For six months last year, and for most of the two years before that, BHP Billiton was arguably set to become the biggest company in the world.

Tracking a steady ascent since the merger of its two parts a decade ago, what used to be known as the Big Australian was conceivably just one more tech crash away from leapfrogging Apple and Microsoft and nudging ExxonMobile for global market cap bragging rights.

It’s since dropped out of the worldwide top 10 as the iron ore price, and its share price, dovetailed.

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But for as long as the planet’s coal and steel addiction continues, the $185 billion titan — by far the world’s biggest miner — will remain dominant. And so will the man at its helm, former RMIT business student and Melbourne nightclub promoter Jac Nasser, who took the reins as chairman from long-time mentor Don Argus in early 2010.

Argus told The Power Index that the fastidious Lebanese-born, Arabic speaker’s “intellect, loyalty and experience” are the characteristics that thrust him from the junior ranks at Ford’s Broadmeadows plant in 1968 to the Detroit-based global CEO of the same company 30 years later. His main driver was a compulsion to follow tough decisions through to their logical conclusion.

“Jac follows up on things and he never lets things drift, he does that pretty relentlessly … probably the thing that I like about him is that he’s got good judgment and that’s been consistent throughout his whole career,” Argus said.

From his Michigan home (and regularly from his desk at BHP’s Lonsdale Street office in Melbourne), Nasser gazes out over a vast operation stretching across 16 countries and five continents.

Chairing BHP is a full-time job, for which he’s handsomely compensated over $1 million each year in cash and stock. Until earlier this month he also squeezed in a spot on James Murdoch’s BSkyB board (he declined to stand again) and he remains an adviser to JPMorgan Chase’s private equity business (for which he worked after Ford) and German financial services giant Allianz.

He sits pretty at No. 18 on the Optimice Market Capitalisation Influence Index and at No. 17 on the MCII connectedness index due solely to BHP Billiton’s influence.

And the gig’s certainly no picnic. Australian Shareholders’ Association CEO Vas Kolesnikoff told The Power Index that “he has his work cut out as chairman of one of the largest diversified mining conglomerates globally. Then, he has been well respected through his global CEO role at Ford. I’d say his hands are full with BHP though.”

The 64-year-old was certainly front-and-centre at last week’s BHP AGM in Sydney — in the days leading up to the meeting, the Financial Times reported he’d “quietly” begun to supervise a search for a successor for long-serving (by Australian standards) CEO Marius Kloppers. Tension was high as uranium activists milled outside and shareholders pondered the share price and writedown of US-based shale assets. The Shareholders’ Association expressed its dismay at a decision not to pay a special dividend given Nasser was sitting on a $5 billion cash pile.

While “unequivocally” denying Kloppers was about to be punted (his CEO was sitting next to him at the time), Nasser referred to the firm’s “strong bench” with CFO Graham Kerr, aluminium honcho Alberto Calderon and non-ferrous head Andrew Mackenzie all restless on the sidelines.

Partly lost among the rancour was BHP’s still-massive annual profits: a hulking $US15.4 billion in 2011-12 (mirroring 2008’s then-record result, but slipping under last year’s record of $US23.6 billion) that, if taxed as many in Parliament wanted, could pay for the Gillard government’s main spending initiatives several times over.

Nasser, who has since flown back to the US, was careful to laud his “world-class” leadership team’s global prestige. It’s a theme he returns to again and again (not least of all on his personal vanity site); you get the feeling that at some level the Northcote boy made good views himself as part of a mobile brainstrust guiding the fortunes of late capitalism through willpower alone.

He earned his global stripes during the fraught period heading up Ford’s global operations out of Detroit from 1998 to 2001. Nicknamed “Jac the knife”, his plans to reform the lumbering Detroit fixture jackknifed over plans to sack thousands of workers to fight back against cheap Asian imports (Barack Obama later refused it a bailout).

The man himself did not respond to The Power Index‘s invitation to comment, despite regular badgering over two or three weeks. But Argus, who stepped down to make way for his protégé in 2009 (Nasser also followed him onto the Brambles board), recalled a particularly heated BHP board meeting when Nasser came to the rescue as various “type A” personalities traded barbs.

“Jac was a good foil, I can remember one rough meeting we had and he could see that my temperature gauge was rising and he just touched me on the shoulder and said ‘don’t say a thing’. He’d remember that pretty well; when you chair an international board the directors can stretch you out a bit but Jac learned how to deal with those things,” he said.

Kloppers, millions of BHP Billiton shareholders and the firm’s 100,000 employees will be hoping the blessed streak continues for a while yet.

Jac Nasser directorships:

  • Corporate: BHP Billiton (chair), non-executive advisory partner of One Equity Partners (JPMorgan Chase & Co’s private equity business), member of the International Advisory Council of Allianz Aktiengesellschaf
  • Government/not-for-profit: Supports RMIT scholarships, Detroit-based training centre Focus Hope

Jac Nasser’s ASX connections — click to enlarge

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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