VanEck Natural Resources Conference 2019: CEOs On Innovation and Education
August 12, 2019
At this year’s VanEck Natural Resources Conference near Pittsburgh, after their respective sessions before the general audience, I had the fortune to speak independently with the CEOs of four leading natural resources companies: Mark Bristow, President and CEO, Barrick Gold Corporation; Tony Jensen, President and CEO, Royal Gold, Inc.; Ron Millos, SVP, Finance and CFO, Teck Resources Limited; and Dale Redman, CEO, ProPetro Holding Corporation.
Our individual chats were quite wide ranging, with each at some point touching, appropriately, upon innovation, one of this year’s conference themes (Innovate, Navigate, Differentiate). What I found particularly enlightening, though, was their views on two other subjects: education and recruitment, especially in the mining industry.
I should like to share some insights from our conversations.
Innovation (is more than just technology?)
It was especially interesting to note that, across our discussions, innovation was multifaceted in its nature, whether it lay in corporate planning and products, systems standardization, or technology, communications and data-related advances.
For Mr. Jensen of precious metals stream and royalty company Royal Gold, remaining competitive is predicated on product innovation. This, in turn, is intimately tied up with strategic planning, which, for him and his company, is a constant process. Perhaps most interestingly for me, he described their annual planning “off-site” as being the occasion upon which they ripped their company “down to the bones” and asked themselves the fundamental questions they usually are afraid to ask (the answers to which would help take the company forward).
When looking at innovation in the mining industry, Mr. Millos of metals and mining company Teck emphasized its accretive nature, often exemplified by numbers of smaller projects. He sees their biggest individual project being the standardizing of systems: a process that requires a great deal of planning and effort, particularly in getting alignment across the organization on the optimal path forward.
For Dale Redman, CEO of ProPetro (a provider of hydraulic fracturing services to oil and gas exploration and production companies in North America, in particular the Permian Basin), together with changes in pump technology, the greatest innovation he has seen in the last eight to nine years in the space has involved how the company communicates, machine learning and data acquisition. He sees all of these as helping enhance the company “process”.
Education and recruitment were subjects close to a number of my interlocutors’ hearts. They saw challenges on a number of different fronts. Two of the most apparent were: 1) the dearth of suitably qualified engineers and geologists available for recruitment; and 2) as big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence become more prevalent, the recruitment of data scientists and programmers.
While Dr. Bristow, President and CEO of gold mining supermajor Barrick, was brutally honest, seeing today’s mining industry not only as “bureaucratic,” but also as being bad at both recruiting and developing human resource assets, even so, there remains a real problem with skills. I learned that, seeking some way to address this, Barrick has some very interesting initiatives on this front with its sponsorship of exceptional science students both in secondary and tertiary education.
Addressing the subject as “near and dear” to his heart, Mr. Jensen (who holds a BS from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology) told me that, as mining-related university programs grew fewer and fewer, he joined his alma mater’s advisory board in the early 2000s. After a lot of hard work and creating an innovative management component to the Mining Engineering degree, the industry was able to ensure the continuation of that program, which, together with other universities’, is critical to supplying today’s mineral talent. Okay, they may not be big and there may not be that many of them, but they actually still exist.
Finally, it was with Mr. Millos that I chatted about recruiting data experts and programmers. He said that while talking the other day with one of the company’s young people in the area, he learned that he was just thrilled to be working at Teck, despite his contemporaries wanting to work in “Big Tech.” He saw “huge opportunities.” However, as Mr. Millos observed wryly, that’s a great start, but the challenge is to convince his contemporaries that that’s the thing to do as well!
It was an honor to be able to speak so freely with these four luminaries of the natural resources world. But, then, that’s the nature of the VanEck conferences: they provide you with unrivalled access to some of the smartest, most innovative and successful people in the sector. I trust I may have provided at least a glimpse of some of the things I was able to learn from them.
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