Rio Tinto chief Tom Albanese on Sunday said Australian iron ore was the firm's top growth priority, with demand set to outstrip supply of the precious steel-making metal until at least 2013.
The Anglo-Australian mining giant this week revealed it had almost tripled net profit to $14.32 billion dollars as commodity prices skyrocketed on strong demand, saying it would hand $5 billion back to shareholders.
The market had been "pleasantly surprised" by the share buy back but Albanese said Rio's prospects were strong, with global growth running at between 4% and 5% -- "higher than we would've expected" -- and a "good long-term picture."
Albanese said the "very strong" iron ore prices were better than he would have anticipated 12 months ago, "with certainly a demand that's continuing to be well in excess of what the supply is."
"Realistically, if we look over the next year or two it's hard to find big new areas of supply globally, particularly in 2011," he told ABC television.
"But as 2013, 2014, 2015 start winding in, you're going to see a lot of new iron ore coming in the market and it's probably going to put the market closer in balance than we would see right now," he added.
Rio's "No. 1 growth priority over the next five years" would be expanding its Pilbara iron ore operations in western Australia, he said, with two thirds of the $12 billion in investments announced in the past 12 months targeting that project.
Extending its coal operations in Australia was also in Rio's focus, with its $3.9 billion play for Riversdale -- well established in Mozambique -- seen supplementary to that and only "if the right conditions all take place."
Rio's second priority was to boost its copper business, Albanese said, with opportunities in North and South America along with its massive Oyu Tolgoi project in Mongolia, tipped to produce 450,000 tonnes of copper over 35 years.
The mining chief said he was "quite optimistic" about the metal's prospects because grades at the major mines were declining, meaning there would be "a continued period of strong copper pricing."
But Albanese was cool on the lucrative potash fertilizer market, saying he saw it as an "exploration" asset rather than something to pursue through merger or acquisition.
Rival BHP Billiton made a hostile $39 billion push for Canada's Potash Corp last year, the world's leading fertilizer maker.
Though it was ultimately blocked by Canadian politicians, the bid was seen as underscoring the growing importance of fertilizer, especially to major importers such as China, in the face of mounting global demand for food.
Albanese said he "liked" potash, noting that Rio had sold its own Argentinean assets during the global slump, and said he would return to the market "if we find the right opportunity."
"But frankly, on potash and many of the new things, I'd rather look at them from more of an exploration perspective," he said.
"On the M and A [merger and acquisition] space, in terms of -- as I scan the landscape -- I'd be more narrowly focused on the smaller type things that really would be more of a bolt-on to the existing businesses of Rio Tinto."
"I think we can certainly satisfy our growth objectives by focusing first and foremost on organic opportunities within the existing suite of Rio Tinto businesses."
Rio's last big buy, the 2007 acquisition of Canada's Alcan, was expensive and hugely unpopular, while a huge iron ore tie-up with BHP collapsed last October amid antitrust complaints from regulators and top customers including China.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011