Gina Rinehart has spent three decades turning the troubled company she inherited from her father into a sprawling business empire with iron ore at its heart, courting climate controversy along the way.
Now Australia’s richest person has set her sights on lithium, a crucial metal in electric car batteries that will be crucial to the race to cut global emissions.
US producer Albemarle this week walked away from an agreed US$4.2bn takeover of Liontown Resources citing “growing complexities” with the transaction after the 69-year-old billionaire built a 19.9 per cent stake in the Australian producer of the battery metal.
Rinehart’s role in the deal’s collapse marks the latest gritty takeover battle for the “iron lady” of Western Australia, whose rise has been littered with ruthless dealmaking, family feuds and litigation.
When she took over Hancock Prospecting in 1992 from her father Lang Hancock, the debt-ridden iron ore business was worth a mere fraction of what it is now. Riding Chinese demand for the steelmaking ingredient, Rinehart led a turnaround, transforming Hancock from a company spinning royalties on iron ore tenements to one that owns and operates its own mines.
Her empire has spread beyond iron ore to cattle stations, energy assets and investments in start-ups ranging from rare earths to neurotechnology and medicinal cannabis. The group has notched up A$20bn (US$12.7bn) of post-tax profits in the past four years alone, and Rinehart’s net wealth has grown to US$26bn.
But she has also become one of Australia’s most divisive business figures through vicious family spats, her calls for Canberra to cut red tape in mining and her support for rightwing leaders and climate sceptics.
Rinehart is publicity shy, rarely giving interviews or even statements despite her frenetic investing and outsized role in Australian corporate life. Yet she does emerge to fight her corner, most notably joining street protests in Perth in 2010 to rally against the Labor government’s mining tax.
While she is one of the loudest voices championing mining in Australia, she has taken a different tack to listed champions such as BHP and Rio Tinto, which stress that their industry will be crucial to the world’s energy transition.
In a May speech Rinehart called for more mines to be developed in the country, arguing that the sector was responsible for the country’s budget surplus and jobs boom and railing against restrictions in the name of the environment.
“It’s very popular now to restrict mining in the name of the environment, even for dangerous snakes, mice and weeds,” she said.
Jason Morrison, a former adviser to Rinehart, believes the billionaire has been unfairly demonised in the press and by some politicians.
“She loves Australia but she doesn’t get any credit,” he said, adding that she had been “ahead of the curve” on investments that have benefited its economy — including trickling down through her sponsorship of Australia’s Olympics team. “You can see her impact on this country from Mars.”
Not everything has gone to plan. In 2015 she sold off a stake she had built in Fairfax, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, after failing in her efforts to gain board seats as well as the right to hire and fire editors.
Success has brought unwanted media attention on a series of legal disputes with her family. Rinehart is embroiled in a court case with her son John Hancock, who has accused his mother of “calculated and deliberate fraud” by removing assets from the family trust to increase her personal wealth. Rinehart denies the allegations.
The lawsuit is tied to a bitter feud between Rinehart and her father’s widow Rose Porteous over his estate.
Rinehart is fighting on another front in Perth courts against descendants of Lang Hancock’s business partner Peter Wright over historic royalty agreements at the Hope Downs iron ore complex — which could have ramifications for development partner Rio Tinto.
Morrison said there was a “conga line of people” looking to take a chunk out of Rinehart’s empire, adding: “The company nearly went under. She had to fight it out of a hole. Gina took on all the risk.”
Mining industry executives who spoke to the Financial Times are unanimous that Rinehart is not somebody to cross. She knows any agreement “inside out”, said one, adding that she was among the “Perth Royalty” of highly connected executives in Western Australia.
Her political connections stretch overseas. Known as a supporter of Donald Trump, Rinehart has appeared among the former US president’s close circle at events at his Mar a Lago resort in Florida. She had a private meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another leader whose efforts to cut red tape and boost economic growth she has praised, during his visit to Australia in May.
Rinehart’s exact plans for Liontown and lithium remain unclear. Hancock Prospecting has a history of teaming up on projects, often with other members of the Perth mining elite such as Mineral Resources managing director Chris Ellison.
She probably needs expertise in lithium processing — something Australia is struggling to build and Albemarle possesses. Liontown on Thursday announced a A$1.1bn debt financing and equity raising to bring its crucial Kathleen Valley lithium development into production.
Rinehart is feeding into an increasing sense among Australia’s leading lithium groups that US, Chinese and Chilean groups are snatching the value from its enormous reserves and that it is high time the country’s own magnates took a more active role.
But one person involved in the Liontown takeover saga is sceptical. “She has played on that nationalistic thematic in the past but at the end of the day, she acts in her own commercial interests.”
Julian Malnic, chair of the Sydney Mining Club, said Rinehart was always clear-eyed in her strategy and would be ruthless in taking advantage — with Australia a likely beneficiary one way or another. “When she makes a decision,” he said, “it is final.”