Mark Bristow was a 24-year-old university student when he attended a party on the eve of the Midmar Triathalon — a gruelling canoe-cycle-run event held at the Midmar Dam north of Pietermaritzburg in South Africa.
When the conversation at the party turned to the race and how incredibly fit you had to be in order to compete, Bristow wasn’t as impressed as the others, and they bet that he could finish the event within the time limit — despite the fact that he had never paddled a canoe.
He borrowed a canoe and a delivery bicycle in time for the starting gun the next morning. But 100 metres out on the water, Bristow fell out of the boat and had to haul himself back in using a yacht moored nearby. He came in last but won a canoe for his efforts, and it was the start of a paddling career.
For the next 11 years, Bristow competed in the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the biggest canoeing event in Africa. The 120 km endurance race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban has been held over three days in mid-February since 1951.
Temperatures at that time of year can exceed 40°C, and the route down the Umgeni River through the Valley of a Thousand Hills involves portages across challenging terrain in which most of the participants run as fast as they can with their canoes on their backs. Many of the portages are through thick bush and up steep inclines, with some as far as 8 km.
Bristow’s passion for endurance sport includes the Comrades Marathon, a punishing 90 km race that alternates between Durban and Pietermaritzburg each year. He has competed in 13.
“He has the willpower, determination, fantastic constitution and ability to make things happen,” says Peter Flack, a long-time friend and former colleague.
Now in his mid-50s, Bristow seems to have lost remarkably little of that energy and competitive spirit. Those who know him well speak of a relentless drive, formidable work ethic, demanding travel schedule and his ability to stay engaged around the clock in his business. Others mention his love of the outdoors and his penchant to drink triple espressos late into the evening.
“When Mark visited my camp a few years ago, he was travelling with two other Randgold exploration geologists, and despite having been in a 4 x 4 all day, they put on their running togs and headed off on a distance run getting back just after dark,” says Craig Pearman, now president and CEO of Midlands Minerals (TSXV: MEX). “This is not abnormal for exploration geologists to do, but it was good to see that there was a culture of exercise in Randgold that comes down from the top.”
James Campbell, president and CEO of Rockwell Diamonds (TSX: RDI; US-OTC: RDIAF), adds that “he’s phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. I see him two or three times a year, but he always responds to an email within 24 hours or a telephone call within hours, no matter where he is.”
The Northern Miner caught up with Bristow earlier this year, a month after he had landed a 550 lb. Blue Marlin off the coast of Mauritius, and several months before he embarked on a 10,000 km, four-week motorcycle trek with his youngest son that would take his small group through 12 countries, from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire to Cape Town, South Africa.
The motorcycle trip, which he completed on July 1, raised US$1.6 million for orphanages and other charities in Africa. It was the fourth of its kind Bristow and has led since the initiative started in 2009 as a family adventure with his two boys, Grant and Craig, on a trip that took them up the eastern coast of South Africa to Cairo. The road trips were temporarily put on hold after he snapped a vertebra in his lower back when he tumbled off his motorbike on a sandy patch of road in Senegal in 2011. But since then they have raised more than US$2.6 million.
Like many CEOs, Bristow prefers to talk shop rather than play. But when pressed he did share that one of the items on his bucket list is flying a 747-400, the bestselling model of the Boeing 747 family of jet airlines — “even if it’s in a simulator” — and acknowledged that if he has a single regret it is that he didn’t fly sooner. Bristow got his private pilot’s licence when he was 45, and more recently completed his twin conversion.
But one of his grandest ambitions is to deliver Randgold Resources (LSE: RRS; NASDAQ: GOLD) as a sustainable company over a 10-year rolling business plan. “We’ve got a five-year plan,” he says, “but I want to make it a 10-year plan … so that it really does make a difference.”
That Bristow can pull that off is entirely plausible. Under his stewardship as CEO, Randgold has already discovered five world-class gold deposits — all of them on large geological anomalies in West Africa — and built five mines in three countries: Kibali in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Loulo, Gounkoto and Morila mines in Mali, and Tongon in Côte d’Ivoire.
