Vanessa Guthrie runs one of Australia’s most exciting uranium businesses

Published: 18/09/2013

One of the first pieces of advice Toro Energy’s managing director Vanessa Guthrie gives to women starting out in the mining industry is to call bad behaviour as soon as they see it.

“I encountered what I call unacceptable behaviour by a man early in my career and it was a defining moment for me,” she says. “Since then if I ever see unacceptable behaviour I take the person aside and tell them what they’ve done. They usually deny it as such but they need to know they’ve made someone suffer.”

She tells women to be brave enough to call this behaviour because “men don’t call it on each other”.

“I have found increasingly that bad behaviour is less apparent now and the mining industry is well aware of the value that having a diverse workforce brings,” she says.

Guthrie has been managing director of the uranium company since February and is currently focusing on the establishment of the $280 million flagship Wiluna uranium project and the production and export of the state’s first uranium product. She came to the role after an extensive background in the mining and resources sector, which included being WA’s first female mine manager at Alcoa’s Huntly bauxite mine.

“It was a challenging change for some of the employees to deal with a female boss,” she says. “The workforce, such as the miners, was great. They thought it was hoot they had a woman as a mine manager.”

She says the challenge was more with her peers and immediate bosses. “Getting results is one way to win them over,” she says. “If you get in there and perform then they can’t argue with that. The other thing I learned about winning people over is to put myself in their shoes. I ask myself how they would be feeling.”

Guthrie’s background spans 25 years. She has built experience in mining operations, company strategy, sustainability, indigenous affairs and the environment. Other companies she’s worked for include RGC, Pasminco and WMC, and she was chief executive of Wellard Enterprises.

She says she was always fascinated by the behaviour of uranium in the geological environment. “I studied both during my honours and in my PhD, which was based on research into the disposal of high-level radioactive waste,” she says.

The industry she works in is one with a high potential for growth. According to the Australian Uranium Industry, the country’s known resources are the world’s largest – 31 per cent of the total. But it only supplies 12 per cent of the global market.

“Our resources can be sustainably developed once the regulatory and political environment is supportive, which we are starting to see open in West Australia, NSW and Queensland,” Guthrie says.

The career path to get where she is today has necessitated hard work and much juggling of personal and work commitments. Guthrie’s children are now at university, so while any juggling associated with school pick-up and drop-offs is over, she still remembers how difficult it was.

“Keeping everything together was achieved through the wonderful support of my husband,” she says. “And I also always paid attention to other parts of my life outside work. I maintained my fitness and took time out when needed.”

Guthrie says flexibility has been key for her. For example, if she needed to work on a Sunday then that was when she worked, but if her family needed attention during the week then she made sure she took time out then to cater for what they needed.

She was also recently named the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of West Australia’s outstanding professional woman for 2013. This award recognises individuals working to provide attractive career opportunities to, and to increase the participation of, women in the sector.

There had been few female role models to work with and look up to during her career, Guthrie recalls.

“Now we are at the start of a new wave of women in increasingly influential roles,” she says. “Being a woman has never been a barrier to my career but I guess it may help other women to see that women can succeed in whatever career path they choose.”

At this point in her career she is focused on being the best CEO she can while supporting her team to deliver West Australia’s first uranium mine.

“Career-wise and personally I have always had life goals,” she says. “I don’t anticipate stopping work any time soon but I don’t intend to miss out on the other aspects of my life. For example, I’ve always wanted to learn piano and for my 50th birthday my husband bought me a baby grand, which I’m now learning.”

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