Cherie Leeden: Striking Coal in a Kalimatan Jungle

Published: 08/03/2013

22 July 2009

By Emilie Roberts, HighGrade

CHERIE Leeden is looking forward to celebrating a major milestone next year when the first barge of coal from Strike Resources’ Berau thermal coal project in East Kalimantan floats down the Segah River. She has overseen the project from its infancy, and takes a lot of pride in what has been achieved.

Leeden joined Strike in January 2007 as a project geologist (after graduating with honours in 2002 and employment stints with LionOre and Rio Tinto), responsible for advancing and sourcing projects in Peru, Australia and Indonesia. In May 2008, she was promoted to exploration manager and her “steep learning curve” began.

“Just over two years ago in Indonesia, we discovered what we then thought to be a small coal deposit, hidden within the jungle of Borneo in East Kalimantan,” Leeden told HighGrade. “I spent the first few weeks up there mapping the coal seams – a commodity I had no prior experience in – and then was faced with the task of advancing the project in a country where I had no contacts or previous working experience. It was such a steep learning curve.

“Within four weeks I had a couple of man-portable drill rigs onsite and about 150 local people employed onsite to do what would only require about eight people in Australia. I was living with the local tribal village chief and commuting to site up a river on a motorised canoe each morning to ensure that the contractors I’d employed were up to scratch and that Australian-practice sampling techniques were carried out.

“I remained onsite for the duration of the first drilling campaign, and can proudly say two years on we have a good quality thermal coal resource of over 20 million tonnes that will be in production by mid-next year.

“I guess it’s always a geo’s goal to see something that they find go into production. I have had to learn a lot fast in order to advance the exploration project to a resource project to where it is today. As a result I’ve invested a lot of time into learning more regarding the geotechnical, hydrogeological, environmental and legal aspects of mining. I’m really looking forward to watching our first shipment of coal barge down the Segah River next year.”

Leeden is also passionate about minimising the company’s environmental footprint while “making a substantial positive difference to the nearby communities”. Strike also has two iron ore projects in Peru, and iron ore and mineral sands projects in Western Australia.
“I want to be able to go back to the three remote villages that surround our coal project when our mine has been exhausted and be able to look the locals in the eye proudly, knowing that our company has made a lasting difference, especially in the forms of training/education and health care,” she said.

As a relatively young manager, Leeden said she had to work on developing her confidence when accepting the management position, but she has always felt completed accepted by the industry. “Being a woman has had absolutely no negative impact on my career advancing at a rapid pace in the mining industry,” she said. “In fact, it’s not even something that I give any thought to. I’ve always been dedicated to my job and my managers have rewarded me accordingly for the effort I’ve put in.”

She particularly notes the encouragement and support of Strike’s managing director Shanker Madan, who’s also a geologist and “is just full of brilliant ideas”.

“When I was initially promoted I felt a little awkward delegating work to my colleagues with 20 years more experience than I had,” she said. “However, our board had the confidence in me that I was capable of rising to the challenge of the role, and I believe I achieved that by making well thought-out decisions and by showing my team members the respect that it deserves.”

Leeden does ensure she has a capable team to help her onsite as she is based in the Perth office and travels to site as necessary. “Because at times I am responsible for managing large teams of people on the other sides of the globe simultaneously, I make it a priority to employ the right onsite project manager in each country to facilitate this,” she said. “For my last senior Indonesian position that I filled, I interviewed more than 30 senior geologists until I found the right one. Eventually, I interviewed Wahyu [Sugiato]; I asked the 42-year-old Islamic chap how he’d feel working for a younger female in Indonesia he replied smiling, ‘With respect, our country has already had a female president – I don’t think yours has yet – I have no problem working for female or male, young or old’.”

With most of the exploration and resource work at the Berau project now completed, Leeden’s focus is shifting to new opportunities. “Strike currently is in a rather fortunate position compared to many of its peers with about $A70 million in the bank,” she said. “In today’s rather depressed marketplace there are a wealth of new opportunities and potential merger/acquisitions targets. I’m spending an increasingly larger amount of my time on this type of work: project evaluation and sourcing.

“We’re a very opportunistic company, so are not limited to a particular country or commodity: if there’s a chance that it can generate cash flow for our company and value for our shareholders, I’m more than happy investing the time in assessing it.”