David Netherway is interviewed as part of Will Coetzer’s ongoing series of conversations with mining leaders.
I have the pleasure of knowing David Netherway well and was pleased when he agreed to an interview. Now into his fourth decade in the industry, and with a raft of Chairmanships and NED roles to his name, few people have the breadth of experience and expertise that David can offer. Our connection originally came via Altus Strategies Ltd, our partners in Resource IQ, where he is the Chairman. David’s support of the networking group is indicative of his desire to give something back to the industry he has enjoyed for nearly 40 years. David’s lost none of his zest for the industry over the years but over that time he has become one of the wise mentors of mining, with a particular expertise in the junior space. I always enjoy speaking with David, and it was particularly interesting to be able to conduct a slightly more formal interview with him on this occasion.
Stratum: Tell me David, how you first got into mining.
I was born and bred in Ballarat, which was the centre of the Australian gold mining industry. My father was a very eclectic person who was very interested in everything but he was fascinated by rocks.
He was a draughtsman in the advertising business but on the side, he was into pond life, geology, painting and all sorts of things. He was secretary to the historical association for 50 years and they set up what is now Eureka Stockade, the tourist replica village, museum and underground mine; one of the first ones in Australia.
It was set up in Ballarat because the Eureka Rebellion was the only civil war ever in Australia, between the miners and the police back in 1854.
I did mining engineering at the University of Melbourne. I was influenced by a very flamboyant mining engineer there called Simon Peck and by John Dunlop.
They were both mining engineers and a few years ahead of me. I was doing engineering but I wasn’t sure which engineering. I was thinking about surveying, because my sister had a boyfriend who was a surveyor and it seemed a pretty good outdoor life and a lot of travel.
These guys said to me at university “Don’t do surveying. You become a good surveyor like you become a good plumber. Be a mining engineer, but what you must do is go and get a job in the mining industry as a vacation job.”
I wrote to every mining company I could find in the telephone directory in Melbourne, got one reply with an underground job offer in Kalgoorlie which I took.
This was the end of first year where I had to make a choice. You do a common first year of engineering and then you do electrical, civil or mining or whatever. You have to make a choice before second year. I chose mining and never looked back.
It helped that Australia at that time was just entering the nickel boom, so mining was high profile too.
Stratum: What would you say was your first big break?
Five of us graduated that year and a couple of years later they closed the Melbourne University mining school. Three of them were on scholarships and therefore had jobs. Two of us took a few months to get a job.
We got jobs at Minenco, which was Rio Tinto’s Consulting Group, and they didn’t know what to do with us. They were told by McKinsey to go and hire some young guys because you’re all too old and you need some young blood, so they hired us!
They said to us “What do you want to do?” I said “I want to finish my underground mine manager’s certificate.” I’d already done most of the actual underground experience but I needed a couple of years in underground mines so they got me into Broken Hill in Australia.
When I was there, I asked to get experience on everything. I spent two or three months in every department in the mine, including every section of the mill, underground, everything, including the laboratories.
So instead of spending two years in, say, the ventilation department I spent three months in there so I got this broad experience for two or three years. Then I went underground and finished all my underground experience, because you need three years in and around a mine for a mine manager’s certificate.
During that period, I was sent to Mary Kathleen Uranium Mine because they needed someone to go and do a study for three months. That was an open pit so I got good open pit experience also.
I got all this incredible experience over three years. At the end of three years I said “Sod this! I need a break. I’ve been doing all this and studying and everything.” I wanted to go to Europe and have a holiday for a few months.
Minenco said “Fine, you go and do that. When you come back we’ll send you to our mines at Bougainville or Hamersley for some open pit experience.”
But my mentor, a guy called George Reynolds, said “If you’re going to London you’d better see my mate Dick Moffat, who’s the CEO of RTZ Consultants.”
By the time I got to London, Dick goes “You have to go to India next week. I’ve got you lined up for something.”
