Nev Power: the exit interview

TODAY marks Nev Power’s last day as CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, a near seven-year reign that has seen him become arguably the mining sector’s most decorated and respected executive. MNN editor Kristie Batten spoke to Power this week ahead of his exit.
Nev Power: the exit interview Nev Power: the exit interview Nev Power: the exit interview Nev Power: the exit interview Nev Power: the exit interview

FMG chief executive Nev Power.

Kristie Batten

The former Thiess CEO had big shoes to fill when he was appointed to replace FMG founder and inaugural CEO Andrew Forrest in 2011.

But since then, he’s overseen the rapid expansion of the iron ore miner from a 40 million tonne per annum junior to a 170Mtpa major, the fourth-largest producer and lowest cost globally.

“I think the thing I’d like to be known for more than anything else is that I was able to engage with people in the business through that massive growth period … and do that through a way that switches the whole organisation on,” Power told MNN.

“The thing that probably resonates with me most now is that in the last year or two, we’ve had every single part of the business which has been hitting its straps and performing very well, so I guess I’d like to be remembered as the sort of champion or coach or whatever through that phase.”

Power said it had been a challenge to develop, maintain and strengthen the culture of the company through that growth period and avoid the trap of creating too many layers of bureaucracy and slowing down decision-making.

“The biggest challenge has been to have all the benefits of being a big company, but it still feels like a small company,” he said.

“So if you’re working in your particular area, it’s a small company because you’re empowered to have ownership and make decisions and innovate and shape it and do the things you want to do there, but you have the buying power and the balance sheet, the resources of a big company.

“I guess others will judge how successful we’ve been at that but I think we’ve been very successful. It’s a very positive, passionate and engaged group of people as a result.”

Power said his most valuable leadership lesson learnt was to not underestimate people when they’re given the opportunity.

“You have to create the right environment. I think passion without focus and vision is blind – it’s not effective,” he said.

“You just don’t want people passionate about everything but no focus, no intent, no vision there.

“So you have to provide the right leadership there to say ‘well these are the targets we need to achieve, this is what we’re trying to achieve here’ and then let people go after it. I think it’s getting that combination right.”

There is no current mining executive that has won more awards than Power, with his most recent being the Legend in Mining Award at IMARC in November.

Despite all the success and accolades, Power’s fondest memories of FMG are the simple things.

“Probably being out at an exploration camp in the middle of the bush, sitting around a fire pit, eating some great food, having a beer with the teams, hearing about what they’re up to and how excited they are about the next big find, under the stars, beautiful air in the Pilbara. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Power announced in September that he’d be stepping down from FMG, and said that he thought the time was right and he was leaving the company in great shape.

“From a personal point of view, I thought it was a good time as well,” he said.

“I’ve been working all my life head down, bum up, and really have not had an opportunity to do a variety of other things, particularly in the personal business areas.

“I want to step back from full-time exec roles – I’m not retiring, definitely not – but take on a few different roles, maybe boards or advisory, semi-exec type of things that I can still have some discretion to work on my private interests and business. Do a bit of flying, chasing cows and all those things.

“That should be fun – it’ll be fun once I’ve gotten over the grieving pains and the loss of moving out of Fortescue, but then I’m really looking forward to setting myself up for the next stage of my career.”

The ever-energetic 59-year-old plans to remain busy.

“If I take two days off on the beach, I’d need a psychotherapist to get me going again I reckon,” Power joked.

“I don’t want to get too busy though that I’m back full-time under the pump. I want to keep active.”

Power visited FMG’s Pilbara sites last week on a bit of a farewell tour, and was given gifts by employees.

“I guess it’s an emotional rollercoaster, frankly, and emotionally very difficult to go through the leaving process and it has been quite a process,” he said.

“But it’s been absolutely wonderful to go around the business and say goodbye to people – and say goodbye sounds so final.

“It’s really saying goodbye to them in the context of Fortescue, because I have a lot of friends here and we’ll continue to see each other and do all those things. But it’s been really nice, people sharing stories of their experiences of Fortescue and going through that, but yeah, it’s tough.”

Forrest himself has spoken of his love for Power, recently describing him as “a phenomenal CEO, a dear friend, and a person who has literally worked 24/7 for this company”.

Later today, FMG will celebrate its Billion Opportunities program achieving the milestone of A$2 billion worth of contracts awarded to Aboriginal businesses.

Power said he was proud of what the company had achieved in the area of Aboriginal engagement.

“I know there’s some controversial bits around the edges but if you look at the 99% – we’re about to announce $2 billion of contracts with Aboriginal employees, we’ve got 15 or 16% of our workforce that are Aboriginal people, and that’s been a lot of focus and a lot of hard work to do that and I’m very, very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to get there.”