August 2019

Walking the talk – St Barbara’s Bob Vassie

  • By Liz Swanton

St Barbara’s MD and CEO Bob Vassie is no stranger to hard work, and through his dynamic lead-by-example style, the company is well-poised to continue its remarkable resurgence.

Bob Vassie describes himself as lucky. Born in Otago and growing up in Invercargill, he had an idyllic childhood in ‘small town New Zealand’. He was born into a loving family and he feels privileged to have had an excellent education. Crucially, he crossed paths with the mining industry at a young age, setting him on course for a career in the sector. But more than luck, Bob Vassie learned early the importance of hard work. 

‘My late father had a huge influence. He came from a tough background in Glasgow, and I saw firsthand as a kid what someone applying themselves can achieve. He did some polytech classes to improve his chances and that allowed him to go from taxi driver and labourer to potrooms manager at New Zealand Aluminium Smelters.’ 

His father’s job gave Bob the chance to work at the smelter over the summer holidays. He learned about the mining industry, committing to a job and working with people – life lessons he still values. 

‘I wanted to be an industrial scientist because I liked the idea of science, but I wanted it to be practical. I visited the School of Mines at Otago University and it clicked, so I qualified as Bachelor of Mineral Technology with Honours in mining.’

After graduation, Bob moved almost immediately to Africa, and began building a career that included nearly 20 years with Rio Tinto. He started in 1994, working for CRA, and says it was an interesting time to be on board as Rio amalgamated its separate business units, including CRA, Comalco, Argyle and Hamersley.

‘It was quite an experience to morph from CRA into RTZ to become Rio Tinto, a big global organisation. It allowed me to get a lot of exposure. Through that, I’ve danced in and out of different roles and I found that quite interesting. But it took me until I was 50 years old to realise what I actually wanted to do!’ he laughs. 

Leading through adversity

Bob Vassie admits to second thoughts just before he joined St Barbara as Managing Director and CEO in 2014, but is glad he took the risk, which has paid off in spades.

The turnaround at St Barbara, which has assets in Western Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), is well-known. 

‘It’s no secret the company was in dire straits [when I joined],’ Bob says. ‘We got down to a share price of seven cents. Four years later, we were at five dollars.’

The turnaround was the result of some extremely hard decisions and some considered risks. 

‘The particularly rewarding part was while we reduced the corporate head count, we repaired the company with the people who were there. I didn’t add one person. There was a group of people who just needed to be freed up and get support and a bit of leadership to get the job done.’

And alongside the hard work by his team, Bob says the board also deserves praise for their resolve and level of support. The rest is history, and the company is now worth around $2 billion, and its acquisition of Atlantic Gold due to settle at about the same time this article goes to print. 

Diversity: perspectives and outcomes

While Bob is rightfully proud of the turnaround, he is also delighted St Barbara has received the ‘Employer of Choice for Gender Equality’ citation from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) for the fifth consecutive year. This is a standard he has no intention of letting slip.

Diversity ranks highly among Bob’s priorities. He is a WGEA Pay Ambassador and also a member of AusIMM’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. As such, he is well placed to see what’s happening with diversity and recommend ways to improve it.

‘Research is clear that when the make-up of corporations reflects the diversity of the population, you get better outcomes.’

‘To me it’s about believing in diversity and its value. It isn’t just gender diversity or people from different backgrounds or even different qualifications, it’s about perspective. 

‘If we have middle-aged guys like me on board, we tend to see the same things. Research is clear that when the make-up of corporations reflects the diversity of the population, you get better outcomes.

‘In mining, we are so male dominated and the way to break through that is by valuing diversity. The other thing is inclusion, because just getting the numbers is not going to help you. You also need to think about retention. So it’s diversity and inclusion, and attraction and retention. You need to have all of those to deliver a better outcome.’

Bob credits the St Barbara board and his predecessors for the work that led to the first WGEA citation. Organisations must show how they are addressing a range of benchmarks for gender equality including leadership, learning and development, pay gaps, flexible working hours and other initiatives to support family responsibilities, as well as issues of harassment and discrimination.

‘One of the first things I did when I got here was to line up the workforce on paper and say “are we sure we are paying women and men the same?” I went through our entire workforce individually, which took some time, but it had to be done. You don’t want to be talking about this and not demonstrating it.’

Bob also looked closely at the recruiting process to ensure St Barbara offered a level playing field. He believes there can be bias in the process, either conscious or unconscious, which results in a candidate list not representative of the population. 

‘You might have lists with no females on them, or you might have advertised that you want, for example, 10 years’ experience as a mining engineer, or geologist. That subtly eliminates people who might have six really good years of varied experience and includes people with 10 years’ experience that has been essentially the same for all those years.’ 

In 2019, more than 140 organisations were granted the WGEA citation, but St Barbara was the only mining company. It’s something that saddens Bob and he hopes it will change.

‘I must be a pretty crap ambassador,’ he laughs, ‘because as much as I have banged on about this, no other mining companies have joined us. 

When it comes to St Barbara’s operation in Simberi, Vassie says gender equality in PNG is a different game. 

