June/July 2012

Diverse tacklebox

How the “Two Bobs” shaped one of the world’s legendary mining companies

By Vivian Danielson

Many people in the mining industry love fishing, as it provides the same enormous sense of opportunity to reel in the “Big One” that drew them to their careers. Robert Hunter and Robert Dickinson, founders of Vancouver-based Hunter Dickinson Inc. (HDI), shared a love of salmon fishing in their native province during the rare times they were not pursuing prospects on land. Their techniques were as different as their personalities, yet provide insight into the dynamics of their partnership and how it endured the pressures of time to achieve legendary status.

“They were as different as can be imagined,” says HDI president and CEO Ronald Thiessen, who joined the group in 1994. “One (Hunter) statesmanlike, intuitive, dapper, gregarious and routine, and the other (Dickinson) informal, intense and detailed, tactical, with a need for occasional solitude but still a potential for spontaneity.”

Still new to the company and a fishing novice, Thiessen spent a day with each of the “Two Bobs,” as they were known in the industry, at a fishing lodge on the coast of Haida Gwaii. The area is famous for its Tyee (Chinook or spring salmon) weighing 30 pounds or more.

With Dickinson, Thiessen was on the dock before the crack of dawn. By the end of the 16-hour day, he had been instructed on the finer elements of salmon fishing, including “bait evisceration, hooking, trolling, tidal movements, eddy channels, and the nocturnal and daytime routine and feeding regime of the Tyee salmon.

“It was intense, it was detailed, it was tactical. More importantly, it was designed for success,” Thiessen recalls.

The next day, after a leisurely breakfast, Thiessen set out with Hunter in the general vicinity of the other boats. He was surprised when Hunter settled in for a nap, rod in hand, and asked if he was not worried about losing the rod and reel if he got a bite.

“No,” was Hunter’s reply. He explained that while he was napping, he was having “wonderful thoughts and dreams that were being transmitted down the rod, down the line, through the hook, through the bait, and into the water to the salmon. The Tyee are going to want my bait because it’s more desirable than anyone else’s.”

“It was unique, intuitive and relaxed, and at the end of the day, very successful,” says Thiessen, explaining why he told this fishing tale during the recent induction of Hunter and Dickinson into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

“It’s about two people who have been uniquely successful employing very different methods and approaches, yet completely compatible objectives. They had a singularity of purpose that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

The best of both worlds

It all began in 1985, when two different men who had not met were asked to run a company together. Dickinson, an acumenical entrepreneur-geologist with a business degree, was then 37 years old. Intuitive Hunter, a former top-producing insurance salesman credited with financing and developing the Cannon gold mine in Washington state as president of Breakwater Resources Inc., was 58 at the time.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting each other, we said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” Dickinson said. At that time, both had ended historical partnerships and were on their own. Despite a strong desire to find mines, Dickinson had no real track record of financing ventures, and Hunter, with no technical knowledge, had a rolodex of people wanting to invest in well-founded mining ventures. Naturally, they realized they would be better off working together.

This was a time of heady growth for hundreds of newly hatched junior companies, until the 1987 market crash and industry downturn dashed their ambitions and drained their treasuries. But the stars lined up perfectly for the new partners. By 1990, they had sold interests in two British Columbia projects held by their junior companies to senior producers for a total of $220 million – a fortune at the time.

Hunter fought for the best deals for shareholders, negotiating for 31 hours with Homestake Mining to win an extra dollar per share (to $5) for the sale of an interest in the Golden Bear project near Dease Lake. In their next deal, the partners turned down a bid by Noranda before selling the Mount Milligan copper-gold project near Mackenzie to Placer Dome.

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