Profile: Sandeep Biswas – building trust and respect through action

  • By Liz Swanton

One of Australia’s leading mining company executives, Sandeep Biswas, says getting social licence right is just one of the issues the industry must address for greater success in the future.

In a world where scrutiny of mining operations is higher than ever before, Sandeep Biswas, MD and CEO of Newcrest Mining, says there has been a dramatic rise in questions about social licence.

‘[Social licence] is business critical. Expectations have changed dramatically since I started work, in relation to what local communities, stakeholders and other interested parties want – and, quite frankly, deserve – from operations in their jurisdiction. 

‘More people ask me about social licence issues today, among my investors and other people I interact with, than ask about the environment.’ 

Sandeep, who joined Newcrest in 2014, says it is vital that the industry puts effort into earning social licence by being genuine and gaining trust through its actions.

‘Do what you say. Respect all cultures. Respect the importance they have for the land that is ultimately theirs. One day your mine will close but you should leave the community in a much better way than before you got there. 

‘If you don’t do this genuinely, and don’t really believe it, people will know and they won’t respect you.’

A global background

Sandeep may have a greater understanding of the importance of building trust and respect because of his own background. He was born in Burnpur in the Indian state of West Bengal, one of many towns aligned with steel works dotted along the region’s coal seam that stretches hundreds of kilometres across several states.

Sandeep’s father, a metallurgist with a PhD earned in Germany, worked for the India Iron and Steel Company before moving to Australia with his family to lecture at the University of Queensland. Similarly, Sandeep’s own career has taken him across the world.

‘Given my cultural background and where I started [with Mount Isa Mines], and the experiences I’ve had from doing business in more than 20 countries, I think I have an acute awareness of these matters.

‘Coming from a different culture with a different coloured skin, I understand some of the biases and stereotypes that influence people’s thinking, and how that influences the attitude and the regard in which you are held – or not. The way you behave is critical. If you don’t understand the biases [that people hold], you can’t show the respect genuinely to build a strong relationship.’ 

Sandeep was seven when his family moved to Brisbane. He accepts there was a kind of osmosis going on in the Biswas home – as a child he heard many passionate discussions between his father and other lecturers and students who came to visit. It fascinated him even when he didn’t understand.

‘I was always going to do engineering of some sort, because that was in the family. In Indian culture in those days, you either became a doctor or an engineer,’ he laughs.

‘There are close similarities between chemical engineering and metallurgy. My brother did chemical engineering, which sounded pretty cool, and he was just a year ahead of me so I followed him.’

‘One day your mine will close but you should leave the community in a much better way than before you got there.’

His first job was with Mount Isa Mines (MIM), and to this day Sandeep is grateful to the company for its graduate program. There were strict guidelines about moving people around, to give them various experiences, and the chance to learn from MIM’s technical ‘gurus’ who, at the time, were leading lights in their fields.

‘MIM was one of the best training grounds for an engineer, certainly a chemical engineer. I learned from some of the best, first-class technical people. When anyone asks what set me up for my career, it was most certainly the level of training and the graduate program at MIM.’

During those early years, he had a chance to go to Germany to help set up the process control program when MIM bought into Ruhr-Zink. He started studying German using tapes, and practising at work, slowly getting his head around the complex technical terms – but claims he learned far more from talking to people at the bar of the hotel where he was living!

‘I eventually learned the language. I wouldn’t say I speak it perfectly but I can speak fluently, and have any conversations I need to have in German to this day.’

Learning from the best

After returning to Australia, Sandeep married and continued to build his career. There was more time with MIM, with WMC, Anaconda Nickel and RioTinto, stints in Australia, the UK, Canada and Europe and lessons along the way. 

‘I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders and different types of leaders. There have been so many different people who have given me different angles on so many things that have helped build my career.

‘The biggest influence would have been my father, but also some of the people at Mount Isa. I had great leadership from people in Germany, and at WMC and Rio Tinto. 

‘But if I have to mention one by name it would be Sir Arvi Parbo, who was at WMC when I was there. I didn’t interact with him very often but just the way he conducted himself, he was a real role model, in terms of his humility and real technical and leadership skills. Unbelievable.’ 

Technical innovation and the role of professionals

All that Sandeep learned, and his reputation as a turnaround specialist, have been brought to Newcrest. Under his leadership, an important element of the company’s strategy is the planned adoption, adaption and development of innovative underground mining techniques and metallurgical processes. He says it is impossible to overstate the importance of professionals in developing these new processes.

‘I think in the area of technical breakthroughs, the industry is running up against some severe headwinds. Our ore bodies are getting deeper, our grades are dropping. There needs to be a technological step change over the coming decade, in order to be able to economically and profitably mine those new orebodies.

‘The professional input is absolutely critical. Technical input together with practical experience in operating mines to develop theories, then create the processes and implement them in the real world and continue to adapt them. 

‘One thing my dad always said to me: understand the fundamentals. You have to understand right down to the very start of how it all happens, and only then will you have a true understanding of the limits and capabilities of where you can take things, whether it’s mining or metallurgy.

