May 2009

Canadians Abroad

From Kamloops with mucho gusto

By R. Bergen

Career development has global impact for mining veteran

Work continues on the mill that Rondestvedt hopes will be the first of many he sees completed in the Americas. 

Scholastic underachievers and human resource people alike take note of Craig Rondestvedt. Not long ago, he was comfortably employed at Teck Cominco’s Highland Valley Copper mine outside of Kamloops, British Columbia. He knew his stuff. He had worked his way up to superintendent with the knowledge and skills he had acquired over his 31-year career on the site.

Rondestvedt figured he’d carved out his niche at the mine and gone as far as could be expected. “I was one of the few people that made it to the superintendent level who didn’t have an engineering degree,” he explained. “Frank Amon, operations manager, believed that you should take at least one course per year. I decided I’d take one in Toronto — I thought he would say no, due to cost, and he wouldn’t ask me anymore.” Rondestvedt didn’t have any illusions about the future. “I was 46 years old and felt that my chances of moving higher than a superintendent were slim to nil. For a person with my education (GED 12) at that time, becoming a superintendent of mill operations was unheard of, as the tendency was to have metallurgical engineers.”

The three-day course on project management lit a fire in Rondestvedt that he has been feeding ever since. He followed the course up by earning a Master’s certificate and then a Project Management Professional designation, making the eight-hour drive from Kamloops to Calgary every other weekend for five months to attend his course. Currently, he is taking advantage of the Business Administration Graduate Diploma program that Teck offers through Simon Fraser University.

Rondestvedt related his story on a late summer morning in March. If that sounds a little backwards, it is. That trip to Toronto turned his world upside down, both professionally and geographically.

“For the last three years I’d been saying that my ideal job would be just going around the world starting up new mills for Teck,” said Rondestvedt over an Internet phone  connection from his ocean-side apartment in La Serena, Chile. He is now just a few months into his ‘ideal job’ as commissioning manager at the Carmen de Andacollo copper mine. For the next two years, he will oversee the startup of a new semi-autogenous rinding mill at the mine in north-central Chile, and mentor those who will take over once his term there ends. Current economic conditions have made the future less clear for Rondestvedt, but he is content with his choice, enthusiastic about the broadened horizon and excited about the challenges in South America.

The impact of Rondestvedt’s new worksite — the Andacollo mine — on the area is broad and deep. It sits next to the village of the same name, about 80 kilometres southeast of La Serena. The proximity allows Teck to draw many of its nearly 900 employees and contractors from the mountain town, but it creates a unique challenge. Though the area is rich in minerals, it gets very little rain. Dust raised from blasting and transportation in the open pit truck-and-shovel operation can linger and settle over the town. Teck now uses dust suppressants on unpaved roads and varies its blasting techniques depending on wind conditions.

The arid climate also imposes a specific challenge for the new SAG mill that will up the amount of material processed from 12,000 to 55,000 tons per day. The increased volume will demand more water and put the mine in competition for the scarce resource. Teck is still in the process of working out a sustainable water agreement with the government and local stakeholders.

On a smaller scale, Rondestvedt, the only Canadian that Teck has working at the mine, said he has already made an impression. Since he began at the end of December, he has been busy ironing out some cultural and linguistic wrinkles at work.

The language of the workplace is Spanish. A six-week blitz of full-time Spanish lessons in Santiago last fall had Rondestvedt swooning, but he said with his new language and road experience, he’s now able to “muddle through” day-to-day operations. He admitted he does rely on the forbearance of his colleagues the odd time when he tramples over the subtleties of Spanish — unlike Rondestvedt, a Chilean probably wouldn’t be forgiven for calling a co-worker’s girlfriend (novia) a man (novio).

Only three months in, Rondestvedt boasted he has won the battle for punctuality in a culture well known for its indifference to it. “It drives me insane that they don’t think about being late,” he laughed. “One day somebody came to a meeting 15 minutes late, so I just sat there, not speaking until someone asked me what was going on. I told them ‘if you waste 15 minutes of my time, I’ll waste 15 minutes of yours.’ They come on time now.”

Despite the initial differences, Rondestvedt said he has a high regard for his workmates and he, in turn, has a standing invitation to join them at the local place of worship — the football stadium.

He and his wife Louise keep in touch with their two grown children and family over the Internet and are eager tour guides for visiting family, particularly those interested in sampling the offerings of the various Pisco distilleries — the local alcohol made from grapes.

For the moment, he is content walking the beach, playing golf with his wife and exploring the area around his new home. Louise, a retired bookkeeper, said she has reinvented herself as a Spanish student, an English teacher and an exterminator. “The ants! The ants!” she declared, are the biggest domestic challenge, constantly blazing trails up and down and across the apartment. The other is the shopping — their furniture was chosen in La Serena, but had to be shipped in from Santiago, 400 kilometres to the south.

The little nuisances are part of the adventure that Rondestvedt said he wants to pursue for a long time. “I would like to do this even when I retire,” he said of his work getting the new SAG mill going. “They could just give me a call and I’d be there in a heartbeat to do it.”

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