Asciano chief in shock exit from major transport company

John Mullen

John Mullen

THE surprise ousting of Asciano chief executive Mark Rowsthorn yesterday was met with cautious approval by investors willing to back the Malcolm Broomhead-led board.

The timing of Mr Rowsthorn’s departure caught the market off-guard but investors have welcomed the appointment of former DHL Express global chief John Mullen as his successor.

Shares in Asciano finished 2.7 per cent stronger at $1.69 on a day the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 was mostly flat.

Paul Xiradis of Ausbil Dexia, which has been a long-term shareholder of Asciano, described Mr Mullen as a “high-calibre” appointment.

Mr Xiradis said it was possible the group would use the opportunity to review its portfolio of assets and could consider selling off the container ports business, which had lower returns than the faster growing rail freight division.

“It’s possible (that the appointment of a new chief) would hasten that . . . they bring fresh eyes and a different perspective and are not as emotionally attached to businesses,” he said.

Mr Xiradis, along with several investors and analysts contacted yesterday, was quick to acknowledge Mr Rowsthorn’s solid leadership of the group that he had headed since it was spun out from Toll Holdings in 2007.

Mr Broomhead told investors yesterday that the ports and rail group needed a change in management to improve shareholder returns and find new growth beyond coal haulage.

He said this was part of the “normal succession planning” of the group and the timing of the new appointment was due to a candidate with the right experience becoming available sooner than expected.

“We expected the process to go on for a considerable period of time and it just so happens that we have a world-class CEO with deep experience available now,” he said.

“The board took the view that if you look at the next phase of the company’s growth, John (Mullen) has the skill set that we are looking for to drive us through that growth.”

Mr Mullen — a Sydneysider who chose to return to Australia after years spent working overseas in executive roles at global logistics groups such as TNT Express, Deutsche Post Group and DHL Express — said he believed his experience would translate well to Asciano’s business.

Mr Broomhead said Asciano was about to embark on its annual strategic review and that it was important to get Mr Mullen on board at this point so that he could “own the process”.

Mr Rowsthorn, who was not available for comment yesterday, will remain with Asciano until June 15. His employment contract was extended last June and he was placed on a one-year rolling arrangement.

He was also paid a retention bonus of $900,000 cash as compensation for forfeiting terms of his previous contract that would have seen him receive up to $8 million on termination.

It is believed Mr Rowsthorn will be eligible for a termination payment of up to 12 months of his $1.8m fixed pay packet.

Mr Broomhead, who is understood to have had less than amicable relations with Mr Rowsthorn, praised his achievements yesterday.

“He’s put his heart and soul into Asciano and I want to thank him for his leadership,” he said.

Mr Broomhead said he wanted to make sure Mr Rowsthorn’s achievements would be recognised by staff and clients, but did not elaborate on how that would be carried out.

Mr Rowsthorn has guided Asciano through tumultuous times, from its demerger with Toll Holdings in 2007 through its dramatic recapitilisation during the economic crisis to pioneering its move into the growing coal export market in Queensland.

Mr Mullen formally begins at Asciano on February 14 and will vacate several board positions beforehand. He has resigned his board seats at Brambles and Macquarie Airports, but will maintain his non-executive director duties at Telstra. Asciano will report its half-year results on February 23.

JPMorgan analysts expect the company to post normalised net profit of about $118m, up from $70m in the prior corresponding period.

Asciano is also expected to resume paying dividends with predictions it will pay a 1c partially franked distribution for the half year.