Beware of the Dangers of Elephant Hunting: Chesapeake Energy Corporation (CHK)

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Note to Warren Buffett, if you miss while elephant hunting you might just find yourself heading to an early retirement. At least that’s the experience of BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (NYSE:BHP) CEO Marius Kloppers. After two high-profile misses and other missteps along the way, Kloppers is stepping down and handing over the reins of the global mining giant to the head of its non-ferrous metals division, Andrew Mackenzie.

Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE:CHK)I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit shocked when I read the news (link opens a PDF) that Kloppers will be stepping down on May 10 and retiring by Oct. 1. A few hours before the announcement, I was opining that:

I’m a fan of Marius Kloppers. I think his attempts to grow the company by large acquisition are ambitious, though in hindsight it appears that being turned down by both Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) and Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT) were blessings in disguise. That being said, his visionary leadership is one that I can stand behind as an investor.

In that piece I was more interested in where Marius would be hunting next and how he would differentiate the company from its peers and not squander shareholder capital. Apparently, those earlier failed acquisitions, coupled with large writedowns in its U.S. shale gas business were reason enough to return from his safari.

Marius isn’t the only head of a global mining company to be heading off into the sunset. The CEO of one of his targets, Tom Albanese of Rio Tinto, just recently announced that he was stepping down. In Albanese’s case, he actually bagged his elephants, but in so doing he bit off more than Rio could chew. In the end, the company needed to write down more than $14 billion after acquisitions in aluminum and coal failed to pan out.

The obliteration of investor capital in the name of growth at all costs appears to have come to an end for the time being. After recording its own multibillion dollar writedown, Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX) CEO Jamie Sokalsky had words for his industry that sum up its present state well: “Rising costs, poor capital allocation and the pursuit of production growth at any cost in the industry have led to declining equity valuations across the sector. The message is clear: the industry must chart a new path forward.” Apparently that new path starts with a new man at the top at two of the world’s leading mining giants.

Unsurprisingly, the mining industry isn’t alone in its ability to destroy capital in the pursuit of growth. Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE:CHK) CEO Aubrey McClendon is well known for his empire building. While his empire was built by acquiring acres and not companies, the results were much the same. It’s one reason why he too will be taking an early pension and turn over the reins of the company he founded to someone else.

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