By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, Aug 30 (Reuters) - BHP Billiton's (BHP.AX) chief, Marius Kloppers, made a splash with an aggressive bid for Potash Corp POT.TO, but behind the scenes the war room is being led by the miner's top deal maker, Alberto Calderon.
The Colombian steered BHP's bid for rival Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) (RIO.L), a $147 billion deal ditched after 12 months of wrangling when the global financial crisis and economic slump hit in 2008.
With a PhD in economics from Yale and a law degree, the 50-year-old is described as a big-picture thinker, different from all the mining engineers around the table. In his globe-trotting on the job, he gets to know the countries he visits by reading novels by local authors.
Ex-BHP chairman Don Argus once quipped of his intellect:"It makes my head hurt just hearing him talk," said a source who knows them both.
During the Rio bid, Calderon lamented about having no time to exercise and made up for it by speed-walking to work everyday. He is so dapper, he refused to wear sneakers, and complained about slipping on London's wet sidewalks in his Italian leather shoes.
This year, he moved with his wife and two school-aged children to Melbourne, where the family is now trying to pick the right Australian Rules Football team to back in a sports-obsessed city.
Calderon and his team timed the pounce on Potash Corp POT.N cleverly, as they did with Rio Tinto in 2007, after it had bought Alcan and was saddled with debt.
This time, BHP has swooped in on Potash Corp just as it was coming off a nine-month low share price with the industry facing an uncertain recovery in potash prices, and with potential rival bidders, like Rio Tinto, unable to come to Potash Corp's rescue.
Brazilian politics even came into the calculation, as Brazil's Vale VALE5.SA, which is building a fertiliser business, is being held back by pressure to invest at home.
"He is clearly an excellent strategic thinker," said an investor who has met Calderon.
If Calderon's strategy in the Rio Tinto deal is anything to go by, expect his bid team to sit tight for the next few months. BHP raised its bid for Rio three months after Rio's CEO rejected it as "two ballparks away" from fair value. And then didn't budge for 9 months, and failed to get Rio to the table before walking away.
For a summary of BHP/Potash stories: [ID:nN22340110]
StarMine comparative data: r.reuters.com/meh36n
StarMine data on top miners: r.reuters.com/dyc27n
BHP-Potash deal calculator: r.reuters.com/ruv65n
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BHP hired Calderon from Colombia, where he headed the country's largest private coal exporter, Cerrejon Coal Company, a BHP joint venture with Anglo American Plc (AAL.L) and Glencore International.
Under Calderon, Cerrejon boosted production by nearly 40 percent and revenue rose to $1.3 billion.
He has held a range of top jobs in Colombian state-owned companies, including oil company Ecopetrol, served in government ministries, worked as an investment banker and at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. He is one of a handful of executives being groomed for the top job at BHP.
Calderon joined the company as president of diamonds and specialty products in 2006 and was promoted to his current role about a year later, filling now-CEO Marius Kloppers' old job.
"He's quite reserved," said another investor, contrasting Calderon with the other Latin American in BHP's top ranks, the effusive Chief Financial Officer Alex Vanselow.
The key question is whether he can execute on the Potash Corp bid, after failing with the Rio Tinto takeover.
With BHP's other major deal, a $116 billion iron ore joint venture with Rio Tinto, bogged down in a regulatory mire despite BHP's confidence a year ago that it had all competition concerns covered, there is even more pressure to seal the Potash deal.
People interviewed for this profile declined to named, as they deal frequently with BHP. (Editing by Ed Davies and Valerie Lee)