Tough as diamonds: Catherine McLeod-Seltzer’s rise to prominence

Published: 11/12/2013

By Jeff Borsato, CIM

Catherine McLeod-Seltzer really caught the mining bug after sealing her first billion dollar deal. Her very first venture, Arequipa Resources, founded in 1990 while she was still working as a securities analyst, was sold three years later to Barrick Gold Corporation for $1.1 billion. Not surprisingly, the young British Columbian chucked brokering and never looked back.

Cementing her reputation as a pioneer in a male-dominated industry, McLeod-Seltzer and fellow frontiers-woman Eira Thomas co-founded Stornoway Diamonds, a key player in Canada’s almost mythically improbable diamond rush. Now chair of Pacific Rim Mining and Bear Creek Mining, McLeod-Seltzer was not only part of a slow-moving gender shift in the industry, but also of a rapid shift from major mining companies to smaller exploration outfits in the 1990s. “Many talented staff left large miners in the 90s to form smaller startups, making the industry more mobile and focused on specific projects that may have otherwise been passed over by a major,” she says.

But over the course of her 20-year career, McLeod-Seltzer has also worked in the major leagues, and her resume zigzags from junior exploration to large producer. For example, she is currently both lead director of Stornoway Diamond Corporation and director with the much larger Kinross. McLeod-Seltzer notes it is tougher going from a large mining conglomerate to a smaller company. “Larger companies are more complex but have support structures that allow you to specialize, while smaller outfits are more focused,” she says. “It can be a challenging transition, especially from a major outfit to a junior exploration-focused company, because you must be a multi-tasker in order to succeed; there is no safety net if your only major project fails.”

Her successes, big and small, including Francisco Gold, Miramar Mining, Bear Creek Mining and Peru Copper, have earned her The Northern Miner’s 1999 Mining Man of the Year award and a position on the Financial Post’s Power 50.

From broker to prospector
Like so many who work in the industry, mining is in McLeod-Seltzer’s blood. Her grandfather came to British Columbia in the 1920s to work in the mines, and her father, Don McLeod, followed in his footsteps, working as a mining engineer. McLeod-Seltzer credits her father’s love for the industry and his mentorship as helping her transition from finance to mining. “My father always said there was a difference between a stock promoter and mining promoter,” she recalls. Her background in brokerage and finance in turn helped her bridge the divide between the geologist and investor, which has proved vital to securing financing for a variety of projects.

After the sale of Arequipa to Barrick Gold, McLeod-Seltzer’s next venture was as founding director of Francisco Gold before it was sold to Glamis Gold in 2002. Francisco Gold’s core asset in El Sauzal was a key component driving the eventual merger between Glamis and Goldcorp. McLeod-Seltzer served as director of Miramar Mining in addition to her current chairperson positions with Pacific Rim and Bear Creek Mining.

Local opposition to Pacific Rim’s El Dorado project in El Salvador shook McLeod-Seltzer’s confidence as a mining risk-taker. She says conditions in current day El Salvador are much like they were in Peru before its mining boom earlier this decade. In Peru, legal reforms opened up its borders to increased investment in mining and she feels sure that El Salvador will follow the same path. Although McLeod-Seltzer admits her zeal for risk has mellowed over the years, she is still willing to take chances on not-so-perfect projects, especially in developing countries like El Salvador. “Mining laws are changing gradually and El Salvador has huge potential geologically,” she says.

Financier’s view
Looking into her financial crystal ball, McLeod-Seltzer says she expects the current commodity uptrend, largely due to growth in the Asian economies, to continue. “China and India are driving this bull market in metals; they will have their challenges but the long-term trend is up,” she predicts. She is betting on the rising wealth of both countries and hunger for status consumption to keep demand for Stornoway Diamond’s gems high. “Cultures have historically turned to buying gold and diamonds as external symbols of wealth when their economies are expanding and urbanization is increasing,” she observes.

The rise of precious metals prices is a similar but distinct trend, owing to both growing Asian economies and currency volatility. Asked what the greatest challenge to junior mining and exploration companies has been since the 2008 sub-prime crisis, she says hands down the biggest impact has been on investor expectations. “Investors were shaken during this market correction, and a good company needs to instill confidence in investors,” she says. Musing on the parallels between the mining world after the sub-prime crisis and post-Bre-X, McLeod-Seltzer notes the fallout was much longer during the latter. “The sub-prime crisis was corrected quicker,” she says. “It reflected intrinsic demand for commodities and a recognition of the quality of companies.”

Women’s work
McLeod-Seltzer was this year’s featured speaker at the 2010 Women in Mining Canada Annual General Meeting. Her keynote address, entitled “Rock hard lessons: the exciting personal story of one of Canada’s most revered women in mining and her path to success,” explored some of the formative experiences she hoped would inspire the eager crowd. Taking issue with the notion that the mining industry is impenetrable to women, McLeod-Seltzer encouraged her audience to forget gender and focus on being the best. “Mining is more of a meritocracy than anything else and you’re only as good as your last discovery,” she told the audience. Cultivating solid entrepreneurial skills and an appetite for risk are the critical tools to advancement in this industry, whether you are a man or a woman, she added. Asked what advice she would offer to women considering a career in mining and mineral exploration, she summed it up thus: “Just go for it, take a risk, and if you enjoy travel and adventure, it’s an excellent career choice, male or female.”

That sounds about right from the woman who flat-out rejected the idea of having the “Mining Man of the Year” award name changed to “Mining Person of the Year” when she was its recipient. “The award has a long tradition and the fact that it was awarded to a women is another reminder of the inclusiveness of the industry,” she said at the time. The name change was eventually made to recognize the contributions of women as well as men to the mineral and exploration industry, and most would agree that Catherine McLeod-Seltzer had no small part to play in this growing trend.