LONDON – At the helm of Brazil's Vale
The 53-year-old, ousted from Vale two years ago, is betting on the world's hunger for resources, Africa's potential and his team's ability to operate where others fear to tread.
"You have a lot of financial guys looking to invest, looking for opportunities," said the former banker, sitting back in the library of a smart central London hotel. "But guys who go into the middle of the forest, into the middle of the desert to implement a project, those are still scarce."
Agnelli set up AGN Participacoes, a holding company, shortly after leaving Vale, to invest in biofuel. Last July, he teamed up with billionaire Andre Esteves' investment bank BTG Pactual to set up B&A Mineracao, a mining group focused on fertilizer, iron ore and copper, in Latin America and Africa.
That $520 million venture - one of a handful of investment ventures set up by an outgoing generation of mining executives - has already put its cash to use, investing $160 million in fertilizer projects and copper.
Agnelli, however, says more cash can be raised, and he is betting B&A can capitalize on the opportunities thrown up as small miners struggle for cash and big players slim down in the face of investor demands.
So far, few buyers have flocked to those unwanted projects, particularly those in tougher, riskier regions. Agnelli, however, is happy to look at Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast - where he sees phosphate potential - and beyond.
"We are cherry-picking the best assets, the best locations to be, analyzing risk, returns. We are not in a hurry," he said.
B&A is not looking for minority stakes. Agnelli instead describes himself as an operator, backed by an experienced team, many of whom followed him from Vale.
"We are looking to put together high quality assets, projects, or to acquire some companies with cash-flow generation in order to build a strong platform to grow in the future," Agnelli, who serves as B&A's executive chairman, told Reuters.
Unlike many, held back by uncertain markets and rising costs, B&A has not shied away from projects built from scratch.
B&A last month completed the acquisition of fertilizer group Rio Verde Mineracao , motivated by the explosive growth of the middle class in Brazil, China and beyond - millions who will consume ever more grain and meat. Its phosphate project in Rio Bonito, in the northern Brazilian state of Para, will produce 150,000 tonnes a year from September.
Its other key bet was on Chile's Cuprum Resources, which holds a copper project expected to start producing in 2014.
Within five years, B&A targets production of 30 million tonnes of iron ore, 500,000 tonnes of potassium and 1 million tonnes of phosphate annually.
AFRICA AND BRAZIL
Another major bet is Africa.
Agnelli was sacked from Vale for a perceived failure to invest enough at home. Now, at the helm of his new venture, he is pursuing the campaign abroad that he began as chief executive of Vale, pushing into Mozambique, Guinea and beyond.
Under Agnelli, Vale was at the forefront of Brazil's drive into Africa, playing up cultural ties from okra to football, emphasizing a partnership different to that on offer from former colonial powers. He was backed by then president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited 25 African nations while in power.
He remains close to Mozambique's president, Armando Guebuza.
In Guinea, Vale found a partner in BSG Resources, the mining arm of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz's business, leading them to take a stake in 2010 in the northern portion of Simandou, one of the world's largest deposits of iron ore.
The project was frozen last year, however, and the partners are locked in a battle with the government over the license.
Agnelli is unruffled by the Guinean tussle and dismisses questions over his own role in the deal. He remains confident in Guinea's potential, if not in its timing.
"One day somebody is going to wake up and will say: listen it is better to start (mining), because people are suffering here," he said. "I think (president) Alpha Conde's government is aware of that and is looking to do everything right, but I am afraid they might be losing the opportunity to develop."
He points to the exit of mining companies like BHP Billiton and others from Guinea, as they rein in spending and prices for steelmaking ingredient iron ore cool.
B&A has been looking at buying from BHP a majority stake in the Mount Nimba iron ore mine, on Guinea's border with Liberia.
"It is better to start small, create jobs, revenue, hard currency for the country... then we can think about the huge projects, the huge infrastructure."
LIFE AFTER VALE
Agnelli was the first chief executive of a top mining company to depart in what has in recent months become a wave of change among the majors, with a conservative new guard replacing dealmakers like Agnelli.
Murilo Ferreira, Vale's new boss, is as reserved, analytical and risk averse, industry insiders say, as Agnelli is high profile and extroverted.
"For me it was unknown territory. I had to learn to deal with having no diary. I was concerned I would (get) depressed," he said of life after Vale. "I didn't. I got my freedom back."
So after a few months spent in Italy with his wife of 26 years, learning the language of his ancestors and mastering the art of baking bread, Agnelli went back to resources.
He jokes he thought up his next step a mere hour after walking out of Vale, but Agnelli, relaxed in an open-necked white shirt, dismisses critics of a self-confidence that has often grated with colleagues and rivals.
"I am not looking to be a well-known person, or a billionaire, or a powerful guy - what I would like to do is build something that could change some realities," he said.
"To go to a country like Guinea, for example, and see Guinea growing."
(Editing by Anna Willard)