Mine Building Maverick

Published 12 years ago
Mine Building Maverick

The chief executive of Randgold Resources, Mark Bristow, is no corporate cypher in a pinstriped suit, making decisions from afar. “I don’t believe in big offices and bureaucracies,” says the man whose company has no head office—just an operating center in the Malian capital of Bamako. With the spirit of a true entrepreneur, he likes to be on the ground and appears to relish difficult conditions.

Mark Bristow, CEO of Randgold Resources. Johannesburg, 18 August 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

And from the start, following the incorporation of Randgold Resources in 1995, the acquisition of BHP Mali in 1996 and the London Stock Exchange listing in 1997, Bristow set a cracking pace. Three operations were built in just 10 years: Morila in Mali; Loulo, a four-mine complex (also in Mali); and Tongon in Côte d’Ivoire. This period also saw the confirmation of a new discovery at Massawa in Senegal and the acquisition of a 45% interest in the Kibali project in the DRC.


Bristow may have raised the eyebrows and increased the pulse rate of investors along the way, but the story of the rapid rise of Randgold Resources cannot be gainsaid, and those who have kept the faith have been rewarded amply. In the 10 years to 2009, the company was the best performing stock in the STOXX600 Europe Index, recording a stellar rise of 4,776%. In the five years to 2010, basic earnings per share increased by 63%, from $0.70 to $1.14, and dividend payments went up by 100%. In the past three years, net profits have increased by 157%, from $47 million in 2008 to $120.6 million in 2010.

Conventional wisdom would have had the odds stacked against Randgold Resources from the start. The intention was that the company would confine itself to gold, so there was no possibility of spreading risk by mining other minerals. It was driven by explorers whose only experience

Was of deep-level mining in South Africa. At the time that it needed to fund the development of its mine, Randgold Resources had no revenue-producing operations and the gold price was at an all-time low. Finally, the assets of Randgold Resources were all in Africa—not everyone’s idea of a safe investment haven. Yet this Pan-African pure gold player is on the blue chip FTSE 100 and its stock trades at a premium to the market. Bristow recalls the early days of the company. “We were attracted to Africa beyond South Africa after the postcolonial era of nationalism, socialism and nepotism. These ‘isms’ had preserved Africa’s natural resources, gold in particular. We had no money but a lot of ambition,” he says.

Randgold Resources added to its already substantial holdings in the prospective region of West Africa in 1996 with the buy-out of BHP in Mali, gaining a collection of exploration tenements and the less-than-desirable (as it turned out) Syama mine. The turning point came the next year when the world-class Morila deposit was discovered. He views the establishment of this mine as his company’s greatest achievement to date.


“We had a stressed balance sheet and we had to persuade the bank to lend us 100% of the money to develop the deposit. This was at a time when the gold price had gone from $400/oz to $260/oz. We could so easily have lost the company,” he explains. People questioned whether Randgold Resources had the expertise to build a mine. These critics were silenced when Morila (including the construction of a 30 power station) was completed on time and on budget. The first gold was poured and a profit was made in the first quarter of operation, and since October 2000, the operation has produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and distributed more than $1.6 billion to stakeholders. “It’s been the most lucrative gold mine in the world in the last two decades,” he notes.

The development of a major mine in Mali, the third-poorest country in Africa, takes some nerve but Bristow, unsurprisingly, does not hold the conventional view that the continent is a difficult place in which to operate. “It’s a fine place to work and it’s not bound by hoity-toity corporate governance janitors. It’s a place for passionate, ambitious people who want to make a difference to other people’s lives,” he says.

His first core belief about doing business in Africa is the importance of establishing relationships. “If you want to invest in Africa, you can’t do it by remote control. You have to build partnerships and to do that, you have to travel. You have to get to know your team. You have to know the political, social and commercial environment of each country.” The holder of a pilot’s license, he usually flies himself to the company’s operations—the trip from Abidjan to Tongon in a Cessna 206 being a particular favorite.

The importance of relationships notwithstanding, Bristow makes no apologies for being uncompromising when necessary. “You can’t be nice all the time. That’s a mistake that many foreign companies make. Africa is not for sissies. We don’t bribe. We stick to our values and we don’t shy away from robust encounters with stakeholders and governments.” The story of Randgold Resources in Côte d’Ivoire illustrates his approach. Before the building of Tongon started, the company had talks with the government. In a nutshell, the message was: “We’ll come and invest, but you need to keep us safe.” That said, many would question the decision to do business in a country that was split between government and rebel forces after the 2002-04 civil war and was later divided between supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the presidential elections held at the end of 2010, and Laurent Gbagbo, the former president who refused to step down.


