As a string of executives resign from Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s company, and investors question if he’s ‘lost it’, the mining magnate is pushing forward with a massive green expansion. By Marc Moncrief.
The fallout from Twiggy Forrest’s green conversion
Just south-west of Onslow, on the remote north coast of Western Australia, the mouth of the Ashburton River opens into the Indian Ocean. If you wind against that current about 45 kilometres inland, through the endless miles of red dirt and scrub, past the town that bears the name of the Talandji, the Traditional Owners of the land, you’ll reach an oasis of trees. You’ll find patches of impossibly green grass.
This is Minderoo Station, the spiritual home of Australia’s richest man.
Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest spent his formative years at the homestead, which had been passed from father to son for three generations before his father sold it in 1998. Forrest brought the station back to the family a decade later, once he had established himself as a force in Australian business, and eventually took its name for his philanthropic foundation.
Forrest can call many places home now, but his roots in the rusty dirt of the Pilbara have helped him build a reputation as the battler’s billionaire, a proud Western Australian with his own ideas about how things should be done. Unlike the leaders of his largest competitors in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto and BHP, Twiggy Forrest is reliably, and avowedly, of the place that he is exploiting.
But in the more recent past, Forrest has extended both himself and Fortescue Metals Group, the mining company he founded and chairs, far beyond the Pilbara – indeed, far beyond the iron ore that built the company’s fortune. Therein lies the rub.
Fortescue has always been a relatively simple company. It runs a series of iron ore mines in the Pilbara. Over 20 years, it has become very good not only at removing iron from the ground but in refining lower-grade material into marketable product.
It’s a dirty process. Forrest admits Fortescue emits more greenhouse gases every year than the nation of Bhutan, but since at least 2018 he has been driving the company hard into green technologies.
The most prominent of these is “green hydrogen”, an alternative fuel that costs a lot of energy to create but emits only water when it is used.
May’s federal budget committed $2 billion to green hydrogen projects, and as the nation’s most vocal advocate for the technology, Forrest is the man most likely to benefit from the money. He has been pushing publicly for action on climate change; he’s the embodiment of the contrite polluter willing to throw money at clean energy projects he admits will return little to shareholders in the short term.
The transformation is so complete he has travelled the world giving lectures at international meetings, always flying the flag for Australian industry and pushing the narrative that we can be more to the world than just coal and iron ore.
Not everyone is happy about the change in direction or the complexity it has added to the company.
The Saturday Paper contacted numerous fund managers and investors in the company, but few were willing to speak on the issue.
One investor who watches the company closely but asked not to be named said Forrest’s new direction had a “messianic” tone to it, to the extent it no longer seemed rational.
“I reckon he’s lost it,” the investor said. “He genuinely thinks he’s the chosen one. And that is worrying for people.”
Over the past three years, Forrest has lost more than a dozen of his most senior employees, including two chief executives of the core mining business.
He has also split from his life partner, announcing in July that he and his wife of 31 years, Nicola, would no longer be living together. The reasons for their separation have not been disclosed.
“He’s got no one who can tell him he’s gone too far,” the investor said. “They’re all stepping away from him.”
One week – from late August into early September – shocked markets the most. Fortescue lost three key staff members, including one of those chief executives, Fiona Hick, who left after just six months in the job. Hick’s hand-picked chief financial officer, Christine Morris, also jumped ship after a paltry two months.
As these departures unfolded, it emerged Forrest had offered an advisory role to Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor of the exchequer in former British prime minister Liz Truss’s short-lived government, who was sacked after just 38 days to contain the fallout from a disastrous mini-budget.
For his part, Forrest has insisted the executive churn is normal for a company in flux.
He eviscerated Morris in The Australian newspaper, saying she had been “lucky” to get the job in the first place and hiring her over an internal candidate had been “an error”. He also told a conference in Perth that Hick left because she was not on board with the company’s green transition.
“All I can say is that people evolve. There is a difference between where they’re going and the whole mission of the company,” he said. “You might want to take it a different direction, like put a handbrake on going green.”
But this was not the case for Guy Debelle, the last of the three prominent departures that week.
For 34 years, Debelle had been a fixture at the Reserve Bank of Australia. As deputy governor, he was widely touted as a replacement to governor Philip Lowe before leaving the bank in March last year.
