A discussion with Dr Vanessa Guthrie, CEO of Toro Energy

Published: 14/07/2016

This article was originally published by the AusIMM Bulletin magazine – July 2016.

Dr Vanessa Guthrie, CEO of Toro Energy, Chair of the Minerals Council of Australia and a keynote speaker at International Mine Management 2016, discusses key stakeholders, leadership qualities and how the uranium industry is faring

Vanessa_Guthrie_01What is your overview on the state of the uranium industry, both here in Australia and globally?

The global uranium market remains in a prolonged price downturn, largely due to the inventories of primary uranium that have arisen following the shutdown of the Japanese nuclear reactor fleet in 2011-12. However, this effect is largely short term, and the long-term fundamentals of nuclear energy remain strong.

There is clear growth in the use of nuclear power. In China, 6-8 reactors are scheduled to be commissioned each year between now and 2020. In India, the government has committed to 12 new reactors being built and nuclear making up 25 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2050. In Japan, some 25 reactors are expected to return to power production. Other countries are also building nuclear power into their mix, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Eastern Europe and South Africa.

Focusing more closely on Toro’s interests, what is your view on the world uranium market in the future and how Toro is positioning itself? What do you see happening at Wiluna?

Toro and the Wiluna project are well-positioned to meet growing demand, particularly in Asia. We are the most advanced uranium development project in Australia, with approvals in hand and a solid flagship project that is ready for the market. While market conditions have been slow, we have been using the opportunity to investigate improvements to the project through upgrades to the resource and optimisation of the process flow sheet. We have also been progressing our environmental and traditional owner approvals and agreements to ensure that we are perfectly positioned for when the uranium market turns.

With an ever increasing number and diversity of ‘vocal’ stakeholders in the marketplace, who are the key or most influential ones that you need to pay particular attention to?

Our most important stakeholders remain our shareholders. They are vital to our existence and they influence both our strategy and our activities, as well as our future direction. However, our business decisions are informed by many other voices too – there are a myriad of other stakeholders who impact on us, including our communities, governments, customers and employees. Our business is strongest when we listen to those voices, consider their perspectives and adapt our business to meet the changing conditions.

Uranium is a polarising commodity. How do you try to overcome the negative perceptions?

Simply: with sound logic based on facts and science. At Toro, we prefer to use rational, evidence-based arguments to engage, recognising that many widely held perceptions are based on a lack of information and too much emotion.

What do you look for when selecting new professional employees?

First and foremost, we expect absolute integrity and authenticity at Toro. This means we are honest, straightforward and clear in our expectations – both of ourselves and of others. We always do what we say we will do, and we are respected in the market for this quality.

We also make decisions and work together based on evidence, logic and good science. We don’t shy away from problems or hide issues – we tackle them head on. So we look for clever people with an open mind who are keen to be challenged and seek answers that are backed up by logic. Lastly, I would say we are a high-octane team – there is no time wasted!

What makes a good leader in our industry, and why?

In this tough market environment, a strong leader is one with positive vision, focus and a clear purpose, balanced with an open mind to listen to others’ perspectives. No one leader can do it alone, and while the tough decisions rest with them, it remains important to be flexible and adapt to changed circumstances. The best leaders I have seen passionately believe in their purpose and are resilient and persistent in delivering the outcome.

You started as a professional geologist/environmentalist and your career has led you to work in many countries. Looking back, what has given you the greatest sense of achievement? If you are to be remembered for one thing, what would that be? If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be?

I have been blessed with so many opportunities to contribute to the minerals industry that it is hard to pick any one particular occasion as a highlight of achievement. Perhaps the thing I would like to be known for is that I have not been afraid to tackle challenges head on, whether that is as a voice for mining, as a committed environmentalist or as a woman in the industry.

Have you encountered negative gender bias recently? Is it decreasing and how do you react to it?

The minerals industry has come a long way in the gender diversity stakes since my career started in the 1980s – what was accepted behaviour then would horrify us now. Great changes have been made, but like all societal change, shifting the unconscious bias against women will take generations to become embedded. I learned early on that when you see bias against women – whether conscious or unconscious, or delivered by men or women – you need to point it out immediately and help find a solution. If you don’t, then you become part of the problem because you condone that behaviour.

What was the spark that ignited and led you to take on corporate responsibilities rather than staying as a scientist?

While I loved what I did as a scientist, I realised early on that I needed to become part of the commercial and corporate world if I was to have greater influence on business outcomes. So I took some career risks and moved out of my comfort zone.

I have also observed since that this is a question that challenges most scientists at some stage in their professional career – whether to stay technical or go managerial. This is a tricky question and one that everyone will answer differently.

Do you have any advice for young professionals looking to make a similar transition?

Be clear on two things before you decide which path to take:

  1. what are your strengths (and be really honest with yourself)
  2. how do they match to your long-term career aspirations.

I have seen outstanding technical managers fail in corporate management because the role did not play to their strengths. Equally, I have seen corporate managers try to dig into technical areas that are beyond them with spectacularly poor results. What is most important is that all businesses in mining need both technical and managerial people equally, so don’t undersell the value that technical roles can bring.

As a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, what one piece of advice would you give undergraduates, irrespective of their discipline?

Never give up questioning the science behind decisions, challenging the norms or accepting less than outstanding performance. And bring science and engineering to life with your friends and family. Few people realise that our world functions better today because of the science and engineering disciplines.

Do you have any other insights into the mining industry that you would like to share?

The current vernacular is that the minerals boom is over and the industry is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry is a cornerstone of the Australian economy and makes a larger contribution more than ever before. We have come through a major growth period which resulted in a large construction demand and now that is finished, we are well placed to underpin Australia’s future economic growth in other sectors with expanded resources exports.

What is also important to remember is that everyday items that make our lifestyle possible – mobile phones, solar panels, electric cars, air conditioners, electricity – all begin with minerals as inputs. We need the mining industry to be strong and vibrant to ensure that we can continue to have that lifestyle, both from the wealth it creates as well as from the raw materials that go into the things that improve our everyday lives.

International Mine Management 2016 will be held in Brisbane from 22-24 August 2016. For more information about the conference or to register as a delegate, visit the conference website atwww.immconference.ausimm.com.au