March/April 2011

Women in Mining

Forging ahead: Young mill manager takes on the optimization challenge

By Heather Ednie

Laila Potvin in front of a soon-to-be obsolete SAG feeder conveyor | Photo Credit: Patrick Campeau


In the dynamic environment of an operation undergoing expansion, Laila Potvin’s thirst for challenges is setting the pace. “It’s incredibly busy, but I’m not complaining,” says the 34-year-old manager of mill operations at Gibraltar Mines Ltd. “I like the fast pace; it’s far from boring.”

In fact, boredom is possibly the gravest of enemies to this young processing dynamo. After graduating from the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program at the University of Toronto, Potvin went to work for Vale (then Inco) in Thompson, Manitoba, as a processing engineer. In addition to a full workload, she pursued and completed a Master’s degree at McGill University. Then, in 2005, she joined the team at the Lac des Îles operation near Thunder Bay, Ontario, as mill superintendent. “After three years, we got to the point where the mill operation was running smoothly and was fully optimized,” she recalls. “This was expedited when the operation was shutdown in October 2008 due to the economic downturn and drop in palladium prices. Though I was one of the people retained through the care and maintenance process, the day-to-day work was becoming routine, so it was time for me to look for a new challenge.”

In February 2009, Potvin began her current role at Gibraltar and has been enjoying the bustling environment from the onset. “At Gibraltar, we’re striving for improvements,” she says. “It will take a while to get bored – there is so much to do.”

Living the life

The mining industry was not Potvin’s initial career choice. “Frankly, my original plan was to go into environmental sciences, but when I found out I’d be in classrooms with 250 people, all I could think of was, "How will I get a job when I graduate?’” she remembers. “I heard engineers were in demand and so I called the University of Toronto. The mining industry appealed to me because it offers such a diversity of experience, with different opportunities around the world.”

The change in career path has worked out nicely for Potvin. Her husband, a blasting supervisor, also works in the mining industry so they are able to move around together, learning about life in new regions, at new operations. “By moving, I get to experience different areas and really immerse myself in the new community and region,” she explains. “On the negative side, we have to go out and find all the best fishing holes with each new place we live – but that’s a challenge that is fun to have.”

This spring, Potvin and her husband will embark on the biggest challenge of all – becoming new parents. “From a professional standpoint though, I’m really looking forward to coming back to my role with a new energy and perspective, focusing on the plant’s operation,” she says. “It will almost be like starting a new job again except I’ll know the people, processes and systems already.”

Always room for improvement

Potvin sees herself more as an optimizer for existing operations rather than a commissioner. Her expertise lies in assuming responsibility for an operation and developing and executing plans to make the process as efficient as possible.

Although she is not responsible for the expansion project at Gibraltar, Potvin will assume control of the operation when it is complete. Meanwhile, she must keep the mill running smoothly while construction goes on in its midst. “It hasn’t been too much of a challenge,” she says. ”The process is very controlled and organized, and the team is aware of where everyone is and what funds are being spent.”

The real excitement will come in 2012, she claims, when the expansion is completed. Potvin has many process changes in mind to lower unit costs. “We’re not doing it wrong now, but there are definitely areas to improve,” she says. “I will have to lean on people because I have a list of about 125 projects to push us forward, but you can only do so much at one time.”

Making it all happen

Having experienced the best of both worlds – working with both small and large companies – Potvin prefers working with junior to mid-tier corporations. “Things are faster compared to larger companies where there’s more red tape or more sets of eyes watching,” she explains. “Something that takes an hour here could take seven hours elsewhere. We have a ‘just go and do it’ attitude at Gibraltar. If it doesn’t work, put it back to the way it was. You advance quicker this way.”

With her “forge ahead” attitude, Potvin believes anything is possible. “Choose whichever path you want to take, even if it means you must acquire new skill sets,” she advises. “You can achieve anything you want. Being relatively new to the industry, there is still so much to discover, and that’s a challenge that I find exhilarating.”

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