Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Rio Tinto Weighs Sale of Europe's Top Aluminum Smelter

  • No. 2 miner gauges interest in Dunkerque plant in France
  • Rio also mulls divesting Iceland smelter, Pacific Aluminium

Rio Tinto Group is weighing the sale of Europe’s biggest aluminum smelter, according to people with knowledge of the matter, amid a rebound in the price of metal used in airliners and beverage cans.

London-based Rio has been speaking with potential buyers for the Dunkerque smelter in northern France, which has an annual production capacity of 270,000 metric tons, the people said. The asset has drawn interest from financial investors such as private equity firms, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

The world’s second-biggest miner has also been considering a sale of its aluminum smelter in Iceland and is renewing efforts to divest the Pacific Aluminium portfolio in Australia and New Zealand, the people said. 

Rio has offloaded more than $7 billion of assets, from coal to copper and aluminum, since 2013 and Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques said in an interview last month that a rebound in metals to energy prices has opened a window for additional sales of unwanted operations.

In June, Rio accepted an increased $2.69 billion offer for its Australian thermal coal mines. It has received approaches for its remaining coking coal mines in the country, which may fetch as much as A$2 billion ($1.6 billion), people familiar with the matter said in February. Rio agreed last year to sell the Lochaber aluminum business in Scotland to SIMEC.

Deliberations on selling the aluminum assets are at an early stage, and there’s no certainty they will lead to any transactions, the people said. A spokesman for Rio declined to comment. The company’s Alcan unit plans to sell its Iceland operations, Rannveig Rist, chief executive officer of the local business, told Channel 2 television in an interview last month.

Rio advanced 1.9 percent in Sydney trading Friday to close at A$69.25, outpacing the 1 percent rise in the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index.

Any deal will add to the $30.8 billion in acquisitions involving aluminum companies over the past three years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Aluminum has advanced about 30 percent on the London Metal Exchange in the past year. Supply curbs in China, the world’s biggest producer, are starting to take effect as policy makers clamp down on illegal smelters and plan winter output cuts.

The higher price of the metal offers Rio an opportunity to secure better valuations than would have been the case 12 months ago, Paul Gait, a London-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd., said by phone Friday. 

“It definitely is the case that they can strike while the iron’s hot,” he said, adding that additional sales would also demonstrate CEO Jacques is committed to continuing divestments of smaller and less attractive operations.

The ISAL smelter in Iceland has capacity to produce 205,000 tons of metal, according to Rio’s website. The Pacific Aluminium unit comprises three smelters and a power station in Australia, as well as one plant in New Zealand. Rio in 2011 separated Pacific Aluminium, which included more assets at the time, for a potential sale. Two years later the mining company abandoned the divestment.

— With assistance by Alfred Cang

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