‘We’ve done a lot of work around domestic violence and gender-based violence there, but we also piloted a program about gender safety, going into workplaces and asking women how safe they feel in different work circumstances.’

The results were interesting because they showed women often don’t feel safe at work, and that there are simple ways to change that. For example, camp cleaners asked to wear trousers rather than skirts, and mentioned areas that worried them because of lack of good lighting.

‘Then we ran a gender safety program in Australia too, and found things we could do better as well. Gender safety is the main topic but it’s also about how women feel in elements of their role – whether their job is set up well for them or not – and how to make them feel more comfortable. There is a lot we can keep doing in terms of trying to understand what will help us keep our employees safe and happy.’

Rising to meet the next challenge

When it comes to leadership, Bob says formal mentoring has its place but he believes more is gained through osmosis, by working beside great leaders. Eventually, he says, the time comes when you face a situation and think ‘what would a good leader do here?’ and you know the answer.

‘If you can be really clear about what your objective is, people can move in the right direction.’

He believes it’s about having vision and a way that people will follow – and chuckles as he adds that if you are a leader, you owe your team good leadership rather than taking them in the wrong direction! 

That approach has taken on new significance with reports that Gwalia’s life will be extended to 2031 and beyond. It’s a huge project, requiring the input of professionals from many different disciplines, and a steady hand on the tiller, but Bob is not fazed.

‘I think it’s about the clarity of the objectives. If you can be really clear about what your objective is, people can move in the right direction. 

‘We have a mine that is more than 100 years old, making great margins, one of the better margins out there in gold, and the challenge is how do we do it for longer. 

‘If we don’t really think strategically and understand what drives value in the mine, in terms of present value, then we’re going to be flat-footed, because a lot of things you try and do in deep mines take some years to implement.’ 

Bob says Gwalia is unusual. It’s the deepest trucking mine in the world (around 1500 metres when he arrived four years ago; now over 1700 metres and proposed to go beyond two kilometres). A recent conversation with a staff member revealed it had taken her an hour and 45 minutes to haul a load from the bottom of the mine up the 12 km circular spiral tunnel to the surface.

‘Ventilation is one of the challenges, but fortunately there is high-grade tonnage there. In fact there are lots of challenges and we really have to be innovative on how we are going to go deeper. We have to be on top of the best-of-the-best technology solutions that are available to work under those circumstances and make the mine profitable for that length of time.’

‘We also identified some time ago with our strategy that we needed to diversify our production or, more correctly, our revenue base, and recently announced our proposed A$770 million acquisition of Atlantic Gold in Nova Scotia. This came about after a couple of years of painstaking work evaluating several opportunities in Australia and overseas.’

‘I’ve travelled to the most amazing places around the world while we were performing due-diligence on potential acquisitions. The only way you can really get a sense of a mining project is by going and visiting it, walking and driving through the operations, and meeting and speaking with the people working there. Even though in some cases I didn’t speak their language, what comes through is the enormous pride of people in “their mine”, wherever it may be. And the team at Atlantic Gold have really got runs on the board with what they have achieved so far, and I am really looking forward to working with them.’

The next generation

For students who haven’t yet decided if their future lies in the resources sector, Bob has three words: ‘just do it!’

‘I always stress there is so much diversity in the industry. You can be at a desk doing computer stuff, running a remote operation from a terminal, out there in the dirt or underground, or working in global roles, such as doing something commercial in New York. 

‘How many industries can offer you that? So many people spend four years qualifying, do a job for two years and realise they don’t like it but with this industry, the diversity and the size allows you to be very flexible. 

‘I would say try lots of things. There’s no need to specialise. My whole career I’ve been in all sorts of jobs. It’s an industry that is huge and diverse and it’s always going to be there. And it pays well too!’

Beyond the job

CEO is a demanding role and ‘spare time’ is an alien concept. Bob is based in Melbourne while his family remains in Brisbane for the sake of his sons’ schooling. Weekends revolve around family time, kids’ sport and the commute to Brisbane, but he is conscious of trying to add more balance to the equation, both for his family and on his own behalf.

‘I remember someone saying there were four quadrants to life: work, family, community and self. It’s easy to get a bit focussed on family and work and not doing so much about self – in terms of your own interests – or community, in terms of other people. 

‘I’m trying to do a few more things that I am interested in. I have a project car that I am rebuilding and I’m a big rugby fan so I want to get to some of the World Cup games in Japan. On the community side, I have started to do more charity work.’ 

He’s also ‘giving back’ in a professional sense, through his work with AusIMM’s Council for Diversity and Inclusion. While he initially joined AusIMM during his student years, he says it was not a big part of his early career because he was working overseas. Now a Fellow, Bob has a clearer appreciation for the role the organisation plays.  

‘I like the professional side of things that AusIMM is a good steward of, around how we estimate resources and reserves, which are fundamental building blocks of value to a mining company, and the valuation of mining assets. 

‘And I also value what it does for the young professionals in my organisation. It’s providing an environment for young professionals to learn from others and get access to information. You can’t argue with the importance of that.’ 

Photos: Kristian Gehradte.

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