This was around June 1978, and I’ve never lived in Australia since. Then RTZ Consultants got sold to Golder Associates and you could either go with Peter Stokes and join Micromine, to Bristol with RTZ Technical Services or Golder’s. I joined Golder’s here in the UK. Following that I spent six months in Oman, four months in Malaysia and three years in India.
Stratum: You mentioned your mentor at the time. Was that something you actively sought out?
Minenco appointed a senior person to keep an eye on us. I got on well with him because he was an experienced mining engineer and I looked up to him. But, because I was in the UK and he was over there, the relationship didn’t continue.
However, I’m still close friends with John Dunlop. He came back to Melbourne University as a lecturer while I was there in my last two years of mining. He had spent three years underground as a mining engineer at Rosebury in Tasmania. He was the first mining lecturer at Melbourne University for about 200 years that had recent mining experience!
He was fantastic because he was three or four years older than us and he could relate to us and we’ve been very close friends ever since. He’s been very much involved in the AusIMM in Australia.
The other mentor I need to mention is Jim Askew. Jim is the chairman of OceanaGold and of Evolution in Australia, two of Australia’s biggest gold mining companies, and of Syrah Resources, which has a big graphite project in Mozambique. Jim was CEO of Golden Shamrock and we were at Broken Hill together. He was about two or three years older than me. He set up James Askew and Associates, which became Australia Mining Consultants and Ausdrill.
I got Jim into Ghana, where, as Golden Shamrock, we built the Iduapriem Gold Mine. Later he became my chairman of Prospex Mining and I’ve worked with him ever since, on and off. He’s had a big influence. He’s one of my more recent mentors over the last 20 years.
Stratum: What would you say is your biggest success to date?
I would like to say Altus Strategies which is heading that way. But I think probably Afcan because it became an operating mine. We took the Tanjianshan gold project in the west of China through to selling it to Eldorado. I bought it from Sino Gold.
Stratum: And have you ever looked back and thought “that was a big mistake”?
My role these days is all about people. You’re in the people business so you fully understand that you have to choose the right people.
I guess the biggest risk is not making the changes you should make when you realise there is a problem. It’s hard, but as you get older and greyer you get tougher in this business.
I think the other lesson is that as a director, and especially as a non-exec director, you have to be very involved. You need to make sure you regularly visit the site operations to ensure that what you are being told is what is happening and that the executive is not being ‘economical with the truth’.
Another one – and again it’s the people issue – was when I was with RTZ Consultants, I was told “We are hiring a guy to go out to Oman and be our chief geologist.” I had a beer with him and he seemed like a good bloke, but get him out there and he was useless. You need to do your homework properly.
It’s all changed now and you can evaluate these people a lot better. You guys(Stratum) have got a lot better systems to do it but it was a real risk in those days. Some people just ‘spat the dummy’ the minute they came in and got back on the plane, others lasted longer and you had to throw them out because they went ‘bush’.
Stratum: Accurate assessment is a big thing for our company. Do you have any specific way of assessing people?
I found the best way when I was running Ghana was a six-hour drive to the site. That was one of the more interesting ways of finding out whether this guy was going to work and finding out his attitude to looking round. Driving through villages, poverty, black Africa and all that, seeing whether he was going to fit in and then giving him a pep talk on how he should fit in and how he’s representing his country, he’s representing all sorts of things, and how he should act.
Usually they’d fly in that night, you’d have dinner with them, have breakfast, leave early in the morning and then drive on to the site. That gave you some sort of window to give this guy an idea of how he’s meant to behave and get a feel of the feedback of what he’s actually like, whether you think he will fit in. Of course, you can still get it wrong.
Stratum: What level were you at the time?
I was country manager. But even now on CEOs and board members, you must do some basic groundwork at least. Talk to the right people and have more than a beer with the guy.
