December 2019

Owen Hegarty: Setting the path for success

  • By Liz Swanton

One of Australia’s most experienced mining identities believes this country can – and should – set standards for the industry worldwide, with AusIMM having a critical role to play

Owen Hegarty denies with a laugh that he is thinking about world domination, but he firmly believes Australia is on track to take a leading role as the mining industry moves forward into the 21st century.

‘Aussie leadership is terrific. Whether it is leading groups, teams or companies, we’re very good at it. We’re rigorous and reliable, so it’s a very good set of standards and conduct for others to follow.’

Currently the Executive Chairman of specialist mining private equity company, EMR Capital, Owen has had more than 40 years’ experience in the global mining industry.

He is also a long-standing member and former director of AusIMM, and has been recognised for his achievements through several prestigious awards, including the Institute Medal (2005) and Honorary Fellowship (2019). He believes AusIMM is facing a great opportunity to grow its influence worldwide.

‘The world needs AusIMM to be more expansive in its influence internationally, because we have world-class people, leadership and codes and standards. We need to use these world-wide – not as a competitive thing but as a seriously necessary thing for the mining, metals and minerals supply side.

‘We are supply-side people, so we must ensure that metals and mining continue to meet demand, but in a professional, proficient, well-governed way.

‘I see AusIMM playing a bigger role. Our standards are so good, we should be shaping and helping as much as we can, particularly with more demands from regulators and governments.’

Owen believes this type of leadership is particularly crucial at a time when the industry is facing complex challenges, especially in regards to social value and stakeholder engagement.

‘The handbooks you need for doing the business these days are still being written,’ Owen says. ‘We’re still pioneers, and I think it is situations like this which off er AusIMM a chance to take the lead because it is one of the credible institutions. And that’s where I would love to see it more well known – as one of the best in the world in terms of standards and credibility.’

Owen’s pedigree gives him carte blanche to make such an observation. His long career in the industry includes 24 years with Rio Tinto, starting as a junior and progressing through the ranks to head up the company’s Asian and Australian copper and gold businesses.

He led Oxiana from the mid-1990s, taking the company from a junior explorer to a multi-billion dollar Asian and Australian explorer, developer and operator in base and precious metals. Owen then formed EMR Capital, a Melbourne and Hong Kong-based private equity firm that has eight mining projects and operations worldwide.

‘The world needs AusIMM to be more expansive in its influence internationally, because we have world-class people, leadership and codes and standards.’

He credits the people and culture at Rio Tinto for shaping his approach to the business and his subsequent success, having started with the company in the days when it was headed up by legendary chairman and chief executive, Sir Val Duncan.

‘What a wonderful company and wonderful people. I spent time in all commodities, all companies, all countries thanks to Rio, and I was extremely lucky to do so. There are too many great people, legends and mentors to mention but I have strived to follow in their footsteps because they encouraged that.’

Owen says the three things that stand out from his time there were the importance of rigour and discipline, a positive disposition, and being growth oriented.

Working in the business evaluation department in London with John Simkiss, one of many mentors he acknowledges with gratitude, Owen describes his role as a ‘spreadsheet jockey’. That meant he was responsible for researching and writing. He learnt, early on, the how-to of project evaluation.

‘It was all very rigorous, disciplined, growth oriented and entrepreneurial – certainly Val Duncan was – but also risk averse. It was a good balance of learning to grow the business, and business value, as well as ensuring downside protection. I was greatly impressed by all those wonderful people that I had the opportunity to work with and talk to over a long period of time.’

From those junior days – which include memories of running (literally) print-outs of ore prices from head office to IBM and back again to enable project decisions to be made – Owen made his way onwards and upwards through the company, working in a range of different roles.

He gained much along the way from some of the greats in the industry, a variety of mentors who taught him different ways of looking at the business and understanding it. Many had a great capacity to communicate and encourage, and as he gained the benefit of that, he also became determined to replicate it.

‘They were very good at ensuring that whatever you are doing, you pass on the lessons of the good, the bad and the ugly. So now when I get in the room, and we have people everywhere – everyone from the chairman to the spreadsheet jockeys, at least I can relate to them.