Bristow’s response is interesting. He says that Côte d’Ivoire has a “deeper institution” or regulatory framework than most African countries. “At all times, that institution has reinforced our deal and respected our contracts.” He admits that things became very difficult at the end of 2010. “We had to deal with social unrest and people wanted to steal,” he says. However, the mine did not arm its security forces even though there was one ton of gold piled up in the safe. “We made it clear [to both factions] that we would not be used as a political football. The response of both governments was to ensure security for the operation and the community. They kept their word.”

This gave him the confidence to continue. “Other companies withdrew their expatriates. At no stage did we feel that we needed to pull people out. Our view was that ifit became too dangerous, we’d close the mine altogether,” he says. They never had to make that decision.

He concedes that the circumstances were highly complex. “We were in the middle of a conflict area under UN watch. We’ve had to manage in a social and political environment that has been turned on its head: the good guys became the bad guys and vice versa. We’ve built relationships and we talk to everyone.” These partnerships are the key to the company’s ability to operate in this type of situation and they are the nub of what separates his company from many others on the continent. It starts with a commitment to using local businesses. Apart from the difference that this makes to the economy, it makes good sense because these businessmen can open doors to government contacts and it means that the company is viewed as “local” rather than “foreign”. Since the commercial ventures in the surroundings are benefiting from the operation, it is less likely that people will interfere in its running and more likely that locals will defend it from attacks.

Bristow is scathing about the “comfort blankets” that so many foreign mining companies “drag with them” when they come to Africa. “They bring service providers, logistical support, security personnel and contractors from around the world and they build a perimeter wall around their business.” By adopting this approach, they make no real difference to the economy of the country.


That brings us to his second core belief: that if a companymines gold assets in Africa, it is beholden to create value for all stakeholders. “You don’t own the mine; you rent it. The country only begins to benefit when you start construction,” he notes, adding that the real benefits only start when profits are made and taxes are paid.

He says any one of the Randgold Resources’ mines consumes goods to the value of $10 million to $15 million a month. “If you can cycle such costs in the local economy, can you imagine what you do to that economy?” he asks. In preparation for the start of mining at Kibali, 400 kilometers of roads in the north-east DRC have been opened up. “For the first time since 1955, a bus was driven from Uganda to Doko in the DRC in August last year,” he says.

Locals are already feeling the benefits of these developments with the cost of living having fallen by 50%. He is confident that the new operation, with estimated reserves of 10 million ounces, will be a “big engine” for growth in that part of the country. Expected to be one of the largest mines on the continent, it is anticipated that first gold will be poured by the end of 2013.

The biggest sing single risk for Africa, in his view, is thepressure of poverty. His message to the anti-mining lobby and the “greenies” is that this is more destructive to the planet than everything else put together. “Poor people don’t care about rules and regulations; they just want to survive for the day. That’s why they’ll chop down the last tree. Lift them out of poverty then they’ll start looking after the environment.” And he has no doubt whatsoever that the way to liberate Africa is to create jobs. Since 1995, Randgold Resources has directly created 9,000 jobs and, at full operation, he expects Kibali to employ about 3,000 to 4,000 people.


The Randgold Resources philosophy is that local people are employed wherever possible and not only at junior levels. There is only one expatriate on the management team at Morila and local people make up well over half of the team at Loulo. He is impatient with people who hold the view that Africans cannot deliver and perform at the highest executive levels. “There are plenty of highly skilled Africans.

If you are prepared to invest in people, they are here. We’ve just been on an employment drive to the southern DRC and we had people queuing up,” he says. He makes the point that in countries like Mali and the DRC, the intellectual elite is to be found in mining.

Bristow, who holds a PhD in geology—his thesis was on the “esoteric” topic of chrome seams in the Bushveld Complex—from the University of Natal in South Africa, says he did not set out to be successful. The circumstances in which he found himself helped. So did the fact that he likes winning, loves making a difference and enjoys working in a team. Above all, he really believes in Africa and its people. “It’s got to be the place to be in the next 10 years,” he says.