Q&A with new CIM President Ken Thomas

2017-05-12

Ken Thomas CIM 2017 headshotCIM president Ken Thomas on his humble beginnings, professional victories and the role the institute played along the way 

Ken Thomas was still a boy when he began his metallurgical career, doing grunt work in the metallurgy labs of the British steel industry. Moving from the UK to Africa, then Canada, he climbed his way up. His advance to senior vice-president of technical services at Barrick Gold was in step with the growth of the company from a junior to one of largest gold producers in the world, and the projects he worked on were instrumental to that ascent. Over his career he has developed projects in Africa, Australia, North and South America, been tutored by great leaders, decorated for his professional achievements and gathered an enviable art collection. Altogether, not bad for a high school drop-out from Wales. On the eve of this year’s CIM Convention, CIM Magazine spoke with Thomas to learn a little more about the institute’s new president. 

CIM: How did you get your start in metallurgy?

KT: I went to a technical school and I said to my mother, “I want to go out and see the world.” I started as a laborer in a chemical lab in the steel industry and by the time I was about 16, 17 years old I realized that I’m not going to get anywhere, so I went to night school for five years and got what was called a higher national certificate in metallurgy and that allowed me to go to university.    

CIM: And so, despite the fact that you began by doing menial work in metallurgy, it was the field you chose to pursue?

KT: Yes. Because the hustle and bustle of the furnaces. We had an integrated plant, we used to take scrap, we used to take pig iron, cast ingots, role the ingots, produce bars, and just across the road some of the bars were turned into rod. It was really interesting and I thought, “I can go to school in metallurgy and hopefully I can go a little bit further.”

CIM: What would you say was the highlight of your career?

KT: The most interesting job I had was when I was appointed as the vice president of metallurgy in Barrick working at the head office. Barrick was created in 1984, I joined in 1987 and at that point they did not have a head office person in metallurgy.

Barrick bought Goldstrike for $62 million in 1986 and they thought there was only 600,000 ounces in it, and they put a few holes down and they realized they had the motherlode. I’ll never forget the day they gave me a core sample and they said, "Go and do a cyanidation test on this," and, unfortunately, we got less than 20 per cent recovery of the gold.

It was refractory gold and we had two options: roasting and autoclaving. At that time in the late 80s roasting was frowned upon. So we opted for autoclaving.

That project took from 1989 to 1993. At its zenith, Goldstrike was producing somewhere around two million ounces a year and it was only bought for 600,000 ounces. For me, that was a crowning moment.

CIM: You have mentioned Bob Smith, the technical lead you reported to at Barrick, as a major influence for you. Why?

KT: He had probably the best leadership skills I’ve ever come across.

He treated you with respect, he gave you a mandate and he told you what the objective was. He says, "Well, you build that plant, you lead the team and that’s it. If you get interference, you come to me." He would listen to you, he’d come in ... Say two or three times a week and sit down opposite my desk and say, "So, how is it going?" I used to give him a very short rundown and he wouldn’t interfere but you knew that if you were off track he’d tell you.

He told me a couple of times, "Look, it doesn’t make sense." For example, he had a difficult time accepting putting the autoclaves in at Goldstrike instead of the roasters because roasters were well known to him and autoclaving wasn’t, but you had to give him a story on paper, he'd mull it over, eventually he would say, "Okay go ahead."

CIM: What role did CIM play in your career?

KT: CIM and the Canadian Mineral Processors Society have been really important to me. When I came to Canada in 1980 I only knew a couple of people. One of the guys said to me, "Look you’ve got to get a CIM membership and the best way to get your communication system going and get your contacts is by going to the annual CMP Conference," which at that time for me was the correct society to get involved in. I joined CIM straight away and created my network.

By creating that network I had a library of people and I could phone up somebody and say, "Why do we do things in such a way in Canada? It’s a bit different from South Africa," and they used to explain to me why. That’s the reason why I accepted the CIM presidency. CIM and the CMP gave me a lot and I’m giving back, it is as simple as that.

CIM: What advice would you give to young graduates getting started in the industry?

KT: If you want to learn how mining or processing or infrastructure works, you’ve got to have a job in the field for at least four or five years. On top of that, if you can manage it, you should go overseas to broaden your knowledge of other cultures.

CIM: What is your objective for the year ahead?

KT: My objective is to increase the treasury and also review membership, which is a bit outdated as far as I’m concerned in the categories we have. I’ve already started that.

In my president-elect year I put a motion forward that we have paying life members, for example. Then we’ve got to get momentum on the strategic plan. A tenure of one year for a president is too short. A president has his own objectives and no sooner has he started to implement is his tenure soon up. At least we now have a president council (past president, president, president-elect and incoming president-elect) which improves continuity. Personally, I would like to see a two-year tenure for a CIM president.