The winners of the Young Mining Professionals (YMP) awards this year are Ashley Kirwan of Orix Geoscience and David Cataford of Champion Iron (TSX: CIA).
The YMP awards, presented in association with The Northern Miner, recognize two mining professionals under the age of forty who have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and innovative thinking and provided value to their companies and shareholders.
The YMP awards are named after two iconic entrepreneurs in the mining industry, Eira Thomas and the late Peter Munk. Ashley Kirwan has won the 2020 Eira Thomas award and David Cataford the Peter Munk award. The awards will be presented at the YMP Awards Gala on Feb. 29 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.
Each of the winners were nominated in a public submissions process. They were then discussed and selected by a panel of YMP chapters including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and London, U.K., along with an equal vote from The Northern Miner.
Stephen Stewart, chairman of YMP and CEO of Orefinders (TSXV: ORX), notes that Kirwan was a clear choice for the award this year. “She leads a cutting edge geological services company in Canada, allowing exploration companies to either rely on or outsource their geology, data collection, analytics and more,” he says. “She grew Orix from a great idea as a start-up to what is a thriving business with 60 employees and offices across Canada.”
Competition for the Peter Munk award this year was very close, he says, but it was Cataford and his team’s contrarian approach that tipped the scale. “He and his group acquired Champion’s operating assets for less than $10 million, in what was a distressed iron ore market,” Stewart says. “They took advantage of the capital that has been sunk into infrastructure by a previous owner, while refocusing on fine-tuning their operations and putting the asset back into production. As the iron market bounced back, they have rewarded their shareholders with what is now close to a billion-dollar company.”
Ashley Kirwan is the co-owner, co-founder, and CEO of Orix Geoscience, a leading geological firm that partners with junior, mid-tier and major mining clients to provide geological expertise and business strategy.
Raised in Sudbury, Ont., Kirwan earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in geology at Laurentian University. She started her first year of university with plans to major in geography but after taking first year geology she fell in love with the science. “My first year professor was very passionate about geology giving insight into what a career would look like, and being from Sudbury and surrounded by mining and exploration companies I began to realize all the opportunities that came with it,” she says in an interview.
While pursuing her undergraduate degree she spent her summer doing field and office work for the Ontario Geological Survey in Sudbury and Matachewan. She then held various roles at FNX Mining, as a student geologist, exploration geologist, and production geologist. She then worked in a special projects team focused on complex geological interpretations and 3D models. Subsequently, FNX Mining was acquired by KGHM International.
“When I worked for FNX as part of the exploration team I quickly realized that it was a passionate group and their corporate culture was amazing,” Kirwan recalls of the six years (2005-2011) she spent at the company. “It was a fantastic experience. They really instilled in me that you need to understand the rocks and come up with a geological interpretation before you drill.”
Kirwan worked on surface exploration drill programs and spent time underground piecing the geology together with mine operations to execute on production plans. “I’d go underground and map the drifts from the previous night’s blasts, then work with the underground miners and geology team to plan the next 24-hour advancement,” she says. “I was able to work with an amazing crew underground and saw the economic veins in front of me instead of reading about it,” she says. “I saw a massive five-foot-wide copper nickel vein and was able to map and model it in 3D. I think every exploration geologist should work underground at some point early in their career.”
Leaving FNX was one of the toughest decisions she made, Kirwan says, but she wanted a chance to work on other commodities and gain experience outside the Sudbury Basin. She landed a job in Nevada with Bridgeport Ventures as a project geologist in January 2011 before becoming a senior exploration project geologist from July 2011 until May 2012. “It was a glimpse into a different side of the geosciences,” she says. “It was my first experience with a true junior company and my first experience in gold.” Kirwan was one of the company’s only senior geologists and she did everything from logistics and planning to marketing and communicating with Bridgeport’s executives.
When Bridgeport underwent a successful acquisition and was moving in a new direction, Kirwan and a colleague, Shastri Ramnath, weighed their options and decided to create their own company, Orix Geoscience. “A lot of people told us not to do it,” she recalls. “It was 2012 — not the greatest time in the market and very few companies could raise funds. It was probably one of the worst times to start a business, but we looked at this challenge as an opportunity, and we wanted to work together and we trusted each other.”
The two business partners found an interesting niche – offering high-quality geological interpretation for companies so they could strategically explore. They started off working mainly for juniors, most of whom had no geological team, very little cash, and were trying to raise money but required a proper geological story to give investors confidence. Kirwan and Ramnath did a lot of early work in exchange for shares. “We recognized that a lot of projects were undervalued so we worked very hard helping companies understand their geology so they could raise money, and once they raised money there was a natural fit for us again to provide ongoing geological services for their exploration programs.”
As their business and reputation grew, they continued working for juniors and expanded their reach working with mid-tiers and majors.
Today, Orix is a one-stop shop that provides full exploration services, from drone surveys and historical document/map scanning, through to digitizing, database compilation, 3D modelling and field work. For mid-tier and major companies Orix is hired for special projects often to manage large datasets or solve a geological question a team may face, such as creating a drill hole database from historical logs or modelling the geological controls on mineralization in one particular area. Kirwan says Orix sees its clients as partners and has worked with many of them for more than five years. Orix also partners with other geological firms building synergies in the industry.
