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Rio Tinto appoints new aluminum CEO to replace Jacynthe Cote

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MONTREAL - Rio Tinto has turned to a European oil and gas executive to head its aluminum division, replacing Quebec-born Jacynthe Cote.

Alfredo Barrios, 48, will assume his duties on June 1 while Cote will remain an adviser until Sept. 1. Cote, a 56-year-old trained chemist, will be leaving to spend time with one of her three children who is fighting cancer.

Barrios, who is from Spain, will move to Rio Tinto Alcan's headquarters in Montreal. Prior to his appointment, Barrios was executive director of the joint venture TNK-BP, one of Russia’s biggest oil and gas companies where he was responsible for refining, trading, supply, logistics and marketing.

He has a degree in physics, a PhD in energy economics from the University of Cambridge and a master's degree in management from Stanford University in the United States.

Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) chief executive Sam Walsh said Barrios will bring "renewed vigour and experience" to the aluminum business, which has struggled amid falling prices since it acquired Alcan for US$38.1 billion in 2007.

"I am confident he will build on the foundations Jacynthe and her team have put in place and drive further improvement in delivering increased value from the business," Walsh said in a statement on Tuesday.

Walsh praised Cote, who spent 26 years at Alcan, including nearly six as chief executive.

"The ongoing improvement in the performance of the Aluminium business is testimony to her commitment to the business throughout her career."

Neither Barrios nor Cote were giving interviews, a company spokesman said.

But in an internal note to employees, Cote thanked everyone for working together to transform the aluminum group after going through tough times for the industry.

"Together we accomplished a transformation of the aluminium group which we can all be proud of," she wrote.

"Indeed, our group performs much better, and the market begins to show signs of improvement...We are not out of the woods, but at least we can see some light."

An industry analyst described Cote as a competent manager but somebody who has not met with analysts in the global investment community in a couple of years as Rio Tinto has been forced to take huge writeoffs from aluminum division.

"Once they start not promoting the senior executives of a division you figure that there time is up," said one analyst who spoke on condition he not be named.

The observer added he was surprised by the selection of Barrios, who apparently has no experience with a metals company.

"Rio Tinto, along with BHP and a very other companies, should be able to get the cream of the crop for executives," he added in an interview.

A company spokesman pointed out, however, that Barrios has experience with "downstream operations," which is what Rio Tinto is considered, along with managing complex jurisdictions and stakeholders.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter

Note to readers: This is corrected story: A previous version incorrectly said Cote had three daughters

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