Interviews with Mining Greats: Catherine McLeod Seltzer

 

Catherine McLeod-Seltzer is interviewed by Will Coetzer as part of our series of conversations with mining greats.

I met Catherine McLeod Seltzer in London, during one of her UK transits to far-flung mining sites. With a track record stretching back 20 years, and with no signs of slowing down any time soon, Catherine is a seriously impressive figure. A serial entrepreneur, Catherine lends her talents as a director to several organisations in the sector. She’s also received several awards and accolades, including Canada’s Most Powerful Women Top 100 and famously The Northern Miner’s Mining Man of the Year for 1999. I found her serious, focused and thoughtful. Like all the interviewees, she was gracious and generous with her time.

 

Stratum: Hello Catherine. How did you first get involved in mining?

I was born into a mining family, third generation, in British Columbia. My education was in finance, but in 1985 I started working for Yorkton Securities, a Canadian broking firm, based in the London office. I was working with Frank Giustra.

We did a lot of mining work, financing mainly North American precious metal stocks. A couple years later – after we successfully financed Bema Gold for an acquisition and development in Chile – Frank decided it was a good time to put someone in Latin America to access projects for the money we had the ability to raise in North America and Europe.

I spent about a year in Chile running that office and then I met David Lowell, who was very, very integral to the mining exploration boom in Chile. He found Escondida and multiple other deposits in other parts of the world.

We happened to meet at the opening cocktail for Yorkton’s Chilean office and we quickly became good friends, talking about trends we were seeing.

David had his ear to the ground, what things are happening; technically and politically. He saw what had happened in Chile in the 80s, where the country opened up to foreign exploration investment. And now he saw the same thing happening in Peru.

So in early 1993 David and I went to Peru together. He was telling me what prospects he was staking and the type of assets he was looking for, mainly porphyry copper in the cooper belt.

I told him I thought I could raise him the money in Canada to do this. We raised about $5 million to start with. That copper exploration led to a discovery, but the real gem was the gold prospects he had staked up in the Ancash region.

We didn’t know it at the time, but what we had been sitting on ultimately turned out to be a 10-million-ounce gold deposit from almost day one, because we had staked that prospective territory early on.

But it was the real ‘boots on the ground’ exploration, following up stream sediment samples that led to the Pierina discovery in 1995. By early 1996 we had started drilling.

 

Stratum: Perhaps you’ve already answered this, but what would you consider your first big break?

It was definitely meeting David Lowell at that cocktail party. You know, he’s a fascinating man, he’s worked all over the world, and he was surrounded with fascinating people, like John Guilbert. The Lowell and Guilbert porphery copper model was their thesis, which led to many, many discoveries.

There was a multitude of people from that era who would come to visit him in Chile or in Peru. I got to sit with them and hear the stories of major discoveries in all parts of the work including Papua New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, as well as South America.

 

Stratum: Those are some big names that you mentioned there. Many of the leaders I’ve spoken to in this series of interviews seemed to have actively sought out mentors that made breaks happen for them, but it sounds like you were fortunate in meeting people who almost anyone would want as a mentor… 

Absolutely, and number one was Dave.

 

Stratum: But you had to perform of course, to have a ticket at the table. 

Well I was young, but I told him I could raise him the money and I did. I raised every single dollar that Arequipa spent on exploration. Which at the end of the day was just under CAN$40 million in total. We sold the company for $1.1 billion, so that was a pretty good return on investment for our shareholders.

 

Stratum: Have you always sought out mentors throughout your career? 

I’ve just been very fortunate. I didn’t particularly seek out David, but we just hit it off and had a lot of things in common.

After that, Eira Thomas, Tom Shrake, and Andy Swarthout became friends and mentors… I guess if you meet one of that circle you’re going to meet many of that circle, so it kind of moved forward very quickly after that.

 

Stratum: There’s always a bit of luck involved in everything, but there’s also design, in that you put yourself in a position to meet these people. Many people want mentors but they don’t necessarily do that, they don’t go out, and perhaps don’t actively seek opportunities to meet these people…

I think what put me in that position was taking the opportunity to go to Chile. This was the early ‘90s so Chile was the prime posting for an ex-pat who, say at BHP or at Rio Tinto, wanted to move up the ranks in the company. It was a great spot to put those people for international experience.

I met a lot of people who turned out to be in senior positions in mining companies around the world. It was a good place to be at that time.

 

Stratum: Everyone we’ve spoken to so far have told me they’ve gone out to the locations, putting in the time, living in tents and so on. And I get a sense that the next generation is less willing to do that. 

That’s very true. To that point, Stanford University reported once that David Lowell has found more ore than anyone else alive, I mean amounts of ore that has affected the economies of nations. He’s 88 years old now and he’s out in the field still as much as he can be. I once asked him “David, why are you so good?” and he said “Well, I think I’ve been on every known porphyry deposit on the planet.”