‘I can bang on a bit – not pontificating but just giving people clues as to how we should look at this, why we should do that, why we should think about this, what about the upsides, what about the downsides, what about the sensitivities. I try to do this so people know these are the sort of things that have to be taken into consideration when you’re making big decisions. It’s about encouraging and communicating.’

Given so many memories are about the people he has met along the way, it’s not surprising that Owen rates people as one of the most important ingredients in the growth and success of any company – but they have to be special people and looked after.

‘My mantra is that you want people who are skilled. That’s number one. They must have the background, the experience, the training, in whatever discipline it is, whether they are the financial evaluator or your general manager of operations.

‘Number two is commitment. That’s all about motivation, persistence, resilience, the striving to succeed, the ability to focus and prioritise, to take things all the way through. It’s one thing to have the skills, but you need the commitment to see it through.’

‘Nothing can take the place of persistence. I think American president Calvin Coolidge said something along those lines, but the simpler one is the Japanese definition of persistence,’ he chuckles. ‘That is: if you get knocked down six times, you have to get up seven times.’

The third important ingredient for success, perhaps obviously, is having the right asset: the right commodity in the right country with the right strategy. Then there is what comes next, as the company grows.

‘Always work on the development of your people. Nurture them. You spend time and energy on a project, so you have to spend time and energy on your people, bring them up in terms of training and development, whether it is in the rainforests of Laos or at company headquarters.

‘I am happy I’ve been able to help people grow in their jobs, in their lives, in their professional aspirations.’

‘Aside from what I learned at Rio Tinto, I’ve always worked with the ideas of Stephen Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits of Successful People, which is very people-oriented. Another good one is Jim Collins’ Good To Great, although it’s a bit more corporate.

‘I still refer an article or a book to the people I work with. I know they don’t have time to read it all, but if they get one or two things from it that helps build their career, that’s important.’

Owen’s approach to life and work, and the importance of people, started long before his time at Rio, although those years underlined the early lessons. Born and bred in country Victoria, Owen credits his parents for their efforts and a work ethic that was handed down to the four boys they loved so much.

‘They were devoted to our education and upbringing and we are eternally grateful for that. You’re never grateful for it at the time, but you are grateful for the rest of your life that they spent such a big chunk of their lives working for us.’

Early years were spent in places like Yackandandah in north-east Victoria, and Morwell in the Latrobe Valley, due to his parents’ various business interests. Later his mother turned to teaching English and maths in the South Gippsland area and he was one of her students. It’s a time he remembers fondly.

‘It was school, sport, Saturday night pictures, Sunday school, repeat – because that’s what life was like back then. And my best memories of that time, aside from my family, was exactly that pattern repeated. Sunday school was a bit of a chore until we stopped doing that, but we kept doing everything else and I loved it.’

When school was done, he headed for Melbourne’s Monash University and earned an honours degree in economics. When asked about his study choice, Owen says he was looking for something that would give him a feel for how the world works and economics seemed to give that broad coverage.

‘I think it actually teaches you to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. You can end up quite multi-disciplined, and work across different types of economies, political regimes and industries.

‘From that perspective, it was a good grounding for a general management and worldly type of career in a mining company like Rio. Of course my brothers would say I had to do economics because I couldn’t do anything else,’ he laughs.

It probably comes as no surprise to learn that what Owen is most proud of in his career is the same gift his mentors gave him: helping others succeed. He’s a strong believer in teamwork and taking people on the journey – if the ‘game’ is played properly, you improve your own game at the same time as you help others to improve theirs.

‘I am happy I’ve been able to help people grow in their jobs, in their lives, in their professional aspirations. It’s about giving people clues, I suppose, and helping them by demonstration, particularly when it comes to education and development, and career shaping and planning.

‘It’s been said that experience is what enables you to recognise a mistake when you make it for the second time. I don’t know where this came from, but it’s one of those definitions that you learn from – or you should!

‘One of the most important lessons for me in my career has been that whatever you do, when you recognise it as a mistake, don’t do it again. And, if possible, make sure other people don’t do it too.

‘So to see people prosper and blossom,’ he says, ‘is something I am proud of, when I have helped and it has worked for them. It’s really good when you know you haven’t given someone a bum steer!’

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