* Norilsk approves strategy, to double Taimyr exploration budget
* Says to focus on “tier 1” assets, Polar a key priority
* Says PGMs production to rise 3-5 pct in coming years
* Detail of dividends, production to be known in Q4 (Adds quotes, details, context)
By Polina Devitt
MOSCOW, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Russia’s Norilsk Nickel , the world’s biggest nickel producer, said it plans to slim down and focus on its top assets, joining other big mining companies in shedding businesses in the face of weak metals prices.
The company, partially owned by Russian tycoon Vladimir Potanin and aluminium giant Rusal, is having to cope with a more than 20 percent plunge in nickel prices this year, although it has remained profitable. Weak metals demand however is making it difficult to sell businesses.
Under its new strategy announced on Thursday Norilsk stuck to its plan to sell off assets in Africa and Australia, despite the failure to close any deals in recent months.
Deputy chief executive Pavel Fedorov said the company would focus on so-called “Tier 1” assets - high quality projects with large scale - with current or potential annual revenue of more than $1 billion, EBITDA margins of more than 40 percent and 20 years of viable reserves.
“We need to get rid of assets that do not meet our ”Tier 1“ objectives,” Fedorov told reporters.
The company plans to concentrate on its low-cost Polar operations located on Russia’s Taimyr Peninsula, which already accounts for the bulk of its production.
It said it would double its exploration budget for the Taimyr Peninsula, an unusual decision given the current market situation, when global miners are cutting exploration to reduce costs. Fedorov did not disclose the current or future budget size.
Potanin has run the company since late 2012 under a deal that ended a five-year row between the company’s shareholders over corporate governance. The board approved the revised strategy on Thursday.
Norilsk did not say if any changes had been made to its dividend policy and did not disclose planned production and capital expenditures, which are due to be announced in the fourth quarter.
Norilsk shares, down 19 percent since the start 2013, showed little reaction to the announcement. They were up just 0.7 percent in Moscow on Thursday, slightly outperforming a 0.2 percent rise in the Micex Metals and Mining Index.
“The strategy was broadly expected and contains little new,” said Sergey Donskoy, metals and mining analyst at Societe Generale. “In this form, it looks more like a declaration of intent and has to be populated with specific numbers and projects.”
Norilsk, which has already paid almost $2 billion in dividends for 2012, was expected to declare a payout of at least $3 billion for 2013 and the same amount for 2014 with further payouts equal to 50 percent of its core earnings.
But Potanin said earlier this week that the dividend policy, agreed in late 2012 when the company solved the row with shareholders, would have to be changed due to weak metals markets.
Any decrease in dividend would not be welcomed by major shareholder Rusal, which needs good dividend payments as it struggles with net debt of around $10 billion and a weak aluminium market.
Rusal said on Thursday that it believed Norilsk was able to retain its current dividend policy despite weak markets.
Norilsk reported a 63 percent drop in first-half net profit in August due to non-cash write-offs. However, it continues to make money while between a quarter and a half of the global nickel sector could be running at a loss, according to industry estimates, hit by weak demand from China, the world’s top market for stainless steel.
Norilsk plans to sell Tati Nickel in Botswana, Nkomati in South Africa and Lake Johnston, Black Swan, Cawse, Waterloo, Avalon, Honeymoon Well in Australia in 2013/14, Fedorov said.
The company also pledged to bolster the role of platinum group metals (PGM) and copper in its portfolio, saying PGM’s production could rise by between 3 and 5 percent in the coming years. (Editing by Susan Fenton)