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CEO shake-up at Canada's Nutrien could pave way to M&A: shareholders

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Rod Nickel and Maiya Keidan
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Viterra Inc CEO Mayo Schmidt speaks during the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit in Chicago
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By Rod Nickel and Maiya Keidan

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Investors expect the new chief executive of Canada's Nutrien Ltd to swing deals as part of a more aggressive growth strategy, after an abrupt shake-up at Canada's biggest agriculture company.

Nutrien, the world's biggest fertilizer producer by capacity, surprised shareholders on Sunday by promoting its chairman, Mayo Schmidt, to CEO, replacing Chuck Magro, who had led the company since it formed from Agrium's 2018 merger with Potash Corp.

Schmidt, raised on a Kansas farm, is best known for leading the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool grain cooperative's acquisition of competitor Agricore United in 2007, creating Viterra Inc, one of Canada's biggest grain handlers. He subsequently bought Australia's ABB Grain before leading the sale of Viterra to commodity trader Glencore PLC in 2012.

"Acceleration of M&A is a natural progression as we enter the next commodity supercycle," said Michael Underhill, chief investment officer at Capital Innovations LLC, which owns Nutrien shares. "I would not bet against him."

Nutrien shares were down 1.3% on Tuesday, after falling 3.5% on Monday. They have risen about 35% year over year, riding soaring corn prices, but gained only 2% since they began trading in 2018.

Some investors had grown uncertain about Nutrien's growth strategy under Magro, said Mike Archibald, vice-president and portfolio manager at AGF Investments, which owns C$136 million ($109 million) worth of the company's stock.

Archibald said now the strategy looks likely to shift to deals.

"The incoming CEO does have a history as a deal-maker so, to the extent he lives up to what he's done in the past, we should expect sometime in the next 12 months that we'll get something happening on the M&A front," Archibald said.

POTENTIAL DEALS

Nutrien could try to acquire U.S. nitrogen fertilizer rival CF Industries, which has a $10-billion market capitalization, or accelerate the company's roll-up of smaller farm retail stores, Archibald said. A CF spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Conversely, Schmidt could sell off the retail business to focus on fertilizer production, Archibald said.

Nutrien declined an interview request for Schmidt. A company spokeswoman said Schmidt's plans include following the company's climate change initiatives, which Magro unveiled this month.

Schmidt may also eye selling Nutrien's phosphate fertilizer business, even though it recently got a boost from U.S. duties against Russian and Moroccan imports, said Brian Madden, senior vice-president at Goodreid Investment Counsel, a Nutrien shareholder.

The CEO change is positive, as Schmidt has an exceptional record of creating shareholder value, said Scotiabank analyst Ben Isaacson. He added that Nutrien could look to consolidate the nitrogen industry.

Schmidt would find it difficult to sell Nutrien itself, Madden said. There is no obvious domestic acquirer and the Canadian government rejected a foreign bid for Potash Corp in 2010.

"Schmidt has got cred in the ag world," Madden said. But he added that abruptly changing chief executives is not how successions should occur at large companies.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Maiya Keidan in Toronto; Editing by Marguerita Choy)