
Work on Pascua-Lama project was suspended by the appeals court in the northern Chilean city of Copiapo amid environmental concerns about the construction of the world’s highest-altitude gold and silver mine.
The start date for the mine, which straddles the Andean border with Argentina, has already been delayed by more than six months to the second half of 2014. Cost overruns have seen the price tag rise from $3 billion to more than $8 billion.
Barrick has said it will work to address environmental and other regulatory requirements on the project in Chile, while construction will continue on the portion of the project in Argentina.