Interview with Mark O’Dea, part of our Interviews with Mining Greats series.
Mark is one of the youngest interviewees in this interview series, but his achievements are just as impressive. He has launched and sold several companies since 2011, including Fronteer Gold and, most recently, True Gold Mining, which was acquired by Endeavour Mining late in 2016. Fiercely intelligent, he has a PhD in geology amongst his many honorifics. When I met him for coffee in Denver, Colorado, I noticed a few pages of notes on the table in front of us; although he barely referred to them throughout our conversation, I was struck by his level of thought that has gone into the topic of what makes a good leader. I found Mark to be very personable and excellent company. He was considered, thoughtful and full of energy and enthusiasm.
Stratum: How did you first get into mining?
From the age of 10 to 20 I grew up in Newfoundland, also known as the Rock, out in the cold Atlantic. That’s the environment you’re living in, a pretty raw elemental place.
Then, in my second year of university, I discovered geology as a degree, and instantly fell in love with it. I felt like I’d found my tribe, I’d found my vocation and it just offered me the kind of outdoor lifestyle that I was looking for at the time.
I guess the subconscious influences that we all have also came into play. It turns out that both my grandfathers were real hobbyists in geology. My maternal grandfather staked claims and would show me specimens of gold that he would find or trade. As a career, he ran a small hotel in a mining town near one of the richest mines in Northern Ontario. Those things, I think, feed into what makes you up.
My other grandfather on my dad’s side would tell us stories about being out hunting and finding these veins of gold or copper and taking samples, but unfortunately they fell out of his backpack before he got home. He could never find those outcrops again.
Stratum: Would you say that the storytelling element of your grandfathers perhaps caught your imagination at a young age?
It did, and seeing my grandfather reading the Northern Miner, I didn’t know what that was at the time, but it all sort of came together.
Stratum: We’ve noticed several of the new generation of mining professionals have all studied geology but they don’t want to go to Newfoundland or Saskatoon or Africa. They want to head straight into the boardroom.
I think it has a lot to do with the work ethic and culture in which you’re brought up.
It’s a good segue into what advice I would give someone new to the industry, which is put your feet on the rocks, put your boots on the ground, get your hands dirty and learn the business from the ground up.
That means soil sampling, cutting line, staking claims, logging core, managing drill crews, learning how to map, learning how to prospect, all that fundamental stuff that goes into the fabric of our industry.
If you don’t know that, and you haven’t cut your teeth on the rocks, you can’t possibly expect some kind of leapfrog over that right into the corporate world. Get right in there and learn your business, learn your rocks and work hard. There are no short cuts.
Twenty or thirty years ago mining companies did a lot more mentoring of their own young employees. They had the budgets for it and they had the longevity for it. They were investing in the people more than we are today.
There really is a long apprenticeship that ought to accompany any new graduate moving through the ranks and learning how all the facets of the business work; starting with how to identify rocks.
Stratum: Unfortunately, a lot of kids believe they can be billionaires at 25.
It is unfortunate. Kids are taught today that everything they do has got to be fun and has got to be exactly what they want to do. It’s misleading and leads to disappointment in the real world.
So much of life and our career is just drudgery. It’s hard work. It’s not glamorous but the reward is completing it and doing it to the best of your ability, so work hard, do your absolute best and the rewards will come, even if that task that you’ve just done is deadly boring.
Stratum: Looking back at your earlier career, what would you say was your first real big break?
Life is full of breaks, isn’t it? Our careers, our lives are touched by people who open doors or circumstances that are presented to us and one door leads to another.
There are three or four breaks that I would see that were pivotal. One was getting my first real field job in Labrador and immersing myself in bush culture. That was with a guy named Derek Wilton who was a professor at Memorial University. Derek, I and one other student flew off into the wilds of Labrador and basically prospected the mount for a month and I didn’t want to come home. I found my bliss.
Stratum: How did that come about?
I was a hungry summer student and was doing well in school. I knew he was hiring so I approached him. That was the first big break that really set me on my course.
The next big break, I would say, came on the back of a pretty gruelling mountain biking trip I took around Australia. The last leg of the trip was through a section of South Australia called the Oodnadatta Track, which is this desolate, dry, dreary place. It’s the lowest point in the Australian continent. It’s like the Great Salt Lake of Utah; it’s just all salt and it was blistering hot and dry as a bone.
I emerged out of that completely wrecked and found myself a couple of days later in Melbourne and cold-called a professor that I had admired named Gordon Lister. I just rolled up on my bike, all skin and bones because there was nothing left of me and I said “I just cycled around Australia and would love to come and do a PhD with you.” He laughed and said “Are you nuts?” He thought about it for a while.
He concluded that anyone crazy enough to cycle around Australia was crazy enough to do a PhD with him! He was known to be a bit of a wild man. I went back to Canada, applied for the scholarships and admissions and six months later I was doing a PhD with him. It was one of these moments in time that it clicked. That got me on to an academic path and honed my geology skills.
The next big break came with Rob McEwen, who launched the Goldcorp Challenge for geologists from around the world. I placed second and immediately got an opportunity of a lifetime through Wayne Beach and Hugh Snyder out of Toronto to start Fronteer with them, and that launched my public company career.
The most exciting part of my career to date has been involved in creating these companies and employing all these people and creating a culture of our own. We’ve created wealth as well along the way, but what’s nice is I never think about it or quantify it, but thousands of families and people that our enterprises have touched and helped is gratifying.
Stratum: It sounds like you put in a lot of time before you got your biggest breaks.
A good chunk of time, yes. At one point, I calculated, if I added up all of the time I’d spent living in a tent in the middle of nowhere I think it’s four years of my life!
The old saying is “Look, this is my 10-year overnight success.” Success – whatever you want to define that as – comes in a moment in time but the backdrop to that is a massive amount of work and love of the craft.
