BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser has cited this year's elevation of Graham Kerr to the role of chief financial officer as an example of how the company's long term succession planning is working well.
Succession planning is one of the hot topics at today's annual meeting of BHP shareholders in Sydney, following recent reports that the company has accelerated the process of finding a replacement for chief executive Marius Kloppers.
Mr Kloppers speech did not contain any reference to the recent controversy, but Mr Nasser spoke about the issue at length, reiterating BHP's commitment to continuous succession planning.
"Succession planning and executive development is a process and not an event, and at BHP Billiton this process is ongoing and thorough," he said.
"This is not only good people practice, it is good risk mitigation." Mr Nasser said BHP's succession process regularly identified "high potential people" at various levels of the company, and externally.
"For instance, in the past year, Graham Kerr, a long-time employee, took over from Alex Vanselow as chief financial officer. This is a good example of our executive development and succession planning process," he said.
Mr Kerr became CFO and joined BHP's group management committee on January 1, and his relative youth has meant few commentators have seen him as a serious candidate to succeed Mr Kloppers as chief executive.
It was unclear whether Mr Nasser's decision to name Mr Kerr on such a significant stage was an attempt to put his name into the chief executive mix, but it will inevitably do so among some commentators.
Mr Kerr is a 41-year-old Australian who joined BHP as a graduate accountant at Port Hedland in 1994.
Apart from a two-year stint at Iluka Resources between 2004-06, Mr Kerr has moved through various roles at BHP, including being president of the diamonds division that was divested over the past 11 months. Mr Nasser said Mr Kloppers had led the company through very difficult times and was a "world class" executive.
He said shareholders should have every confidence in BHP's succession process and its ability to serve the company well.
"In terms of CEO succession, where we are now is where any company would be two, five or more years into the tenure of a CEO. That is, we continue our commitment to the succession planning process we put in place when our CEO was appointed," he said.
Outside the annual meeting, shareholders were mixed about Mr Kloppers' time as chief executive and whether BHP needed to announce a formal succession plan.
Shareholder Lo Hak said a plan to replace Mr Kloppers had to be put in place.
"Just like any other big organisation, there should be a smooth transition from one [chief executive] to another," he said.
Another shareholder, who did not want to be named, said he was not concerned about the speculation surrounding Mr Kloppers.
"At the end of the day, they are not doing well," he said. "I've not been happy with BHP. The share price is down and the dividend is not great."
BHP shares are up 5 cents - 0.1 per cent - at $34.05.