* Likes potash sector for long-term fundamentals
* Looking at bolt-on takeovers in variety of sectors
* Takeovers would likely be $5-$10 bln in size
(Adds more details, quotes)
By Eric Onstad
The sector has been in the spotlight since BHP Billiton BLT.L(BHP.AX) launched a hostile bid in August for the world’s largest fertiliser producer, Canada’s Potash Corp POT.TO.
Analysts have quoted Rio Chief Executive Tom Albanese as saying he was interested in expanding in the fertiliser business, but the firm had made no public statements on the issue.
“Our chief executive has made no secret of the fact that he believes that the potash sector is an attractive one; it meets Rio Tinto’s long term objectives of a significant sector with good long-term fundamentals,” said Harry Kenyon-Slaney, chief executive of Rio’s minerals and diamond division.
Rio Tinto already has modest exposure to the agriculture sector since it is a major player in borate, an industrial mineral used as a crop nutrient, among other uses.
“If you look at all the industrial minerals commodities, there are many of them, and we constantly look at opportunities across the whole periodic table. Now we recognise that potash is an attractive one, but so is titanium dioxide, so are diamonds, so are borates,” he said in an interview ahead of LME Week.
“As always, we’re looking for opportunities. They’re likely to be bolt-on acquisitions. I think the media has described that in terms of $5-$10 billion transactions. Certainly I think that’s consistent with what the chief executive and CFO have said.”
Rio had been developing potash projects, but sold them during the downturn as it sought to raise cash to pay off a heavy debt burden.
Last year it sold undeveloped potash assets in Argentina and Canada to Brazil’s Vale VALE5.SA for $850 million.
Kenyon-Slaney declined to comment on newspaper reports last month that a team from Rio visited Russia seeking a possible stake in potash producer Uralkali (URKA.MM).
U.S.-based Rio Tinto Borax supplies nearly half the world’s refined borates, minerals used in detergents, ceramics, and silicon glass for flatscreen TVs. Agricultural use of borates is a modest but growing sector, Kenyon-Slaney said.
“It’s one of the smaller sectors of borate consumption, but it’s still material ... It’s a growing and important sector in a number of agriculture sectors.”
The sector took a heavy hit during the downturn, but has bounced back strongly, with Rio’s borates output surging 30 percent in the first half.
“We’ve seen a significant and rapid turnaround in the borates sector, driven by Asia,” he said. (Reporting by Eric Onstad; Editing by Will Waterman)