Obituary: Chris Roberts

  • By Denise Cochrane

1948-2019

Chris Roberts was the first born to Wynn and Rosalie Roberts in Melbourne on September 1, 1948 and raised on their bush block at Montrose at the foot of Mount Dandenong where he attended the local government primary and secondary schools. Being the first of five children, the early leadership role in the family helped him with his role as prefect at Lilydale High School and later in his working life.

Chris Roberts.

His love of the bush and fixing old Landrovers prompted his mother to suggest he study geology after completing high school. He was accepted into RMIT and completed his Diploma (Geol) in 1970. 

Upon graduating he was offered a position at Whyalla with BHP as a Mine Geologist, supervising iron ore grade control at Iron Prince and Iron Baron. During this year he made life-long friends with a number of colleagues and spent hours after work philosophising about life, the universe and everything under the stars with his new friends.

Chris was always held in high-regard by his work colleagues both personally and professionally. At Whyalla he was soon promoted to Section Leader for iron ore and steelworks-related mineral exploration and was successful in locating and developing deposits including Iron Duke, a carbonate iron ore, at South Middleback Ranges.

He moved to the BHP Melbourne office in 1976 where he was appointed Project Geologist for Australia-wide steelworks and related commodities including chromite, molybdenum, tungsten and magnesite. He later became Group Leader for Manganese Exploration in Australia and America. He was a Principal Geologist for Roxby Search BHPM supervising exploration for Roxby Downs Type polymetallic bodies while managing the steelworks related commodities. In 1984, he became a Principal Geologist for Special Projects in BHPM exploring for gold, base metals, tin and manganese.

In 1986, after 15 years’ service, Chris left BHP and started a home based furniture making business. While he crafted beautiful bespoke dining tables, chairs and other pieces and enjoyed working from home, eventually the call of exploration and mining was too strong. He started up a geological consulting business that involved mine project assessment on technical, financial and corporate management of publicly listed companies.  One project involved the exploration, development and marketing of a zeolite and subsequent formation of the Zeolite Australia Company.  He became a director of Sedimentary Holdings during their introduction of Newcrest into Cracow NSW, and Queensland exploration joint ventures.

In 1989, during the consultancy phase, Chris acted as Chief Geologist for Perseverance Corporation at their Nagambie Mine. This led to Chris assessing the Fosterville Gold Mine in 1991, which at the time was in the hands of the receivers, and his subsequent recommendation to the PSV Board to purchase the lease, which it did in April 1992. At Fosterville operations were restricted to mining and treatment of oxide deposits to depths of about 40 metres whilst planning a deeper drilling program for sulfide mineralisation. Chris was appointed to the Perseverance (Fosterville) Board in 1996 as Exploration Director.

In 1997 an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) was approved for the mining and treatment of the sulphide ore. The gold price at the time was around US$300/oz  (AUD $410/oz) thus not an ideal time to be mining low grade oxide ore let alone going to the market to raise funds. This would be as low as the price of gold would ever go, a far cry from the record high of $2500 being seen today. A further blow to the prospect of mine development happened in November 1997. Peter Costello, Australia’s federal Treasurer sold off two thirds (167 tonnes) of Australian Bullion for US$306/oz in one day of trading, stating ‘Gold no longer plays a significant role in international financial systems’.   Three days after the sale, the gold price dropped 16 per cent. Chris would often lament if only they left it in the ground and waited for these extraordinary prices!

The low gold price coupled with litigation brought by neighbouring landholders in 1998 using the ‘loss of amenity’ clause under the Mineral Resources Development Act (1990) made progress slow and difficult. The sulfide project would be put on the back burner until things turned around.

In 2002, John Quinn joined the board as Chairman. Further drilling created a more substantial gold project and $75 million was raised to develop the Sulfide Project.  Approvals were granted expeditiously with mining restarting in April 2004. Gold prices started to slowly head north in 2005.

The plant was built and the operations commenced. It was a dynamic time. Very few people get to be involved in a start up operation and Chris knew it was a privilege to be part of it, especially having lived through the struggles that had preceded this rejuvenation and at times not being certain if the project would survive at all. He was so proud to see the workforce explode, roads constructed, dams built, plant pop out of the ground, machinery come to site. He was so gratified after the years of struggle and relentless opposition, personal sacrifice and dogged perseverance, that the project had come to fruition. He was the one that instantly recognised the potential at Fosterville back in 1991 and he was absolutely integral in keeping the project alive. A world class deposit that Chris was instrumental in seeing come to fruition. The present results vindicate his faith in Fosterville with over 620 000 Au ounces recovery last year at ~25 g/t Au.

Chris was kept informed of the project and was justly proud when the current team were chasing down the proposed structures and using the geological markers that he and his team developed as a base back in the 1990s and early 2000s.  It takes a great team to develop a project like Fosterville. There  were so many skilled talented people. Steve King, Rod Boucher, Rowland Hill, Kerrin Allwood, Neil Norris, Simon Hitchman, Trevor Jackson and many others including the current team. Chris was an exceptional leader and knew how to get the best from people. His team was always coherent and productive and held an unwavering respect and admiration for Chris. He was a great mentor to the young geologists and was respected by all that knew and worked with him. He had all the talents a great leader possesses: flexible thinking, emotional intelligence, compassion and awareness of others and a positive personality along with his very competent geological and business skills.

Chris had a serious accident in Vancouver, Canada in February 2007 whilst working as Managing Director of Luzon Minerals. This nearly cost him his life and resulted in a serious head injury. He was put in an induced coma for three weeks and it was very uncertain if he would pull through and if so in what condition. Chris was fortunate with his intellectual abilities and positive personality to come out relatively unscathed despite the seriousness of the injury. The team at Vancouver hospital are to be commended.

Chris left Fosterville in 2008 and continued to consult on various projects before retiring to Far North Queensland in 2014 where he pursued his other passions of building houses, furniture making, sailing  and exploring this beautiful country right to the tip of the Cape York Peninsular. His trip from Port Douglas to Lizard Island on the Coral Sea in 2018 with friend and fellow geologist Mike Raetz was a dream, as these land lubbers discussed the geology and geomorphology of the area and praising both Cook and Flinders’ navigational and sailing skills that saw them through the reefs nearly 250 years previously. ‘Sailing in the wake of these legends,’ Chris would say.  He always said he had a charmed life. He was a real gem of a man. He was happy, kind, generous, talented and industrious and so full of energy and positivity. 

Chris held AusIMM membership for a total of 43 years, entering his membership as a Student member in 1968, then a Graduate/Associate in 1974 before progressing to Fellow grade in 1989. Chris maintained the grade of Fellow for a consecutive 30 years before his passing.  He recently took on an executive position on the AusIMM Far North Queensland Branch in Cairns. He was on the JORC committee from 2005-2014 and also served as a Central Victoria Branch Committee member from 2008-2010.  

His legacy is Fosterville and those that were present at the time would never dispute that if it were not for Chris Roberts, the potential of Fosterville may well have remained hidden.

Chris died comfortably and peacefully on August 14 2019 at the Cairns Hospital as a result of a stroke caused by his congenital heart condition and previous brain trauma. He was surrounded by his partner, children and siblings. He was buried alongside his mother and brother in Bermagui, NSW. A memorial was well attended by his colleagues in Bendigo a few days later. He is survived by his life partner, Denise Cochrane, his daughter, Emma, his son, Curran and his 95-year-old father, Wynn.

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