May 2013

Exploring a world of new opportunities

Incoming president Robert Schafer brings his professional and volunteer know-how to CIM

By Krystyna Lagowski

Robert Schafer is no stranger to long days and hard work. The incoming CIM president’s workday starts at 6 a.m. and does not end until 8 p.m., as he dutifully juggles his many professional and volunteer responsibilities. CIM, SME, PDAC, and the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame are just a few of the organizations to which Schafer devotes his energies. “I want to give back to the industry that’s given me a very exciting career,” he says.

Currently the executive vice-president of business development at Hunter Dickinson Inc., Schafer is excited about his upcoming term as CIM president. His career began in exploration and has since brought him to nearly 80 countries, and he is hoping to leverage his vast connections in the global mining network to CIM’s benefit. “My involvement with many mining associations in many jurisdictions gives me broad perspectives on both governance and co-operative relationships among mining organizations,” he explains.

Schafer is already engaged in updating CIM’s strategic plan, with the goal of further defining and developing action plans to advance the values that make CIM the community for leading industry expertise. Central to this, he says, is increased communication between CIM’s branches and societies. The strategic plan will be finessed over the next several months, with a final version scheduled to be ready for CIM Council endorsement later this year.

He also has ambitious plans to advance the creation of a global mining alliance, which would include, as founding members, CIM, the U.S.-based Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME), the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), and the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM). As well, Schafer is looking forward to the 23rd World Mining Congress in Montreal this summer. CIM will co-host the congress in conjunction with Canada’s top five mining universities. More than 1,500 mining professionals from around the world are expected to attend.

Schafer’s own career in mining began more than 30 years ago, after he discovered his passion for geology while enrolled at Miami University (Ohio). “I’d always picked up rocks and enjoyed looking at mountain scenery, but I didn’t realize I wasinterested in geology,” he recalls. “Within one semester, I was hooked.” He went on to study at the University of Arizona, where he earned graduate degrees in geology and in mineral economics.

Exploration work, Schafer explains, is like putting together a puzzle with 60 to 80 per cent of the pieces missing. “When you start with an exploration project, all you see is what’s exposed on the earth’s surface, with much of it camouflaged,” he says. “You’re putting together a puzzle one piece at a time and have to identify where those pieces are coming from – and not all of them fit together.”

Schafer is quick to credit the people who have profoundly influenced his work. He points to Barry Watson at Rio Tinto, who gave him his first opportunity to plan, develop and carry out an exploration program – while still a graduate student. Schafer is also grateful to David Whitehead, whom he worked with at Billiton, for teaching him the economics of exploration and discovery, and to Hugo Dummett at BHP, for inspiring his drive and desire to succeed. “I’ve been fortunate to have a strong support system throughout my entire career,” he says.

And, in turn, Schafer has proven his colleagues can rely on him for solid support. In 2000, while working for Kinross Gold as vice-president of exploration, Schafer was tasked with finding a deposit to feed the mill at the Kubaka mine. Schafer and his team discovered the million-ounce Birkachan gold deposit in Russia’s Far East, through 100 metres of glacial till. “By putting together the pieces of geology, geochemical and geophysical surveys, and focusing the exploration team to a specific area, we completed the project in 15 months,” he recalls. “It was a great example of Canadian-Russian cooperation and one of the first applications of GIS [geographic information systems] technology to make a virgin mineral discovery.”

A busy life discovering mineral riches never diminished the value of family for Schafer. After recognizing how much time exploration careers can take professionals away from their families, he launched an annual Labour Day family picnic while he was president of the Geological Society of Nevada in the late 1980s. The tradition continues to this day.

Schafer works in Vancouver but calls Salt Lake City, Utah, home, so he makes the trip between cities every week – flying to work on Sunday evenings and returning home Friday afternoons. He’s been making the two-hour commute for nine years. “I like being busy,” he says. “I like giving back, so I volunteer a lot. I consider myself a very fortunate person.”

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