By By Dorcas Mhungu
December2010/January 2011
Prime Business
HE has been in the hot seat for only two months and it is apparent from his enthusiasm that Weatherly Namibia has commissioned a confident captain to steer its ship grounded by the global copper price slump two years ago.

Due to low commodity prices in 2008, Weatherly Mining Namibia was forced to lay off about 600 workers and put its mines on care and maintenance, irking the locals whose livelihood was affected.

Craig Thomas has just been appointed the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer at Weatherly Mining Namibia and tasked to oversee the resumption of production at Otjihase and Matchless copper mines following a re-start decision taken in July this year.

The two operations will collectively be called the Central Operations.

Thomas, with over 20 years mining experience under his belt, is a mining engineer by profession. He has worked in both open pit and underground gold, copper lead and zinc mines in Australia, Botswana and Papua New Guinea, with 90% of his career spent working in underground operations.

It is evident that Thomas thrives in challenging assignments like starting new operations or turning around troubled ones.

“The start - up experience is my strength and that is what Weatherly was looking for and found in me. There will be lots of challenges but nothing that I have not experienced,” he says signalling his readiness to face the Namibian challenge.

He is adamant that although copper prices fell devastatingly in 2008, they have shot up faster than expected over the last two years prompting Weatherly to “aggressively” pursue resuscitating the Otjihase and Matchless mines.

When operations resume early next year, the two mines will employ up to 500 Namibians.

Thomas cannot not be drawn to confirm the future of retrenched former employees but; “preference will be given to the best person for the job, many will have worked at these mines before, but others will be new.”

“Already, a small team is working at the two mines to clean up and get the mines ready for production billed to start in early 2011 The prevailing good copper prices have also prompted Weatherly to consider opening a new open pit mine at Tschudi in 2012, depending on the outcome of a feasibility study underway,” says Thomas.

He adds that Weatherly will aim to implement a five year plan for Tschudi mine, near Tsumeb, which is expected to produce concentrate that contains 13 000 tonnes of copper on average per year.

Emphasizing Weatherly’s commitment to invest in Namibia, the company is in partnership with a Chinese giant, East China Exploration (ECE) to operate Berg Aukas a mine near Grootfontein for zinc and lead.

“Our focus is in Namibia and the headquarters in London employs only three permanent employees and one part –time employee. Namibia is where the bread is buttered,” thus Thomas.

Weatherly owns five copper mines as well as a number of development projects in Namibia and elsewhere in Africa.

Recently expectations of the reopening of the copper mines in Namibia pushed up Weatherly’s share prices which had recorded lower revenues during the last financial year than the previous year.

The company posted a pre-tax profit of US$ 9.07 million for the year ended June 2010 against a US$ 30.73 million loss of 2008.

According to Thomas, the Central Operations are set to produce an average of 7000 tonnes of copper and 3000 ounces of gold per annum.

Weatherly will be investing US$12 million in the Otjihase and Matchless mines over the next two years to get them back into full production.

By bringing back into production the best of the underground mines at Otjihase and Matchless (Central Operations), Thomas says, this will open the door for growing the company’s Namibian business further at Tschudi and could also help secure the Tambao manganese project in Burkina Faso.

His focus in the next 12 months, he says, is simply to have “a viable business running with Namibians on board”.

He prides himself on the fact that while the mining safety standards and commitment to that effect are very high in Namibia, his “experience raise the standards even further”.

The company underscores the need to do a lot of relationship building.

“There was a lot of pain in 2008,” Thomas says referring to the 2008 retrenchments when the mining group buckled under reeling global copper prices, before adding, “we need to rebuild some of our links with the wider Namibian community”.

All its operating mines were closed at the end of 2008 following the dramatic collapse in copper prices. Today, Thomas says the company’s future strategy is to re-establish a copper mining business capable of sustaining approximately 20 000 tonnes per annum at an average industry cost production for the next ten years.

Production machines will start roaring between February and March next year
“And by winter we will be making money,” says the Australian.

He speaks highly of his stint in Papua New Guinea, a small country neighbouring Australia he describes as fascinating and one that taught him a lot from its cultural diversity and its more than 800 languages.

Papua New Guinea marked the beginning of his international experience. At the end of his second appointment there, Thomas went back home and his next international appointment opened the doors for his southern African experience when he got a job with Lamgold, a Canadian company based at Mupane mine in Botswana. Thomas went back to Australia to mull his next move which found him in Namibia, three years later.PF