June/July 2012

Outside the comfort zone

Heather White | Vice-president, mining, NovaGold Resources Inc.

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

“My dream coming into this career was to design, build and have a hand in operating a mine from a blank piece of paper into full production,” says Heather White, vice-president, mining, NovaGold Resources Inc. “It’s a very rare opportunity. It’s not too often a brand new mine is started, so timing is everything. And in order to get that chance, you have to be at the right place and time.”

As luck would have it, in 2003, White found herself at the right place at the right time, and was hired as chief mining engineer at Inco’s then new $2.9-billion Voisey’s Bay project in Labrador. A year and a half later, she was appointed mine manager.

“I was so fortunate,” says White. “I got to see my dream come true, had so much fun doing it, and learned so much that still applies to the work I do today.”

Through the 16 years she worked at Inco and Vale before joining NovaGold, White was tenacious about learning and gaining experience in every possible facet of the supply chain and the business. “I like to take on different roles, ones in which I’m constantly challenged and am broadening my knowledge base, especially if it’s not in an area I have particular expertise in,” she points out.

In 2008, she took the position of director, marketing, supply chain at Vale Canada Ltd. in Toronto, although she had never worked on that side of the business before. For three years, she managed the worldwide nickel supply chain for Vale — and excelled at it.

“I had spent some 12 years digging it out of the ground and getting it onto a ship or a train and had no real idea of what happened beyond that, so I left my comfort zone to get exposure to the other side of the business, the end product, the selling aspect, to broaden my knowledge of the entire business chain,” she explains.

In April 2011, White decided to take on a new challenge and joined NovaGold Resources Inc. as director of mining. “In a smaller company, there’s less bureaucracy, so it’s a great place to really get in and add value in a variety of ways,” she says. “Broadening and developing myself, and finding ways to add value, that’s what makes it interesting. I need to be stretching my mind. Otherwise, I feel as if I’m wasting time.”

Throughout her career, White has consistently focused on building relationships, which she believes are particularly important in the mining industry. “Mining is a team effort and you’re crossing many horizons between different disciplines all the time,” she says. “Whether it is from finance to marketing, to technical, or between processing, geology and mining, you’re constantly working in teams and forging new relationships, and the reality is mining is a global business. So with global teams, as well, you have to find the common ground and gain trust and respect from your team members.”

Last December, eight months after having hired her, NovaGold promoted White to vice-president, mining – a role that has given her a new opportunity. “The dream I had has gone from cradle to grave. I was able to design, build and have a hand in operating a mine at Voisey’s Bay. Now, I’m closing one — NovaGold’s Rock Creek mine in Nome, Alaska,” says White. “It’s sad, but it’s also a part of the whole mining process, so it has been a very exciting time.”

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