FMG's year of milestones

AS Fortescue Metals Group celebrates a number of company milestones, the new force in iron ore faces a number of challenges – and opportunities – in 2018.
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Elizabeth Gaines speaks to FMG workers at the 1Bt celebration

The company has come a long way since being formed in 2003 around Andrew Forrest's kitchen table.

Against all odds, the company made its first 180,000 tonne shipment of iron ore from Herb Elliott port in May 2008, bound for Shanghai Baosteel's Majishan port.

Since then, more than 30,600 trainloads of iron ore have been unloaded at Port Hedland, with over 5000 shiploads of product leaving Herb Elliott.

As well as celebrating its 15-year anniversary and 10 years of production, FMG added another milestone to the list on Friday when it shipped its one billionth tonne of iron ore.

The company held a ceremony on board the FMG Sophia to mark the occasion, with the event live-streamed to its employees who couldn't be there.

Speaking during the event on Friday, FMG CEO Elizabeth Gaines said she was proud to be a part of the journey.

"Since Fortescue was founded, we have invested over US$22 billion in our world-class infrastructure and assets," she said.

"We have paid corporate tax of more than A$3 billion and royalties to the state of more than $4.5 billion.

"Significantly, we have also awarded A$2 billion in contracts to Aboriginal businesses and joint ventures, and nearly 800 Aboriginal people have commenced employment with Fortescue through our Vocational Training and Employment Centre (VTEC) program."

Amid all the milestones, challenges remain for FMG as its margins are crunched by discounts for lower grade ore.

However, Gaines sees a bigger constant challenge for the company.

"I think the single biggest challenges always remains making sure our workers are safe, so for us safety is first and foremost our key focus - and safety's not like dollars you can put in a bank account," she said following the event.

"You can be doing really well and then something can happen. Whether it's a challenge or a focus, safety has to be our number one challenge, and in many respects, our number one opportunity."

On the grade discounting issue, Gaines and FMG see it as an opportunity.

"We're in incredibly good shape - we've never had a stronger balance sheet and we are about to put to our board our final feasibility study for an investment decision on the replacement of Firetail, so that's an amazing opportunity for Fortescue in the context of ensuring we have that 20-year mine life," she said.

"We still need to go through that final investment decision and board approval, but to date, the work has been very encouraging. And it's very important for us for our longer term strategy both for our life of mine, but for our product strategy.

"Our strategy is to be in a position to have a product of greater than 60% Fe grade."

While the feasibility study for Eliwana is yet to be released, capital costs are expected to be US$1-1.5 billion with first production likely due in late 2020.

FMG is also fighting to keep its costs down.

Last week, the company reported that C1 costs increased by 9% quarter-on-quarter to US$13.14 per wet metric tonne.

Year-to-date costs were $12.43/wmt, equivalent to $11.90 after normalising for an assumed exchange rate of 75c and fuel costs of $53 per barrel of West Texas Intermediate.

Full-year C1 cost guidance has been lifted to $12-12.50/wmt.

"We look at our costs every single day so we're always looking at opportunities to offset some of those inflationary factors, whether it be currency or fuel prices," Gaines said.

"There is no doubt there is a bit of inflation creeping into some skills and trades - I wouldn't say it's across the board but there are some skills and trades that we're starting to see some inflation, so we're very cognisant of that when we set our targets for next year."

Credit Suisse analysts said that they were comfortable with FMG's valuation case given the company was yet to pull any levers in response to external market challenges.

"For those willing to back the new management team, there is value in our view," CS said last week.

"FMG has been hit by a perfect storm - i) price realisation, ii) seasonally weak shipments (cyclone activity) and iii) unfavourable FX and cost inflation, which together have translated to a material (circa 10%) underperformance versus large-cap mining peers since the start of 2018 (not to mention the 2017 underperformance).

"With levers to pull and Eliwana to come, this could be just the perfect inflection point."

Kristie Batten travelled to Port Hedland as a guest of FMG.