Rio Tinto veteran Stephen McIntosh suggested that the iron ore major may have been "overly transactional" in its Indigenous relations, which led to the Juukan Gorge tragedy that cost the CEO his job. McIntosh insisted that the entire company should not be judged on that incident alone.
The executive made the admission Nov. 25 speaking at the Australia-hosted online International Mining and Resources Conference. He retired at the end of September as Rio Tinto's growth and innovation and health, safety and environment group executive.
During the China-led boom of the 2000s that propelled Rio Tinto to grow its iron ore business by some 350%, companies of such size tried to "codify" internal systems and processes as much as possible to ensure all parts of the business "kept up" with the pace of change, McIntosh said.
However, the company "probably became overly transactional," with clear "breakdowns in communication" with traditional owners, McIntosh said, adding that he believes those internal issues are being fixed.
He joined Rio Tinto as an exploration geophysicist in 1987 before leading the exploration team from 2011 to 2016 when he joined the executive committee, and told the conference that Rio Tinto has "lost a degree of trust in terms of communities" that must be regained.
"It's something we worked incredibly hard to get, but it disappears quickly when you don't meet the aspirations of all your stakeholders," he said.
Rio Tinto announced in September that CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, iron ore chief Chris Salisbury, and Simone Niven, group executive for corporate relations, would all step down from their positions in response to calls for executive accountability over the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's Pilbara region.
McIntosh said that matters such as people and culture, which the industry often calls "soft issues," are "absolutely the hardest issues," more so than technical challenges, and are critical to build a "modern, trusted resources house."
He also said it was important that "all the things that go on in Rio Tinto" are not judged by the "tragic event" when the company destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred site in Juukan Gorge to access an additional US$135 million worth of iron ore.
"Across the rest of the company on a daily basis really great work is being done," McIntosh added.
Former Minerals Council of Australia CEO Mitchell Hooke, who interviewed McIntosh for the the conference session, said Rio Tinto used to be "so far out in front on Indigenous relations and community engagement," to the point where the company's approach "informed so much of my thinking" in that area.
When asked "how can a company that was so far in front" have an incident like the Juukan Gorge destruction, McIntosh said it was clearly "an enormous mistake that should never have happened."
However, he then told Hooke that "if it hadn't have happened, you and I would be having a very different conversation about Rio Tinto's leadership in this area."