SYDNEY, Aug 18 (Reuters) -
Marius Kloppers does not want to fail to be big -- again.
Early in his tenure at the helm of BHP Billiton, a group known as the "Big Australian", Kloppers launched an audacious but ultimately mistimed play for rival Rio Tinto (RIO.AX)(RIO.L) just before the global credit crisis hit commodities markets in 2008.
If the deal had succeeded, against the will of Rio Tinto, it would have been the second-largest takeover in corporate history.
Now three years into the job as BHP chief executive, the 47-year-old South African is still trying to clinch his first major acquisition to make the world's biggest mining company even bigger -- this time a $39 billion bid for Canadian fertiliser group Potash Corp (POT.TO).
BHP shareholders heard of the plan not from BHP but from Potash, which publicly rejected Kloppers overture as "grossly inadequate".
The outright rejection indicates Kloppers, a Fulbright scholar whose idea of a good time is watching cricket on television with his children, has a fight on his hands.
He seems to have the tenacity for one. As an 18-year-old conscript in South Africa's war in Angola, Kloppers reportedly carried his heat-stricken German Shepard through the desert rather than let him die.
In his latest foray, Kloppers is betting an increasingly hungry world will pay dearly for the super-fertiliser ingredient potash, first employed in 14th-century Ethiopia and sought after by farmers worldwide. About 150 countries use potash for their crops, but it is only produced in about a dozen.
Although it has explored for potash, BHP has yet to produce any. Potash Corp, on the other hand, commands a 20 percent share of global potash capacity. The biggest profits in commodities come from suppliers with the largest production runs, which is why Kloppers is trying on Potash Corp for size.
Kloppers, who turned vegetarian after a steady diet of fish and meat school lunches in apartheid South Africa, is critical of developed countries for hoarding food and using sugar cane, palm oil and other food crops to manufacture biofuels.
"I think biofuels are a selfish way for the West to placate itself and to basically impose the cost on the developing world," Kloppers told the Age newspaper in Australia. "We are making hundreds of millions of people worse off with biofuels because it's pushing up food prices."
Kloppers said on Wednesday there was a fair overlap between the shareholders of BHP and Potash Corp, but he was silent on his role in reportedly delivering BHP's bid in person to Potash Chief Executive Bill Doyle in Chicago on Aug. 12.
Requests for an interview with Kloppers, who rarely speaks one-on-one with the media, were declined.
BHP's bid for Potash comes before the Aug. 25 release of its 2009/10 profits in London, which if analysts are correct, will top $12 billion, a record.
Most of that profit will come from tried and true BHP commodities: iron ore, copper and oil -- not agriculture, where BHP has little experience.
But the lack of a track record in new businesses has rarely discouraged BHP's chief executives, for better or for worse.
Disastrous forays into U.S. copper mining, new-fangled ways to make nickel and iron ore, and a stint at brewing beer have cost shareholders billions of dollars over the years.
Kloppers's philosophy in contrast is to keep things simple.
"The world needs to grow more food and to do that they will need more fertiliser, so if the numbers add up, Potash makes sense is how Kloppers views this takeover," said an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Editing by Ed Davies and Bill Tarrant)