Outgoing BHP-Billiton chairman Don Argus must have a very effective spin operation. Despite stuffing up much of what he touched whilst getting lucky with China at BHP, he somehow still manages to get a dream run from the nation’s business commentators.

News Ltd’s Terry McCrann described Argus on Wednesday as having “one of the most illustrious careers we have seen in our corporate history. One that ran from teenage bank teller in outback Queensland…to heading Australia’s biggest company. Indeed, he played the key role in making it one of the biggest in the entire world.”

Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholmeusz said that “Argus will go down as one of the great chairmen in BHP’s history, presiding over its passage from the big but mistake-prone BHP to a company of global scale and importance”.

A slightly more jaundiced view was expressed by your correspondent in this letter to The AFR yesterday, pointing out Don’s various problems at Brambles and Southcorp and even the legacy bombs he left behind at NAB.

Even the BHP record is questionable considering this 2006 column by Bartho’s colleague Alan Kohler when he described the merger with Billiton as “an act of terrorism”. How can someone who blew up tens of billions then be hailed as a hero?

The Melbourne Club of long-serving commentators aren’t totally united on the Argus front, as another one emailed yesterday with this observation:

I couldn’t agree with your AFR letter on Argus more. I have long suspected that the reason he gets such a good press is that he rings up senior reporters and cosies up to them. He is the king of outrageous remuneration payments and as far as BHP is concerned, he got lucky with the China boom.

Argus certainly used to talk to Terry McCrann back when I was Herald Sun business editor in the mid-1990s. And The Australian’s Matthew Stevens has been partnered with a BHP-Billiton spindoctor during part of the Argus chairmanship.

Another example of unusual contact was the polite interview Robert Gottliebsen did with Argus and BHP CEO Marius Kloppers for a DVD that was sent to all shareholders with the annual report last September right at the peak of the Rio Tinto takeover battle.

That deal, of course, would have been another Argus debacle if it had proceeded.

Even the operational performance at BHP hasn’t been too flash. More than $4 billion has been written off in the disastrous nickel division. And how about the embarrassment of spending $2.5 billion last year buying back the New Saraji coal deposit in Queensland after the Big Australian had previously given it away?

Similarly, BHP’s decision in June 2001 to sell down its Bowen Basin central Queensland coal mines into a 50-50 joint venture with Mitsubishi was another decision that has cost shareholders billions.

If Don Argus really is the best director that Melbourne has ever produced, it is a complete indictment of Melbourne’s inbred system of board succession planning.

Peter Fray

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