Sandra Collins: a model for women in mining

Published: 09/03/2013


By Emily Roberts, HighGrade

BELIEVED to be the first female mining engineer to work in Australia and one of only two women to manage a Queensland mine, Sandra Collins was again in the spotlight in March when she won the Resources Award for Women from the Queensland Resources Council.
Collins is currently the East End mine manager for Cement Australia at Mount Larcom near Gladstone in Queensland, a 3.5-million-tonne per annum mine that supplies limestone, alumina and silica for the Fisherman’s Landing cement plant. She has held this role for more than three of the 10 years she has been with the company.

Collins’ diverse career path has also included periods in the human resources, finance and business analysis sectors. She can operate mine loaders, drills, trucks, forklifts and graders, and she can handle explosives.

Collins says she discovered “her love of the resources industry” while studying engineering at university. “I wanted to be a boiler maker at 14 but my parents would not let me leave school,” Collins told HighGrade. “I thought I might do medicine so I worked as a nurse’s aid for the summer after high school and saw that there were many people that doctors could not help. “I decided to do engineering as I thought engineers were able to solve the problems they faced using maths, physics etc and I am good at those subjects. After first year I got a summer job in a coal mine and fell in love with mining: blasting, heavy machinery, earthmoving and the people.”

In 1985 while working at the metalliferrous Cobar Mines in New South Wales, Collins fought for and gained an exemption from state legislation that prevented women from working underground so that she could work and study for her underground mine manager certification.

After stints with Rio Tinto (then CRA) in Western Australia, Melbourne and Taiwan, Collins moved to Pennsylvania to study for an MBA at the Wharton Business School after being awarded a Harkness Fellowship, the American equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship. During breaks in study Collins worked in Arizona and Taiwan in organisational development roles for a foundry and a steel company and in Australia for McKinsey Consultants.

On completion of her MBA, she managed an aluminium pot-line in New Zealand and a smelter-anode manufacturing plant in Gladstone before moving into the finance sector to improve her business knowledge. She worked as an executive with Macquarie Corporate Finance in Sydney for a year.

Collins then honed her operation and management skills while managing a cement manufacturing plant at Kandos in NSW and the Pozzolanic Enterprises fly ash business in Queensland before achieving her ambition of managing a mine.

She achieved all this while raising three sons and two step-daughters, and without access to part-time working arrangements or child care assistance. She maintains that keeping her family together was always more important than “money, fame or work”, and added some sage advice: “Accept how your partner does housework. Praise in that department can go a long way.”

Collins says her parents were always her greatest mentors. “My mother, who is near 77, works as a registered nurse in two nursing homes, has two grandsons living with her, does the stock work for her herd of several hundred cattle on her days off, and in her spare time goes ballroom dancing,” she said. “My father was a paraplegic most of my life, ran and worked in his own metal fabrication business and was the Peak Downs Shire mayor for many years before he died at 56.” Collins says her parents taught her to follow a path “that will utilise my potential to its fullest, make a major contribution to a satisfying life for me and for my family, and hopefully contribute to the wellbeing of the community at large.”

With these purposes in mind, Collins has continued her career aspirations and hopes to manage a large mining, manufacturing or processing operation in two years time and in another five years, take on an operations general manager position for a resources company. “With a narrow concentration on just mining, HR, finance or business analysis in a particular resources industry sector, I would probably have reached senior roles more quickly,” Collins said. “Having gained an exceptionally broad base of experience across the fields of management and across many resources sectors, I now have much to contribute in operations general management roles.”

But, her immediate focus is on riding out the current financial crisis, which Collins believe the industry will emerge from in better shape than when it went into it. “The GFC [global financial crisis] and market downturn will ensure companies focus on efficiency and cost effectiveness, reducing waste and improving employee productivity,” she said. “The industry will come through this period well, and when that happens we will have learned a lot. “One of the key challenges is cost control in a market downturn, and the daily review and analysis of costs, expenditure and cost reduction initiatives. I also need to keep my staff informed and motivated at a time when there’s not a lot of good news about.”

Collins recent award was presented at the QRC’s International Women’s Day breakfast in Brisbane, the recognition highlighting her value as a role model to women working in, and looking to enter, the resources industry.

Collins believes more needs to be done to encourage increasing numbers of women into the industry through schools and the media. “We need to recognise achievements and encourage those who tackle the least traditional areas; women need to network to get to know and support each other; and provide information on career development, salaries, case studies, and companies.”