Teck Cominco Ltd. (TSX: TCK)
Age: 66 | Years at the company: 36
Ask Mike Lipkewich, a 45-year veteran of the mining business, and he'll tell you that for all the machinery and heavy equipment a site needs, the real secret to operating a mine efficiently is just one intangible quality: people skills. “A general manager on-site will probably spend 50% of the time dealing with people, and the other 50% of the time on technical and other issues,” says Lipkewich, who retired on Sept. 6 after 36 years with Vancouver-based Teck Cominco Ltd. “For senior management people, people skills are extremely important.”
He should know. As senior vice-president of mining, Lipkewich was responsible for all Teck Cominco's mining operations around the globe. CEO Don Lindsay credits Lipkewich for a big part of the company's current success. In particular, he points to Lipkewich's integral role in developing three thriving sites: the giant Antamina copper-and-zinc mine in Peru, the six Elk Valley open-pit coal mines in southeastern British Columbia and central Alberta, and the Highland Valley Copper mine near Kamloops, B.C. Together, those three operations alone account for some 55% of Teck Cominco's $2 billion in operating profit in 2005 — up from $270 million two years earlier.
Of course, soaring commodity prices have helped. But all of those projects are joint ventures with other mining companies, and that means management by committee. The goal of becoming as efficient an operator as possible remains the same; the difference is in how that's achieved, Lipkewich says. “It's a matter of building consensus and persuasion. You become more of a lobbyist than a dictatorial type of manager.”
Lipkewich's astute assessment of individuals was key to his successes running mines efficiently, especially in turnaround situations. As he tells it, he hired site managers based on three criteria: technical skills, managerial leadership qualities and, crucially, people skills. “Just on those three variables, you can generally determine whether you have someone who's a superstar, or very average,” he says. “And very average is simply not good enough.” A rock-hard lesson 45 years in the making.