Dec '09/Jan '10

The rising tide of success

Eira Thomas strikes balance between work and family

By H. Ednie

 

Eira Thomas and Matt Manson, president and CEO of Stornaway Diamond Corporation, at the Quebec City diamond display in 2007


What a year this has been for Eira Thomas, executive chairman and director of Stornoway Diamond Corporation. A field program at Stornoway’s Renard project in Quebec yielded major results; Thomas became a new mother; and CIM awarded her the Past President’s Memorial Medal for outstanding contributions by an individual under the age of 45 — a recognition that is very well deserved.

Thomas’ introduction to geology came at a very early age, when she’d accompany her father, a mining engineer-turned-prospector. She developed a fever for the work and for the beauty of the Canadian North. As a geologist with Aber Resources Ltd. (now Harry Winston Diamond Corp) in the 1990s, Thomas led the field exploration team that discovered the Diavik Diamond project pipes in 1994 and 1995.

In 1997, Aber promoted her to vice-president, exploration. After two years in that position, she became president of Navigator Exploration Corporation, then of Stornoway Diamond Corporation. She sits on the board of a number of companies and organizations, and previously held the position of president and CEO of Stornoway Diamond Corporation. Over the years, Thomas has received numerous awards and honours, including being named one of “Canada’s Top 40 under 40” and “Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100.”

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career. From early on, I was involved in prospective projects that were technically sound,” Thomas recalls. “I caught the rising tide of a successful project at Diavik and had opportunities to learn all aspects of the business. I’ve been able to take those experiences and turn them into new opportunities.”

Although Stornoway has 13 active holdings, the major focus of the past year has been on its Renard project in Quebec. “We’ve been shepherding Renard through prefeasibility and are hoping now to make a final production decision in 2011,” Thomas explains. “We’ve had great success with our drilling this year. In December 2008, we completed our first economic assessment. It was positive, but still pretty skinny. In 2009, we launched a modest program to try and expand the resource. We focused on drilling kimberlite R2, and we hit a real homerun, basically quadrupling the tonnage. An updated 43-101-compliant resource estimate is nearing completion and we are increasingly confident Renard will go on to be developed as Quebec’s first diamond mine, with an aim to begin production in 2013.”

Thomas — and Stornoway — are known for a focus on new technologies through partnerships with other companies and academia. “Diamond exploration is a high-risk undertaking and we are constantly looking for ways to reduce that risk and increase our chances of success,” Thomas says. “The more we understand about the origin of diamonds and diamond deposits, the better able we are to fine tune our exploration strategy to find future deposits, hopefully at less cost.”

Consequently, Stornoway has supported research to advance the understanding of diamonds and kimberlites at multiple campuses across Canada. New technologies have also helped to bring the cost of diamond exploration down and shorten the time needed to make a discovery. Stornoway has partnered with independent technical groups and laboratories to develop proprietory techniques in geophysics and mineral processing, specifically designed for kimberlite exploration. In those types of partnerships, Stornoway often provides the initial seed capital to develop the technology, in exchange for lower processing rates over time.

If diamonds are Thomas’ passion, then field work is her love. “It’s one of the things I love most about the business,” she says. This year was quiet, due to the market situation and the company’s focus on Renard. But expectations are that the level of field work will be expanded in 2010. She will be returning to the field, though, with a new partner by her side.

In 2009, Thomas became a new mother to Aven, whom she named after a northern flower. She hopes to bring Aven into the field. “I had wanted to get her out there before she was walking, but other than our advanced work program at Renard, we did very little field work in 2009. I worked with a geologist in the past who brought her few-months-old baby with her to the bush,” Thomas says. “She’d strap the baby on her back and head out into the field to map — it really worked out well because the baby was at the stage where he wasn’t that active. Next year, I can bring Aven out, but as she’ll be a toddler, it will be more of an adventure.”

Given the opportunity, Thomas would spend a great deal of time out in the field. But the reality is, the corporate side of the business takes precedence right now. “That’s the major limitation to how much field work I’m able to do,” she says. “It’s more limiting than the family side of things.”

That being true, over the past year, Thomas says she’s begun to spend more time on personal goals, such as having a family; it’s been a huge adjustment. She is in the office from 8:30 to 3:00 each day, during which she says she must make the absolute most of every minute. “It’s been a much harder transition than I expected,” she admits. “It’s in a good way — I find I’m much more focused and efficient than before. I’m learning I’m capable of more than I thought.”

Juggling all her responsibilities is no easy task, and it requires major drive to keep it all going. That drive is something Thomas has plenty of. Her greatest inspiration comes from the North itself. “I spent a lot of time in my youth in the North with my father,” she recalls. “I was always attracted to its natural beauty but as I grew up, I also became aware of the special spirit of the peoples and cultures there. Life is difficult in many of these Aboriginal communities where the cost of living is exorbitant and the unemployment rates are among the highest in Canada.”

“I’ve seen the positive impact that mining can have on these communities and I strongly believe that sustainable mineral development can play a vital role in building healthy, economically independent communities. Stornoway continues to invest in the North through exploration and I look forward to the day when we’ll be in a position to build a mine and provide those much needed long-term jobs.”

Although next year won’t see the development of such deposits, Thomas says the overall outlook for 2010 is good. “I have a positive outlook — I think the worst is behind us. Stornoway’s major project has transformed over the last year. I feel confident that diamond prices, like most commodity prices, are going to improve. We’re ending this year on a high note.”

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