One thing that Kirwan is particularly proud of is that the company is 100% female-owned and 52% of its 62 employees are women – most of them in technical positions such as geologists and GIS technicians. About a quarter of the company’s employees come from around the world – countries like South Africa, Iran, Colombia, and China. The majority are in their early to mid-thirties. “We have team members with more than 25 years’ experience, but the average employee is a millennial, so we bring a new perspective and a different team to mining.” The company has hired two computer programmers to help process data, which needs to be compiled, cleaned, and organized to understand what information is available, before anyone should consider interpretation let alone machine learning.
“One of the things that I really like about geology is that it’s an artistic science … geology leaves room for interpretation,” she says. “Anyone’s idea can be considered because we’re dealing with things that are a million years old. I like the artistic nature and the problem-solving side and it might be a cliché but it’s also the people. Geologists are a different kind of scientist – I work with an amazing team that are hard-working but have a lot of fun along the way, and that brings energy. We have a bigger vision of making an impact on the mining industry. If it wasn’t for the people, I probably wouldn’t love it as much as I do.”
David Cataford has been working in the iron ore industry and Canada’s Labrador Trough for the last 15 years. He is the CEO of Champion Iron (TSX: CIA), an iron ore producer whose flagship asset is the Bloom Lake mine, 13 km west of Fermont in Quebec and 10 km north of ArcelorMittal Mines‘ (NYSE: MTN) Mont Wright iron ore mining complex.
Cataford studied mining engineering at Laval University in Quebec – one of only two students in his class. “It was not a popular program at the time,” Cataford jokes in an interview. “Funny enough the entire mining engineering cohort that graduated in 2008 consisted of two guys, both named David.”
Cataford, who grew up in Montreal, says none of his family worked in the mining industry but an uncle was an engineer and “always made sure to mention every time I saw him that engineers are the key and that engineering offers so much flexibility into what kind of work you can choose to do after you graduate.”
“When it came time to pick my field of study, I always liked being outside and the mining sector proposed interesting challenges,” Cataford says, “and this quickly got me interested to pursue mining engineering.”
While a student, Cataford spent his summers on internships, one at COREM, a research center that does joint research programs with mining companies; a second at Agnico Eagle Mines (TSX: AEM; NYSE: AEM) LaRonde mine in the Abitibi region of northwestern Quebec; and the third at ArcelorMittal’s Mont Wright mine, about 400 km north of Sept. Iles.
Upon graduation he was offered a job at Agnico Eagle’s Goldex mine, but turned it down to work with a friend who had just opened a high-end tea business in Quebec City. Cataford worked there for a year for $12 an hour and immersed himself in the business. “I became passionate about tea and learned everything about it – especially Chinese tea,” he recalls.
Little did he know that his decision would later help him in his mining career. When Cataford was hired by Consolidated Thompson as a metallurgist in charge of the concentration plant at its Bloom Lake iron ore mine, he was able to put his knowledge of tea to work. Consolidated Thompson’s 25% partner at the mine was Chinese steelmaker Wuhan Steel.
“When their marketing team came to site for the first time I served them tea,” he says. “Typically when partners visit they meet with the general manager or head office, they would rarely meet with the metallurgist on site, but because of my background in tea I got to know them.”
When Cliffs Natural Resources, now Cleveland Cliffs (NYSE: CLF), acquired the Bloom Lake mine from Consolidated Thompson in 2011, Wuhan Steel remained a partner, and Cataford developed his contacts with his Chinese counterparts while working as Cliffs’ mine superintendent and plant manager.
Cataford left Cliffs in 2014 to join Michael O’Keeffe at Champion Iron to start developing a new iron ore project in the Labrador Trough, but a few months later learned that Cliffs had closed down the Bloom Lake mine and put it into bankruptcy proceedings. Cataford and O’Keeffe then went to work trying to acquire the asset, which they succeeded in doing in 2016.
Initially Champion partnered with the Quebec government on Bloom Lake. Champion owned 63.2% and the government 36.8%. Three years later, however, after the Quebec government had invested about $45 million into the mine, Champion acquired the government’s stake for $211 million.
“The Quebec government believed in the project when capital was scarce prior to the recommissioning, and we were proud to be able to deliver them excellent returns for their investment,” says Cataford, who was promoted from vice president of engineering to chief operating officer in two and a half years, and to CEO after four years at the company.
Champion restarted Bloom Lake in February 2018. “We delivered the project on time and on budget, which is a considerable achievement in the mining space, and we reached nameplate capacity (7.4 million tonnes per year) after just six months of operations.”
“Since then we’ve delivered a feasibility study that demonstrates the economic viability to double production at Bloom Lake from 7.4 to 15 million tonnes a year,” he says, “and now we’re focused on streamlining our profitable operations while extensively planning our proposed expansion. We’re targeting 2021 to finish the expansion, which would see Bloom Lake’s production double.”
In 2019, the mine produced 7.8 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore.
One thing Cataford is particularly proud of is reducing Bloom Lake’s carbon footprint.
“When we restarted operations at Bloom Lake we not only improved the throughput, but we also reduced carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions by 40% in our first year of production, compared to the previous owner’s last year of operations in 2014.”
Cataford loves what he does. “It’s very interesting because we have a complex business,” he says. “We are focused on the mining and the processing at site, but then there’s everything that’s beyond the mine gate – the logistics, the shipping, and all of the sales and marketing, and because we produce some of the highest quality iron ore material in the world, it allows us to benefit from selling a niche product in a niche market. With this success and strong partners, Champion Iron is well positioned to exploit its large portfolio of resources in the district.”