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AAP

November 29 2012, 6:28PM

By Greg Roberts and Peter Trute

SYDNEY, Nov 29 AAP - BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser has not guaranteed chief executive Marius Kloppers' job for any length of time as speculation continues about a succession plan.

Mr Nasser said on Thursday, while sitting alongside Mr Kloppers, that he had his support unequivocally after speaking at length about succession planning at the company's annual general meeting (AGM).

However the company has hired corporate headhunters to search for a replacement and Mr Nasser told shareholders the company was committed to a succession planning process put in place when Mr Kloppers was appointed.

BHP recently confirmed the succession plan following a report in London's Financial Times that Mr Nasser was leading the process to replace Mr Kloppers.

The 50-year-old South African-born businessman has served as chief executive for five-and-a-half years and is believed to want to continue in the role.

He has previously criticised what he called an Australian obsession with five-year tenures for chief executives.

Asked by reporters after the AGM if he would be at the 2013 meeting, Mr Kloppers would only say he served at the pleasure of the board and would prefer that other things were written about BHP.

Mr Nasser said he did not think there should be a maximum amount of time considered appropriate for a chief executive.

"I am not referring to BHP Billiton but it could be a CEO reaches a point in their life where he or she wants to do different things, it could be the strategy of the company has changed dramatically," he said.

He also highlighted what he called the company's "strong bench", referring to aluminium boss Alberto Calderon, non-ferrous head Andrew Mackenzie and new chief financial officer Graham Kerr.

Speculation began in July when it emerged through the Corporate Confidence Index that investor ratings of Mr Kloppers had fallen, with weaker annual profit, a weak share price and massive write-downs on shale assets not helping.

However BHP was upbeat about its year at the AGM, saying its uniquely diversified resources portfolio had protected profits - its net profit was $US15.4 billion ($A14.76 billion) - in a volatile year for the market.

"We were able to invest through the cycle, we were able to continue to invest when others couldn't and we were able to continue to invest during the downturn in global economies," Mr Nasser said.

There was pressure to invest less and return more to shareholders at the AGM, with some angry and calling for special dividends.

Mr Kloppers said he could not make a forward-looking statement about profits, but said no increase in iron ore prices - currently the company's biggest earner - was expected soon.

That does not augur well for the federal government's chance of getting any mining taxes out of the company.

It forecast compound annual volume growth rate of about 10 per cent this year and next, increasing the importance of volumes - rather than prices - and controlling costs to drive profits."

Meanwhile, two men face charges after abseiling down the Sydney Convention Centre as part of an environmental protest outside BHP's AGM.

BHP shares closed 21 cents up at $34.21.