De Beers and Argyle: Together Again?

De Beers has made a bid to acquire Ashton Mining, which owns 40% of Australia’s Argyle mine.If the bid is successful, it will mean a reunion of sorts. The Argyle mine-a major producer of Indian “smalls”-sold its stones through De Beers’ Central Selling Organisation when it came on stream in the 1980s. In 1996, it left the cartel, citing disagreements over prices.

Ashton also owns other small mines in Australia and Angola. But the bid was clearly aimed at Argyle. The mine-the world’s largest producer by volume-was thought to be running out of steam, but new estimates say its life may be extended for as long as 20 years.

The offer depends on De Beers’ winning support from more than 50% of Ashton’s shareholders. Malaysian Mining Corp., a major shareholder in Ashton, already has agreed to sell stock amounting to 19.9% of the company to De Beers.

However, Ashton officials publicly called De Beers’ bid inadequate. There is speculation that British mining giant Rio Tinto, which controls 60% of Argyle, may make a counter-offer for Ashton to keep De Beers out of the picture. Some analysts speculate that if De Beers does gain control, Rio Tinto may have to sell its share to De Beers, otherwise De Beers will get complete access to Rio Tinto’s sales numbers and client list. But De Beers spokesman Andrew Lamont says, “We believe we can work with Rio Tinto.”

This is the second time in as many months that De Beers has launched a hostile takeover of a mining company. De Beers also made a bid for Canadian company Winspear, which has some stakes in the Northwest Territories that are described as “promising.” The Winspear board recently accepted De Beers’ bid.