The only people I hire these days are either NEDs or CEOs. I’m not involved in the rest. My opinion is asked but that’s about it; it’s not necessarily my decision. They are such important roles but it can take three or four months to find out if someone’s no good. By then it’s too late.
Stratum: What advice would you have for your 30-year-old self? What do people need to do to be successful in this business?
Be lucky! Be in the right place in the right time and then grasp the opportunities when they come.
I had a great life. It’s been fantastic. I’ve travelled, I’ve seen the world, I’ve worked in all different countries, I’ve been given these opportunities and people eventually believed in me and that I could run a company. I jumped at the opportunity and tried it.
Stratum: A common theme that has come out with people in this series, has been a willingness, in the early five to 10 years, to go to the middle of nowhere rather than sitting in Canary Wharf in an office building on a computer.
Absolutely. It’s essential. I did three years in an Australian mine, got my mine manager’s ticket, and then came to the UK, where I was consulting.
My consulting career in India was unbelievable because we were doing underground lead, zinc, asbestos and copper all round India. Every three months I would go to some of these consulting jobs, travel around India and then my boss had to come back to the UK and run the company.
Then I was in India by myself at the age of 26, running the India operation. I’d go to Nagpur or Calcutta, and then we were doing a job at 15,000 feet in Nepal up on the Tibetan plateau right on the Chinese border – a three-day trek to get up there. I was getting paid to go trekking! It was absolutely unbelievable.
When I came back after all that, I decided that I’d not had enough experience. I had to get back to the sharp end. The good thing about the mining industry is you can sit in Canary Wharf, you can be underground as a mining engineer, there is such a wide range of things you can do but the sharp end is where it’s really at.
I got a job in Ghana, with Ghana National Manganese, under an EU-subsidised programme. I was chief operating officer and then never looked back from that. I brought Jim Askew in and we built the Iduapriem gold mine a couple of years later.
You have to take those opportunities but you have to realise your shortcomings and which way you want to go. It’s a great industry but you have to get your hands dirty at some stage. A lot of people don’t believe me.
Stratum: Are there any up and coming youngsters or high flyers you’re keeping your eye on in the industry right now?
I think Steven Poulton is one of them. I backed him 10 years ago when I first agreed to become his chairman because I felt that he was going places. It’s been hard through the cycles, but it’s getting better. I think something’s going to pop out of there. He’s just full of ideas all the time.
Stratum: And my last question is whether you have any book recommendations, professional or personal?
I’m reading Diana Athill’s biographies, they are unbelievable. We went to Japan last week for the first time, so I’ve been reading a book on the economy of Japan, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling, an FT Asia editor who was based out there for 10 years or so. And there’s another one I just finished called Lost Japan, which was written about 20 years ago, about how Japan was losing its heritage, even then. Fascinating.
David Netherway is a mining engineer with over 40 years of experience in the mining industry. David was involved in the construction and development of the New Liberty, Iduapriem, Siguiri, Samira Hill and Kiniero gold mines in West Africa and has mining experience in Africa, Australia, China, Canada, India and the former Soviet Union. David served as the CEO of Australian-listed Shield Mining Ltd until its takeover by Gryphon Minerals Ltd; prior to that he was the CEO of Toronto-listed Afcan Mining Corporation, a China-focused gold mining company that was sold to Eldorado Gold in 2005. He was also the Chairman of Aureus Mining Inc and the Chairman of Afferro Mining Inc which was acquired by International Mining and Infrastructure Corporation in 2013. David has held senior management positions in several mining companies including Golden Shamrock Mines, Ashanti Goldfields, Crusader Resources and Semafo Inc. He is a former director of Altus Resource Capital and Altus Global Gold.
David is currently the Non-Executive Chairman of Kilo Goldmines Ltd (TSX: KGL), Canyon Resources Ltd (ASX: CAY) and Altus Strategies Ltd and is a non-executive director of Avesoro Mining Inc (AIM/TSE: ASO).
To read all our interviews with mining greats download our report On the Shoulders of Giants.