Anglo American's female CEO stepping down. It's 'right time.' (+video)

Anglo American's first female CEO, Cynthia Carroll, took over the when the platinum producer was booming. But missteps by Anglo American in Chile and strikes in South Africa have exacerbated a worldwide slide in commodity prices.

By , Staff writer

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    Anglo American's Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Carroll attends the G20 CEO Summit in Seoul in this 2010 file photo. Ms. Carroll is stepping down after more than five years on the job amid a difficult strike in its platinum operations in South Africa.
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There's plenty of speculation about whether Cynthia Carroll, the first woman to head British mining company Anglo American, is stepping down because of her performance or her gender.

The first woman and the first non-South African to head the company, Ms. Carroll took the world's largest producer of platinum in new directions – both in the way it operated and the commodities it mined. But on Friday she said it was "the right time" to leave.

Did she push modernization too hard? Did the company accept, as the Financial Times put it, her "double-outsider" status?

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Perhaps. But timing is everything for chief executive officers – and sometimes it really is the right time to go, even if they've done the right things for the company to prosper in the long term.

The American-born Carroll took the reins in 2007, when Anglo-American was booming. Its stock price had doubled in just two years. The future seemed bright.

Then the financial crisis and Great Recession hit and Anglo American stock (like other commodity stocks) plunged. The stock recovered in 2011, when Anglo American announced a record operating profit, reaching post-recession highs.

But this year's economic slowdown pushed down commodity prices. And the company ran into unique problems. It became embroiled in a dispute with Chile's state-owned copper company, Codelco, after it announced last year it was selling its copper operations to Mitsubishi. Instead, Anglo American backed down and in August reached a deal with Codelco, reducing its stake in the copper operations.

Then in September, its all-important platinum operations in South Africa were hit by wildcat strikes from workers demanding more pay. Anglo American called the strike illegal and fired 12,000 miners at one mine earlier this month. Shareholders complained.

The sometimes violent strikes reached beyond Anglo American. Some 100,000 South African miners walked out in August. But on Thursday, gold mining companies and the workers' union announced a wage agreement (under the threat of worker firings similar to Anglo American's tactics). There's no sign of a similar resolution at Anglo American's operations.

The strike has cut Anglo American's platinum output by $217 million. The Congress of South Africa Trade Unions has called for a giant street protest Saturday to show solidarity with the miners that Anglo American fired.

In a company-sponsored video, Carroll says the decision to leave was her own: "I think it is the right time to hand the baton on to someone else who can continue to develop and capitalize off the foundation that we have been building."

Carroll will stay on until a successor is found.

The idea was echoed by Anglo American's chairman, John Parker, in a separate video:  "We always listen to our shareholders very carefully, but today's decision was very much based on Cynthia's decision."

But then he emphasized, for the second time, that the board has accepted the decision.

Maybe that's because when it's time for a CEO to leave, everyone can read the writing on the wall.

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