The board of RUSAL Plc <0486.HK>, the world's largest aluminum company, has elected Barry Cheung of the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange as its new chairman after billionaire Viktor Vekselberg quit this week, the company said on Friday.
RUSAL, whose chief executive and main owner is rival Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, said Vekselberg - who had blamed management for plunging the company into a deep crisis - had jumped before he was pushed for not attending board meetings.
The shareholder dispute revolves around Deripaska's refusal over the past year to sell a strategic stake in Arctic miner Norilsk Nickel
Cheung, an independent director of Hong Kong-listed RUSAL, will be charged with steadying a ship still rocking from Vekselberg's parting shot. He will conduct an immediate review of corporate governance and report back next month.
As an immediate priority, a comprehensive review of the company's corporate governance practices will be undertaken and additional independent directors will be appointed, Cheung said in a statement issued by RUSAL.
Analysts questioned how much restraint he can exert over Deripaska, who has demonstrated a penchant for debt financing during his decade-old drive to consolidate the Russian aluminum industry under his control.
They have chosen an independent director, so I think that is positive, said a Moscow-based analyst who asked not to be named.
At the end of the day Deripaska controls the board and he is always going to have a large say. But I think it is positive - if it is true - that they have gone with an independent director as opposed to Deripaska.
RUSAL's announcement confirmed an earlier Reuters report based on shareholder sources. The company is due to report 2011 results on Monday.
Barry Cheung Chun-Yuen, who joined RUSAL's board as an independent director in 2010, chairs the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange. Deripaska's EN+ group bought 10 percent of the HKME in June 2010.
Cheung told Reuters on Wednesday that the chairman should be someone strong with independence, especially as the current chief executive is the largest shareholder. This, he said, would improve RUSAL's corporate governance.
(RUSAL) is not in deep crisis. Its operations are normal, but it faces challenges because of falling aluminum prices, Cheung said in Hong Kong earlier this week. However, the debt level is much lower than when it was listed.
The aluminum company is facing a battle after prices for the light metal slumped last year amid signs that growth in the Chinese export market is slowing.
Deripaska's debt-financed purchase, through RUSAL, of a quarter stake in Norilsk for an estimated $14 billion four years ago quickly turned sour when the global crisis hit.
RUSAL was forced into a debt restructuring that killed Deripaska's dream of merging the two, but he blocked calls by Vekselberg to sell the stake back to Norilsk for as much as $13 billion.
The Norilsk stake is now worth $9.5 billion, or four-fifths of RUSAL's equity market value of $11.1 billion, with its core aluminum business accounting for the rest.
RUSAL's shares closed down 0.5 percent in Hong Kong on Friday at HK$5.65.
(Writing and additional reporting by Megan Davies; Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Elaine Hardcastle)