‘Automation and digitalisation is upon us but there is no substitute for technical understanding. A computer can’t work things out by itself. You have to have people who know the fundamentals, who can help utilise the tools and techniques of automation and some of the technologies that are available to us today, in order to apply them to the complex challenges of mining.’

Among the challenges facing the industry, Sandeep believes the safety and stability of tailings dams is one that must be tackled with a united front, and ties back into his strong views on gaining trust through action.

Newcrest experienced a tailings dam failure (March 2018, Cadia East, NSW), albeit without a fatality or any impact on the environment (as one tailings dam wall partially slumped into another dam below), but Sandeep knows any failure has an impact on the industry. So the action he talks of is not only about trying to prevent another tragedy – such as the January 2019 collapse in Brazil that killed at least 169 people – but also because of the wider impact, because the community that experiences such a tragedy loses trust in the company responsible and the industry as a whole.

‘We have to regain that trust, and we have to regain it through action and how we respond to the challenge. I’m talking about Newcrest here, but this is not something for one company. Every company has to do its bit, has to come together under the auspices of the ICMM (International Council on Mining and Metals) to tackle this issue head on.

‘We have to rally around and demonstrate we have the capability to solve these problems, and be able to manage tailings dams as an industry, without people worrying whether there will be another one.’

Insight through diversity

Sandeep is also a strong advocate for diversity – again, because he believes it gives the industry more power.

‘Diversity of thought and diversity of background leads to superior knowledge, understanding and decision-making. So whether it is gender diversity, cultural diversity, religious background, whatever, what I have found is the more different angles and nuances you can bring to solving challenging problems, the quicker, easier and better outcomes you get.’

In a bid to encourage that diversity, Sandeep is always keen to impress upon students what possibilities the industry offers, given – as he says – many people think it’s just digging holes in the ground, which leads to a belief that the job prospects are for engineers and scientists and not much more.

‘It’s not just metallurgists and mining engineers and geologists. It takes a lot of high tech people – automation, data science, psychology, biometal sciences – so whether you are an undergraduate, a Masters or a PhD, you will be challenged in the right way. It is a great place to work.’

Taking time to share success stories

As a whole, he says, the industry is not the best at advertising the good things it does, and he believes senior people in mining must be better at sharing these stories.

The fact that mining can also make a difference in communities is also something Sandeep believes the industry needs to communicate more clearly. He says he has personally been inspired by the fact that his role – at each level – helped make a difference, even through to the present day.

‘One of the closest things in my heart is health and safety. It’s like a religion for me, and we’ve been on a journey from a terrible place in Newcrest [three fatalities in 2015] to a much, much better place, and that drives me relentlessly.’

Networking and unofficial mentoring – key ingredients to success

Throughout his career, Sandeep says he has benefitted from his membership of AusIMM and similar organisations overseas, and he is now actively paying it forward. 

‘Increasingly, when I go to the functions, I find younger people want to bail me up and learn. They’re interested in what you’ve done and what tips you can give them, so I think I inadvertently do a lot of coaching and mentoring. 

‘And I think that’s an important part of AusIMM functions, that they put young people together with more experienced people. That networking and coaching – it’s not official coaching but it is what happens – is really important. 

‘I got that at the start of my career, some really good thought-provoking sessions at the local chapter from some of the legends in the business. You might quake in your boots when they walked past you at work, but at one of those sessions you could engage them in a different way and you cannot overstate the value of those conversations at the start of your career, or the networks you build.’ 

Embracing personal strengths

Given Sandeep’s reputation in the industry, it seems logical to ask if he has any superpowers. It’s a question he greets with laughter – but when pressed he cautiously acknowledges two strengths.  

‘I have noticed, and others have mentioned it, that I can see simplicity in complexity, whereas other people might not be able to get their heads around it as quickly.

‘Somehow I see very quickly what are the key items in a whole crowd of data or information or dynamics. I don’t know how, but it just crystalises very quickly and that’s a huge asset to what I do.’

The second, he believes, is related to his ethnic background and his experiences as a result of that. It often gives him a head start into a new business relationship that might otherwise be more difficult.

‘I find when I go to different countries and cultures, I get on with them very easily and they with me. The connection is fast, and builds good, strong, trusting relationships very quickly. 

‘Part of that is that I’m a straightforward person, what you see is what you get, and I think somehow – I don’t know how – that seems to shine through to others. But you have to be genuine, be true to who you are – and I am obviously a product of my background. If you are honest, you get off to a good relationship very quickly.’

Sandeep admits he has never thought of these as ‘superpowers’ but does believe they have been ingredients in his own success. Personal strengths, he says, are important to recognise and harness.

‘It is worth examining what you are really good at, and how you can leverage those skills without being disingenuous about it. Different people approach things in different ways. Don’t try and copy somebody else if it’s not you. Be yourself, play to your strengths and you may – surprise, surprise – get a better outcome.

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