The mines are on track to produce 1 million oz. gold this year on a consolidated basis at below-industry cash costs. In the third quarter, the debt-free operator produced 299,320 oz. gold at cash costs of US$692 per oz. Next year Bristow hopes Randgold can exceed 1.2 million oz. on a consolidated basis and says the company makes money at US$1,000 per oz., because it plans to make money at US$1,000 an oz. and always has.
David Reading, a geologist who was part of the team that along with Bristow made some of Randgold’s earliest discoveries — the Morila and Tongon deposits — describes the South Africa-born geologist as “a tour de force.”
“He’s probably the best example out there of organic growth and building a company,” Reading says, now president and CEO of Aureus Mining (TSX: AUE). “I loved working there and I enjoyed working with him. I learned a lot from him. He’s a real African adventurer — a proper African explorer, as they say.”
What’s critical, Bristow says, is not losing sight of what is important: the orebodies.
“The reason we’ve been so successful in exploration is that I still believe that is the very foundation of any mining company,” he says. “We sponsor research. We invest in big-thinking people. We have our own team, which we call the generative team, which gets paid to think. It doesn’t have any output driven criteria and it’s sort of the glue within our organization to push the geologists to a point of thinking and holding them accountable to science.”
Pearman of Midlands Minerals credits the company’s track record to precisely that kind of thinking.
“I’ve always chalked up Randgold’s success to the fact that Mark is a geologist first and foremost and has always ensured that Randgold prioritized geology at the forefront of its business model,” Pearman says. “He never lost touch with the troops on the ground and ensured that he also had a say in the exploration process, and geological observations on all projects. This is quite a feat for a CEO in any company, let alone a mining house active in many countries.”
Bristow was one of five children (all boys) born in rural Estcourt, a South African farming community on the banks of the Bushman River, 160 km north of Durban. The town is situated on the main Durban-Johannesburg rail line, where Bristow’s father worked on the railways. He attended the local high school, where he played rugby and cricket, and at the age of 18 was conscripted into active service in the South A
frican army against guerrillas in South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola.
At university, Bristow started off as a student in agriculture at the University of Natal with a focus on soil science, but picked up geology as one of his electives. He then completed a BSc degree with three majors: geology, soil science and chemistry, and went on to a Masters degree, with his thesis on the Bushveld Complex.
“I was lucky because it was at a time when all the thinking started on layered intrusions and particularly the Bushveld Complex, and I worked with some interesting researchers,” Bristow recalls of his early years as a young academic. “I then converted my masters to a doctorate.” (Bristow’s two elder brothers also studied geology and went on to complete PhDs.) While doing his post-graduate research, Bristow worked as a consultant and spent time in South Africa’s chrome mines, building on his knowledge of the Bushveld. But he always leaned towards the practical side of geology, he says, and when Rand Mines, the equivalent in those days of what Anglo American (NASDAQ: AAUK; LSE: AAL) is today, offered him a job as a geologist, he decided to take it.
“Rand Mines had given me a bursary and I had sort of gone off and done all this post-grad,” Bristow remembers. “They said, ‘look, you have to make your mind up whether you want to work for us or stay at university,’ because I had a research post there. So I joined in 1986.”
Bristow was appointed Group Consulting Geologist for Rand Mines in 1992 and was put in charge of exploration and new business at Randgold & Exploration the same year. In 1994, he was appointed to the board of Randgold & Exploration, and in 1995 he was appointed CEO of Randgold Resources, which was spun off as a vehicle for Randgold & Exploration’s non-South African assets. The company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1997.
Reading of Aureus Mining credits Bristow with creating Randgold from the ground up. “He is the reason for the development of Randgold from nothing,” he says. “Mark made it all happen. He raised all the money and recruited all the people.”
Today Bristow is a wealthy man, with homes on three continents (London, Florida’s Jackson Hole, South Africa and Mauritius), and his own plane. He has a taste for fine wine, big-game hunting and adrenaline-fuelled adventures with his kids, who attended St. Albans College, a private Anglican boarding school in Pretoria.
