BT Names Rio Tinto's Du Plessis Chairman as Challenges Mount

Updated on
  • South African to step down as leader of mining company’s board
  • Former telephone monopoly seeks to recover from tough year

Jan du Plessis.

Photographer: Patrick Hamilton/Bloomberg

BT Group Plc named Jan du Plessis as its new chairman, selecting an experienced businessman who has guided Rio Tinto Plc for eight years and helped engineer SABMiller Plc’s $104 billion sale.

The 63-year-old South African will start in the role Nov. 1, after joining the board as a non-executive director June 1, the former British telephone monopoly said Thursday. He is planning to step down as chairman of Rio Tinto next year, with the company planning to name a successor in 2017.

Jan du Plessis

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

As chairman, du Plessis will have to help lead BT as it seeks to rebound from a tough year, including an accounting scandal in Italy and a slowdown in its government and corporate outsourcing divisions. BT is also battling regulators over the future of its U.K. network division even as it seeks to retain customers by expanding into pay-TV and mobile-phone services, going head-to-head with rivals including Sky Plc and Vodafone Group Plc.

Du Plessis has a reputation as a hands-on director. As chairman of SABMiller in 2015 and 2016, he helped negotiate a sweetened bid by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA before agreeing to recommend the takeover.

“He’s an action man,” Eamonn Ferry, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas who watched du Plessis at SABMiller, said in a phone interview. “Shareholders like him. He’s no-nonsense, he gets things done.”

BT’s current chairman, Mike Rake, is stepping down after 10 years in the role, the longest tenure of any director at the company.

Unprecedented Volatility

“BT is a great British company with excellent people and Mike has done an outstanding job as Chairman over the last 10 years,” du Plessis said in a statement. “This is an important time for the company.”

Shares of BT declined 0.3 percent to 327.55 pence at 8:40 a.m. in London, and have lost 29 percent in the past 12 months. Rio Tinto fell 1.8 percent to 3,203 pence, trimming its advance in the past year to 58 percent.

During his time as chairman of Rio Tinto, du Plessis steered the mining company through unprecedented volatility from the peak of the China-fueled commodities boom early this decade to its trough in 2015 when investors fled the sector as debt concerns mounted.

He fended off a hostile takeover approach from rival BHP Billiton Ltd. shortly after taking on the role and more recently spurned an approach from Swiss commodity trader Glencore Plc. Du Plessis pledged to stay at Rio Tinto for two years following Jean-Sebastien Jacques’ promotion to chief executive officer in March 2016.

Du Plessis is also no stranger to brushes with global regulators. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a $3 billion impairment charge Rio booked on a Mozambique coal deal. Last October, Rio Tinto self-reported to the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office and an Australian regulator about a payment to a consultant in Guinea.

Du Plessis also previously served as chairman of British American Tobacco Plc and Lloyds Banking Group Plc.

— With assistance by David Stringer

(Updates with today’s trading in eighth paragraph.)
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