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Mega-mergers will bring short-lived glory if miners ignore innovation — opinion
ALABC Editor
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Mega-mergers will bring short-lived glory if miners ignore innovation — opinion

The writing is on the wall for Canadian mining companies and it has been for quite some time. Their glory days as a global leaders are fading – and mega-mergers won’t bring salvation.

Market signals are already showing troubling signs of this shift in the sector. While Canada’s GDP saw a 0.3% lift in January, which was the biggest gain in eight months, this dramatic uptick didn’t spill over into every industry. Mining still felt the pinch in a time where miners globally are revelling in rebounding commodity prices and company profits. This should be no surprise since Canada’s share of international exploration has dwindled to 13.8% in 2017 from 20.5% in 2008, according to the Mining Association of Canada.

One bright side of consolidation is the shifting landscape may open up growth opportunities for Canadian junior and mid-tier miners

The most significant signs of change are the mega-merger of Barrick Gold and Randgold and Newmont’s acquisition of Goldcorp which will move two of the largest miners out of the country, as well as greatly decrease the market cap of mining companies within its borders.

One bright side of consolidation is the shifting landscape may open up growth opportunities for Canadian junior and mid-tier miners, such as Agnico Eagle Mines. Mergers within this tier are also a likely business maneuver, which will be difficult to disregard as a means of expansion, when comparing recent M&A activity and their incentives.

For instance, the Barrick Gold-Randgold merger foresees the creation of “an industry leading gold company with the greatest concentration of Tier One gold assets in the industry, led by a proven management team of owners, as noted in Barrick’s press statement.

For the Goldcorp-Newmont pact, Newmont in a press statement boasts of the creation of the largest gold reserves and resource base, an unparalleled project pipeline on four continents and a world-class portfolio of gold mining operations and projects.

Both rationales are strategically sound but consolidation fails to solve this industrial paradox: if you don’t grow your reserves, you’re shrinking and depleting your core assets. What good is it to have the best or largest concentration of assets, if the desire to grow the company is mismatched with the capability to grow the company? In this scenario, bigger isn’t always better. The aspiration for a new era of profitability must be met with sustained investment in innovation that delivers on both radical improvement and transformation.

The prevailing drawback, however, is the industry’s lack of investment in forward thinking approaches. Mining companies will undermine their performance and returns on capital by ignoring this ever growing innovation deficit. To close the gap, Canada’s path to profitability will require a different playbook.

Instead of only focusing on Tier One assets in tier one countries, miners should rethink and invest in business models that make money on any asset (tiers 1, 2 or 3) in any reasonably stable country. This approach allows for innovation to spur mine profitability independent of size.

Mining companies will undermine their performance and returns on capital by ignoring this ever growing innovation deficit

Yet, the core problems lie at what’s missing in most corporate infrastructures – the lack of commitment to long-term multi-lateral collaboration within mining ecosystem, the lack of corporate commitment to innovation and the lack of collaboration with other industries who have faced and overcome similar problems. This is then amplified by the fragmentation of public-private innovation investment across provinces, reducing the impact and value of these investments. The majority of the risk capital is directed at exploration, rather than the start-up supplier community.

In spite of the obstacles, a turnaround is foreseeable. Canada’s next generation of mining companies will need to sharpen their competencies at identifying, testing, piloting, adopting and scaling new technologies at speed. A better future will also include sustainability, along with a social license to operate, as an imperative to drive innovation and technological changes.

For now, it’s too early to predict whether these mega-mergers will usher in a new vision for the industry or will even survive. Nevertheless, Canadian miners must not solely rely on M&A, big or small, as a source of value creation.

(This article first appeared in the Canadian Mining Journal)

Photo: Atlas Copco.
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