Bristow and his sons, now 26 and 24, have gone hunting in Zimbabwe for Cape Buffalo, one of Africa’s most dangerous wild animals, weighing between 935 to 1,910 lb.; climbed the Western Breach of Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro; bungee jumped 111 metres from a bridge over Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe; whitewater rafted down the Zambezi River; skydived (“it was hectic — you fall 32 seconds before you pull the cord”); and swam with sharks along a reef off the eastern coast of South Africa.
“For me sleep is the biggest waste of time,” he says, half-joking. “You’ve got to sleep, I’m not being facetious, but I don’t want to waste time. I don’t like sitting on my ass doing nothing, that’s for sure.”
Noeleen, his wife of 31 years who he met at school, seems to put up with his frequent absences. “She knows I’m a nomad,” he says.
Like many self-made men from modest backgrounds, Bristow has never lost sight of his core values and a desire to give back. “I think I was brought up to make a difference,” he says, giving much of the credit to his mother.
And as head of one of the world’s foremost gold companies, Bristow isn’t afraid to criticize an industry that he says has often made a mess of things by focusing on short-term gain instead of sustainable profitability and developing assets that should never have been developed or are sub-economic; producing more gold at higher losses than at any time in history; becoming riddled with debt; and in some of the most unfortunate cases, squandering national assets.
“We’re not interested in being part of the club of gold companies because it is a club with an enormous list of bad habits,” he says. “And you’ve seen it again now, after a 10-year bull market, the club hasn’t delivered any value to stakeholders and it’s under pressure to reinvent itself after an adjustment in the gold price.
“You see all these companies that grow from fantastically exciting beginnings and then they lose their way because they’re driven by everything other than the actual real asset, and the asset is an orebody,” he continues. “I fight all the time with people to get back to what is our core business, and our core business is to exploit the orebodies for the benefit of all stakeholders because it’s a national asset, and you can’t exploit an orebody if you don’t understand it.”
While he is critical of major gold mining companies (“you can’t expect to be a top-class mining business and have 20-plus assets because you can’t do them justice — not if it’s in emerging markets”) he is equally critical of juniors that have been supported by poorly allocated capital and gotten themselves into a position where they have to deliver a mine that is never going to make money in an emerging market.
Working in Africa helps maintain the discipline. “We’d say, if you go to Africa you’ve got to hunt elephants, you’ve got to get the big ones because there is so much rent to pay,” he explains. “If you don’t have a world-class asset you’ll never survive, and so there’s no space — and it’s irresponsible even — for governments to allow projects to be developed that are not rigorously tested, because once you’ve mined a gold asset, or a base metal asset, or an iron ore asset, and you don’t make any money, you’ve basically squandered the national asset. We’re all driven by this demand of instant gratification quarter on quarter on quarter, and you can’t run a company like that.”
Jeffrey Christian, managing director of the CPM Group, a New York-based research consulting firm, says Bristow is one of the best informed critics of the gold mining industry. “He’s spot on,” Christian says. “You’ve had so much garbage that shouldn’t have been developed and then put on the TSX Venture Exchange … he hasn’t given over to a lot of the BS that the industry has given itself over to.”
Industry colleague Mark Cutifani, president and CEO of Anglo American, describes Bristow as “one of those few people in our industry that has the courage to say what he thinks and do what he says.
“While I may not always agree with him, I will always respect him and be open to good debate. He is also the kind of guy that I can enjoy a beer with — as long as he doesn’t talk rugby,” Cutifani adds, who is Australian.
Investors can be forgiven for wondering what will happen to Randgold when Bristow, now in his twenty-eighth year at the company, decides to retire.
“If ever he leaves Randgold, for whatever reason, they will need at least four top executives to replace him, and even then they will be lucky to find them,” Flack muses, who served as chairman of Randgold for several years in the late 1990s.
“He has a big engine between his ears, a passion to excel and the willpower of a driven man,” Flack says. &ldquo
;When this is accompanied by a work ethic I have not ever seen before and the constitution of an ox, it makes for a most formidable combination.”