Sam Walsh celebrated his 64th birthday in Perth yesterday, marking a rare break in his erstwhile home city at the end of a tumultuous year for the Rio Tinto chief executive.
Promoted to the top job at Rio after Tom Albanese fell on his sword on January 17, Mr Walsh was given the job of getting the world's second-biggest mining company back on track.
His elevation to the top job may have been a surprise but when Mr Walsh arrived at Rio head office in London he was a man on a mission.
Rio's core values needed a reset, according to Mr Walsh, and the speed about which he set about it was not lost on the company's board and chairman Jan du Plessis.
Buoyed by surging commodity prices Rio had embarked on an expansion program driven by massive capital investments and by a series of ambitious takeover plays. Those, most notably the disastrous 2007 acquisition of Canadian aluminium producer Alcan and 2011's $US4 billion takeover of coal hopeful Riversdale Mining, ultimately brought his predecessor undone.
Speaking to _WestBusiness _in Perth in the lead-up to Christmas, Mr Walsh says he made the culture shift brought about by the acquisition spree his immediate target, aiming to immediately reintroduce a corporate philosophy of "focus, discipline and accountability".
"I had a conversation with the chairman shortly after I became CEO and he made two comments - he said 'Oh, you're in an awful hurry' - and I said 'I am. We need to turn the business around quickly'," Mr Walsh said.
"And then he said 'We're not going to have a revolution, are we?' And I said 'No, we're not going to need a revolution, because the fundamentals are sound'. We've got good assets, we've got good people and Rio Tinto had very good systems. Some of the systems had become diluted as we pushed for growth, but reinstating those systems wasn't hard, and people got it."
In a whirlwind year, Mr Walsh slashed Rio's capital spending plans and its operating costs, pushing the company's staff to make decisions as if they themselves owned the company. Mr Walsh says the cultural shift came easily, particularly when the push was backed with a change in the internal reporting structure. Mr Walsh said he wanted his managers to make business decisions based on forecasts for the coming month, rather than on the accounts for the previous month, and to drive the business for cash, rather than for earnings.
"When you look at a forecast, you can do something about it," he said.
"You can focus the organisation, you can focus on cost or revenue, or whatever the levers are in that part of the business, to actually improve things. It's like trying to drive a car looking only in the rear vision mirror - that's what it's like just looking at the monthly accounts. It's interesting, you can see where you've been, but I'd much rather see where I'm going."
The move to Rio's top job came at a cost. The move to London forced Mr Walsh to give up his pride of place in Perth's art community and he says his focus on Rio's problems has not yet allowed him to spread his wings in his new home city.
"I love Perth, and we (he and wife Leanne) will retire here in due course," he said.
"So it was a hard wrench to leave Perth, but we're also taking advantage of living in London. We're living 300 yards from the Royal Albert Hall, we've got the natural history museum about 500 yards away. We're right in the centre of things, and from an arts perspective it's just great."
But while Mr Walsh has not yet accepted a similar role in the London arts community, his work in the Perth equivalent has not gone unnoticed, he says.
"I wanted to focus on the business in the first year, but I do have people banging on the front door. It's really interesting," he said.
"People want to hear the story about what we've been doing in Perth in terms improving vibrancy, the interaction between the Committee for Perth, the Chamber for Arts and individual arts organisations and understand how that's improving Perth - and it is, you can see it."
And as for the future, Mr Walsh says he is happy to leave it in the hands of the Rio Tinto board. When he was appointed for a three-year term he was described by many analysts as a "caretaker manager", someone to right the ship, but not a long-term prospect to take Rio into the future. That is a suggestion he rejects.
"I've never been a caretaker, or a maintainer of the status quo. And that certainly wasn't the basis on which I went into the job. The company needed somebody to urgently turn around the business, and that's exactly what we've been doing," he said.
"In relation to the length of my assignment, that's one for the board. I'm there for as long as the board would like me. If they'd like it to be longer, that's fine. If they'd like it to be shorter . . . that's also fine. (They) are very wise people and I'm sure they'll get the balance right."
"What I do know is that I won't be retiring from life in 2015, I know I'll be doing something."
We're living 300 yards from the Royal Albert Hall, we've got the natural history museum 500 yards away." Sam Walsh