Cast in iron: Yes- the millions turned to billions

Leonie Lamont February 4, 2012

It was 20 years ago that the mining magnate Lang Hancock’s widow, Rose, summoned journalists to the gate of her flamboyant mansion, and dispensed copies of her recently departed husband’s will.

It was 1992, the year both Hancock’s daughter, Gina Rinehart, and Rose first appeared on the BRW Rich List. Lang Hancock’s $150 million fortune had been divied up, each woman listed with a fortune of $75 million, in recognition of the will’s 50:50 split.

There were decade-long legal battles, the bankrupting of the estate and paying down debts for business follies. But importantly the iron ore royalty ”rivers of gold” paid by Hamersley Iron (now Rio Tinto) to Hancock Prospecting were preserved in corporate structures for Mrs Rinehart and her children. The deal struck in 1962 involves a continuing royalty valued at 2.5 per cent of ore mined from many of Rio’s West Australian mines.

Given today’s iron ore price, that royalty stream now accounts for about $100 million a year.

In 20 years, Mrs Rinehart has taken her $75 million inheritance to her fortune as Australia’s richest citizen. The Forbes Asia rich list named her this week as the wealthiest woman in Asia, worth $16.88 billion. Other calculations, based on iron ore prices of US$140 a tonne last week, value her at $20 billion.

She first cracked BRW magazine’s billionaires list in 2006, when her fortune sprang from $900 million to $1.8 billion. The upward trajectory was evident in 2005 when two wealth generating forces took off.

Iron ore prices jumped by 70 per cent, and her royalties rose accordingly. But the greatest source of her wealth lay in the Pilbara mining project Hope Downs, named after her mother, Hope.

After her South African partner Kumba Resources was taken over, she bought out its 49 per cent stake in what was one of WA’s biggest and richest iron ore deposits. At the time, Hope Downs accounted for half her wealth, being valued at $472 million.

Hope Downs propelled her into the billionaire ranks, and after taking Rio Tinto on board as joint partner, by 2007 Hope Downs was exporting ore. It has been estimated that when Hope Downs reaches full production of 45 million tonnes annually, Mrs Rinehart will receive an income stream of $40 million … a week.

By 2014, her second iron ore mine, Roy Hill, is due to start exporting. Even bigger than Hope Downs, the $7 billion mine is being developed with the Korean steel maker Posco, and it was the sale of a stake to Posco that helped double Mrs Rinehart’s fortune this year.

The doubling is a pattern. Last year, BRW shows her wealth also more than doubled, from $4.75 billion to $10.31 billion.

Going back 40 years, one can find the seeds to another source of this wealth – Hancock’s close friendship with the long-time Nationals premier of Queensland Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The Hancock empire took early stakes in Queensland coal leases, with grand plans for rail lines laden with coal trains spanning the north.

Last year, Mrs Rinehart parlayed some of those assets, in Queensland’s land-locked Galilee Basin, into a $1.3 billion sale to GVK, the privately owned conglomerate of the Indian billionaire G.V. Krishna Reddy. Mrs Rinehart retains a minority share in that deal, and GVK has planned for a $10 billion outlay on the first phase, which includes a 500-kilometre rail as well as new port facilities in which Hancock interests will have a serious stake.

To date, her Midas touch with mining has not been translated into profits in her forays into Australian media assets – Ten Network Holdings and Fairfax Media, which publishes the Herald.

Received & published by Henry Sapiecha

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