Stratum: Looking back again, what would you say were the biggest mistakes?
I see every single chapter as a fundamental prerequisite to the next one, so you cannot possibly be ready for what you’re facing had you not gone through what you’ve just gone through. So through that lens I don’t see anything as a mistake—just an opportunity to learn—even if sometimes you don’t appreciate it.
Stratum: You’re still very young, you’re probably one of the youngest people I’ve spoken to, but what would you say to your 30-year-old self?
I’d say a bunch of things. One links into the advice I’d give anybody, which is never stop learning. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at, you’re always going to be surrounded by people who know more than you, who are smarter than you; learn from them.
Ask a million questions, stupid questions, ask and be the guy in the room that asks the stupid questions, because if you’re thinking that, then chances are everybody else is. Don’t be afraid of not knowing everything because there’s nothing more boring than the smartest person in the room.
The other thing I would throw in: get a life outside your work. Pay attention to the people who love you. We all need to find somebody who understands what we’re doing and is supportive and is truly a life mate through it because we’re away a lot in this business. It’s a tough gig on a family and to have the right partner is a real blessing. And I’m very fortunate in that way.
Stratum: A consistent theme coming from most people I’ve spoken to has been they were knocking down doors to get advice and mentoring. If you’re a credible person I find people genuinely want to help.
Human nature is amazing and there is a human tendency to want to teach and impart knowledge and share.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate my whole life to have had these mentors throughout my entire career, all the way from working on a cod fishing boat having a skipper that I admired to the best boss I ever had, a man named David Caulfield.
David ran a company called Equity Engineering, which was a consulting company. I’d just come back from travelling around Thailand – penniless, shoeless, walking around town with flip-flops and shorts looking for a job.
Dave Caulfield looked at me and laughed and said “Sure, why not? Come and start.”
He had such an amazing ability to manage people and connect with people in a way that I’ve admired my whole life. He could bring the best out of everybody by dialling into what made that person tick.
Stratum: Has that influenced what you look for in leaders now or where you choose to invest?
Ultimately I think it comes down to somebody you want to follow, somebody who leads from the front. They’ve got the vision. They’ve got the passion. They’ve got the drive and the creativity to almost conjure this thing into existence and are not going to take no for an answer.
But they also need to have empathy and compassion and generosity with their time and accessibility. I also think it’s important, when you’ve got a team behind you, to share in the accolades. You’ve got to give people credit.
Ronald Reagan had a note on his desk in the White House that read “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” It’s true and I think a good leader is generous with the praise and the sharing of the spotlight.
Stratum: When you’re investing $50 million into someone, or someone’s going to come and work for you as a CEO, are there specific criteria that you use to assess this person?
There’s no formula. But I’ve learned, particularly over the last five years, that if you get the team wrong, you have to change it right away. Don’t live with the dysfunction longer than you must.
You might have made the wrong choice. You can try and trim around the edges to make things okay but in reality, in your gut, you know it’s the wrong person and you’ve got to make that change. You get the team right and everything will fall in place.
Stratum: It’s interesting that most of the things you’ve spoken about in terms of what you look for in people tend to be behavioural factors.
I want smart people but I want smart people who have some social skills. I’m not looking for a bunch of power heads. I have to have people who can communicate. In any industry, the biggest challenge is communicating your craft in a way that’s interesting and evocative to an audience of investors without getting bogged down in a bunch of scientific minutiae.
Stratum: Is there anyone you rate in the industry at the moment as a great leader or a great potential leader? Anyone that stands out as a future leader?
There are a few new CEOs that I think very highly of. Christian Milau. We hired him out of Endeavour and gave him his first CEO job at True Gold. He did a great job for us and he’s now running Luna Gold. Darin Labrenz is CEO of Pure Gold and doing a great job advancing the Madsen Gold Project in Red Lake, Ontario. Finally, Leigh Curyer is doing a top-notch job running NexGen, having made a very significant uranium discovery in the Athabasca. All three of these individuals are going to be around for a long time, and I give them my full endorsement.
Stratum: And finally, are there any books you’d recommend for future leaders?
All the good books come to me from my wife Victoria. She brings a very eclectic mix to the table, opens new doors that lead to places I wouldn’t necessarily go to on my own. I tend to revert to the classics.
Sitting on my desk is a book of Seneca’s writing on the shortness of life. It’s a little treatise that goes back 3,000 years. It’s all about how time is our biggest commodity and we’re so wasteful with it, more wasteful than any other asset that we own. We waste our time. That’s a typical example of something that I like to read at night.
Next to it is sitting an anthology of guitars. I love guitars!
Dr Mark O’Dea has played leadership roles in founding, financing and building numerous mining companies, creating over $3 billion in shareholder value. As co-founder, CEO and Director, he grew Fronteer Gold from start-up to its sale in 2011 to Newmont Mining, which included the spin-out of Pilot Gold.
Dr O’Dea co-founded and served as CEO and Director of Aurora Energy, which was sold to Paladin in 2011. He co-founded True North Nickel, which was sold to Royal Nickel in 2014, and most recently co-founded and served as Executive Chairman of True Gold Mining, which was sold to Endeavour Mining in 2016. He is the founder of Oxygen Capital Corp., and serves as Chairman of the Board of Pilot Gold and as Director of Pure Gold Mining.
His many business and industry awards include the Globe and Mail’s Top 40 Under 40, EY Entrepreneur of the Year™ (Pacific mining and metals), and AMEBC’s Murray Pezim Award for perseverance and success in financing mineral exploration.
Mark completed his Geology degree at Carleton University and gained a PhD at Monash University. He and his wife have three children. Together they run the Mining for Miracles fundraising campaign to support the BC Children’s Hospital.