Sept/Oct 2012

Constant change

Tony Eltringham shares insights from four decades in copper mining

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

George EltringhamFresh out of Cambridge University’s physics program, George Anthony Eltringham’s first job in mining was in the Zambian Copperbelt. From there, he went on to build a 40-year career, spanning a wide range of operations and involving all levels of the value chain. In the last decade of his career, he was sought out by BHP Billiton as a troubleshooter, “helping to solve problems by learning to think differently and helping others see problems in a different frame,” he says. In 2009, he retired with plans to write a book, but four days later, the company phoned him to do some consulting work. He has been busy working as a consultant for a number of companies around the world ever since. Eltringham’s breadth and depth of experience has given him unique perspectives to bring to audiences as he explores “Four decades, four continents, four copper operations – a personal perspective on constraints” in his CIM Distinguished Lecturer presentation.

CIM: That is an interesting title, and a lot of ground to cover. Can you give us an overview of what you will be discussing?

Eltringham: I will be using four different copper operations on four continents as examples of the changes in thinking and approaches the industry has developed over the past 40 years.

When I started my career in Zambia in the late 1960s, the country was one of the largest copper producers in the world but had only been so for 35 years. I saw a very young producing area, where technology had been ap­plied pretty rigorously to enable it to catch up with the rest of the world. The example I reference for the second decade is Kennecott, Utah Copper’s Bingham Canyon copper operation near Salt Lake City. That mine had been operating for 70 years and had changed smelter technologies four times in 30 years. So, in that case, technology was used to update the operation to comply with new en­­­­­­­­­vi­ron­mental laws. The third decade highlights the example of the Chilean discovery of Escondida, the first large mine to be developed in Chile after the country nationalized mining in 1971. The spotlight then turns to the story of the Australian Olympic Dam operation, which was discovered by a very technologically driven company called Western Mining Corp.

CIM: The first two decades seem to focus on thinking related to technology, but what about the third and fourth?

Eltringham: In the Escondida example, a country had nationalized its copper mining industry, but in order to continue growing the industry, it had to bring foreign companies back in, which Chile did with Utah International in the 1980s. Escondida has become the lar­gest copper mine in the world but, to make it work, Chile had to develop partnerships with BHP and others. That isn’t something people in the 1960s and 1950s cared about much. Most back then wanted to be the sole owner and operator.

The story of Olympic Dam illustrates that even in a country such as Australia, which encourages private development, a small-to-medium-sized company cannot develop a large find to the best financial advantage on its own. Even a big company such as BHP, which bought out that mine in 2005, will struggle if the deposit is large. BHP is still trying to develop Olympic Dam to the size it wants it to be. Ironically, BHP now owns 57.5 per cent of Escondida, so they have learned about the benefits of partnerships but are unwilling to apply this knowledge to the Olympic Dam.

CIM: You have a strong focus on alternative approaches to thinking. Why is “thinking differently” so critical?

Eltringham: If you are going to achieve different results, you’re going to need different behaviours, and in order to have different behaviours, you have to think differently. Thinking differently is only achieved when we listen more generously to what people are telling us, especially to people with a new pers­pective or one that, up until that point, we haven’t always listened to.

CIM: The title of your presentation also mentions you provide “a personal perspective on constraints.” Could you elaborate?

Eltringham: In all companies there are constraints which limit the or­ganization in maximizing its effectiveness. They are not just tangible constraints, like equipment or process restrictions, but can be policies, procedures, systems and operating practices. My run-through of four de­cades in the industry showcases examples where identifying and re­moving constraints provided signi­ficant results and a deeper un­der­standing of complex systems.

Book Tony Eltringham as a Distinguished Lecturer or learn more about the CIM Distinguished Lecturers Program.

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