So he knows what a certain type of rock looks like that’s associated with porphyry, he’s seen them all. And he’s got suites of rocks from dozens of mines. So he knows the textures; he hasn’t seen them in a textbook, he’s held them in his hand. I think that’s something that’s missing from the education of younger geologists.

Lukas Lundin, whom I know you have also interviewed recently, says something very true. He says that “the guy who’s actually built a mine from start to finish… it’s a lost art”. That’s his theory on why we were seeing so many cost overruns and mines that were having commissioning failures.

 

Stratum: Reflecting over your career, what would you say your greatest mistake has been? 

I think impatience.

This is a very cyclical industry and one of the hardest things to do is just be patient to wait for the opportunities to come to you, instead of sometimes being too ready to chase things because you want to seem like you’re doing something.

I think back on all the time I spent worrying about this and that. If you surround yourself with the right people and the right assets, being patient is sometimes all you need to do.

 

Stratum: Rick Rule from Sprott says in some situations it’s sometimes much more profitable not to mine than to mine, would you agree?

Absolutely. When you have a full treasury that you’ve raised in a period when the market was open, sometimes it’s better not to spend it; to wait for opportunities. We are in such a cyclical industry and assets are mispriced at the top and at the bottom at extremes that people could never imagine.

If you can position yourself with the right people and the right access to capital at the bottom, that’s how the Rick Rules and Lukas Lundins have been so successful. They have the guts to act at the bottom, and they have the chequebook to act at the bottom. Sometimes it’s better to do nothing or be a seller when assets are priced too high.

 

Stratum: What would you say to your 30-year-old self who is just getting going in the industry? 

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the people, don’t always agonise about the future, be patient.

And focus on assets. It’s about people and assets. Always focus on getting the best assets you can.

 

Stratum: What about someone who isn’t necessarily an entrepreneur who wants to be an engineer working for a larger company? 

I think they live the cycles as well. So I’d say just know it’s a cycle, and position yourself to make the most of the up cycles and don’t agonise about the down cycles, because they will pass.

And this is an industry… because of those cycles, the brutality of them… we lose a lot of good people. So if people can hang in there they will have an extremely brilliant career path, as things turn, as they inevitably will. But it’s hard to believe that at the bottom.

 

Stratum: You are obviously very well known for doing deals successfully. What do you look for when you hire people, either directly or when you invest in them?

It’s a lot to do with how known they are within the circle of people that I’ve got to know and trust over the last 30 years. That’s important.

Moral character, very important. And it’s such a small industry that you can pick up the phone, talk to three people and you’ll have figured out somebody’s past: good, bad or indifferent. I think it’s important you guard your reputation with your life in this business. I think it has to do with that reputation that you bring.

 

Stratum: Any last word of advice for the younger guard coming into the industry? 

I think patience and reputation, hang in there. My dad, who’s 88, and my very first and most enduring mentor, started in the mining industry when he was a teenager. He always said it’s a very long walk on a short street. You see the same people and the same assets come around multiple times by the time you’ve been in the industry a few decades.

 

Stratum: Finally, are there any books you’d recommend? 

I read sporadically for pleasure so I go to a book club that forces me to make time to read! But when I was travelling a lot on planes or when I was moving down to Chile, I got into the mystic realism of the Latin American genre of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Reading those Latin American novelists at that time when I was living and travelling to those countries was a really great experience.

One of them is The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende. It’s set in Chile and it’s that mystical realism genre, but the places she was talking about existed, and I saw them, so that was a cool experience.

I can’t remember a book that has affected me as much as that, at that time of my life.

 

Biography

Catherine McLeod-Seltzer is a serial company builder and a recognised leader in the minerals industry for her ability to create growth-focused companies that generate significant shareholder value. Catherine has successfully partnered with numerous geological teams in the past 20 years with successes including Arequipa Resources, Francisco Gold, Miramar Mining, Lucara Diamonds, Stornoway Diamonds and Peru Copper. Catherine was named Mining Man of the Year by The Northern Miner in 1999; given the Award for Performance by the Association of Women in Finance in 1997; positioned on the Financial Post’s Power 50; has received Canada’s Most Powerful Women Top 100 Award and in 2013 and 2016, the WIM UK’s 100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining.

Catherine has raised more than $650 million in working capital for mining exploration in the past 20 years, and been directly involved in more than $4 billion in corporate transactions. Her leadership and financial expertise, access to capital and respect in building companies have been invaluable assets to the companies she is involved in and have created significant wealth for shareholders. Catherine’s directorships in other publicly traded companies include Kinross Gold Corporation, JDL Gold, Grenville Strategic Royalties and Major Drilling.

 

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