Jørgen Ole Haslestad, embattled boss of large Norwegian fertilizer firm Yara International, was fired as the company’s chief executive on Tuesday. Yara’s board “concluded that Haslestad is not the right person to lead the company going forward,” said Yara Chairman Leif Teksum.
Haslestad had seemed to survive a corruption scandal at Yara but was criticized for being slow to address it and will have to testify early next year at the upcoming trials of former top Yara executives. Earlier this year he was effectively replaced by the popular and respected chief executive of metals company Norsk Hydro, Svein Richard Brandtzæg, but continued to serve as CEO until Brandtzæg was to take over in February.
Haslestad then launched into merger talks with US-based CF Industries, Yara’s biggest competitor and considered by analysts to be a “good match” for Yara in a so-called “merger of equals. The pending merger came as a surprise, however, to Brandtzæg, who decided to quit Yara before he began. Brandtzæg claimed the situation had changed, and he preferred to stay at Norsk Hydro, which welcomed him back with open arms.
That left Haslestad, who’d been surprised himself to be replaced by Brandtzæg, at least temporarily at the helm. Haslestad, age 63, had said repeatedly that he wanted to stay at Yara until he retired. Yara’s board, however, was left in a bind and apparently unhappy that Haslestad’s merger project with CF Industries had cost them their new CEO. Teksum quickly made it clear that Yara’s board would continue to search for a new CEO and that Haslestad was not a candidate.
On Tuesday the company announced that Haslestad had “resigned” but analysts and media commentators called it a firing. Teksum repeated on Tuesday that Haslestad wouldn’t have had any role in a merged company, either, so nor was he “the right person” to lead Yara’s “ongoing talks with CF Industries.”
Yara’s board appointed Torgeir Kvidal as its acting CEO effective immediately, as Haslestad withdrew. Kvidal, age 49, took over as Yara’s chief financial officer in May 2012, when the extent of the corruption scandal was emerging, and previously was head of supply and trade for Yara, which was spun off from Norsk Hydro in 2004. Kvidal started working for Hydro in 1991.
Teksum made one gracious gesture towards Haslestad, saying he wanted “to thank Jørgen for his contribution to Yara, first as a board member and since 2008 as CEO. Yara has made considerable progress under Haslestad’s leadership.”
Haslestad, who took over for the former CEO Thorleif Enger who’s now under indictment for corruption, had to spend much of his tenure at Yara under the cloud of the corruption scandal. Now he’s abruptly out of the company entirely, with all sign of him already removed from Yara’s website. He was free to retreat to his farm in Vestfold where he’s often said he likes doing farm work. Teksum refused to concede that he’d all but kicked Haslestad out of the company.
“The company is now in critical merger talks at the same time as the company chief would soon retire,” Teksum told NRK.no, though. “It’s important that the person leading these negotiations would be part of a merged company in the future.”