He joined Fortescue because he said he believed the company’s energy wing, Fortescue Future Industries, could be a global leader in the battle against climate change.
Debelle told The Australian Financial Review his departure was not related to the others, that he had given notice well before Hick’s replacement, and he has left to join the board of another mining company in the green energy industry.
The departure announcements trickled out over days, with each one adding to the uncertainty over the company’s leadership. It was into this churning gyre that the company released an apocalyptic presentation about “lethal humidity”.
The presentation – delivered to the Boao Forum for Asia, also known as the “Asian Davos” – warned global warming was creating environments in which sweat would not evaporate, causing the human body to “cook”. Forrest warned millions were at risk of sudden death.
The presentation contained slides that claimed “Lethal Humidity is the next pandemic” and “This time, there’s no cure”.
The warning was sufficiently tangential that Forrest was compelled mid-presentation to insist he “was not kidding about any of this” and that the content was “properly referenced science”.
Despite a long list of citations at the start of the presentation to pre-empt sceptics, investors were left wondering how the information could be applied to valuing their shares.
Two days after the lethal humidity presentation, Peter White, a prominent shareholder in Fortescue who said he had sold about 75 per cent of his holding, took to the pages of The Australian Financial Review to call for Forrest to “get the hell out” of the day-to-day operation of the company.
“I’m very concerned about Twiggy,” White told the paper. “They’ve got a revolving door there, and he is too focused on green [initiatives] and particularly [when he says] we are all going to die from humidity.”
Last week, two more chief executives quit companies associated with Forrest through Tattarang, the private investment company he and Nicola Forrest run together.
It’s not clear how these most recent departures can be tied to the previous week’s, except to add to a sense of instability.
But this is not the first time Forrest has been doubted. Indeed, his reputation is built on busting expectations.
About 700 kilometres east of Minderoo – not far in the scale of the Pilbara – the Cloudbreak mine stretches across the landscape.
The stretch of the mine is important. When the nascent Fortescue began working the deposit, it had already been passed over by the dominant players because of its shape. Most iron mines work down through a vertical deposit, but Cloudbreak’s iron ore was not so neatly dispersed. This meant large amounts of earth above and around the richness of the deposit would need to be moved to get at the valuable ore.
Working out how to make money from the resource was just one of the bursts of innovation that cemented Fortescue as the “third force” in Australia’s iron industry.
Getting the ore to port was another epic fight. New rail lines needed to be built, and a new port. There was constant competition from the most formidable miners in the world. Investment banks looked for angles on every deal, often selling the company short to diminish its share value.
The grand endeavours have not let up since. Last year, he vied with tech titan Mike Cannon-Brookes over their differing visions for their $35 billion joint venture Sun Cable, which was conceived as a plan to export power from what would be the world’s largest solar farm in the Northern Territory. The project went into administration and is now with a consortium led by Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures.
Through it all, Forrest has expanded in surprising and controversial ways – Squadron Energy, which is part of Tattarang group, has become the country’s largest owner of renewable power projects, and pledges to provide a third of the clean energy needed for the government to hit its target of 82 per cent renewables in the grid by 2030. And of course, Forrest has become very rich in the process.
It’s this history of success that has wed some investors to Forrest’s fortunes, whether they understand the current strategy or not.
“It amazes me how little Andrew is appreciated or respected for creating so much wealth and employment,” American investor John Tumazos told The Australian Financial Review.
“These attitudes focus on ridiculing [Fortescue]’s energy businesses, where it is too late to ridicule its iron ore successes. Throughout Fortescue’s history I have found that the Australian sell-side analysts and financial press are very quick to piss in their face.”
At his Boao Forum lecture, Forrest spoke of the “steely discipline” in the Fortescue culture. He said when the thousands of employees throughout his companies decide on a future, “we stick to that future”.
In the beginning, that future was wrapped up in China’s historic expansion and demand for Australia’s iron ore, which has powered the national economy for more than 20 years.
The new focus on green hydrogen and lethal humidity may sound like a lark for an iron ore billionaire, but it could also be yet another example of Forrest seeing further than his peers. According to the CSIRO, the market for the fuel throughout Asia could be worth $9.5 billion by 2030.
“Everything he does is about making himself richer and richer,” one investor said. “He’s not doing the green stuff to make the world better.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Forrest management".
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