A mahogany lift in Mayfair carries guests up to the London office of Hummingbird Resources. Founder Dan Betts is sitting on a conference call, talking to his project manager, who has his head stuck in detailed engineering drawings at the South African office of a contractor. “As long as we have the right to buy it back, that's fine,” Betts barks down the phone. “Send us the MoU.”
Aerial photos of the company's Dugbe gold project, deep in Liberia's jungle, hang on one wall. Hummingbird listed in London in 2010. Its shares were pounded with gold, falling from 180p to a low of 12p, as Dugbe's capital costs began to look out of whack with the new market reality.
Betts, whose family owns one of the world's oldest gold smelters, doesn't give up easily. In 2014, he did a $20m all-stock deal with South Africa-based Gold Fields, buying its 2.2m ounce Yanfolila deposit in Mali. Hummingbird then raised $75m in equity as gold rallied this year, pulling in cash from fund giant Fidelity and hedge fund Odey. Dan Betts, 41, is now building his first mine.
“We're working our tits off in South Africa on all the detailed engineering design work and getting ready to mobilise on site,” Betts says, “so we're all systems go. Imagine building a house. We're with the architects at the moment. Now we've got to build it.”
Betts is big on absolutes (and Edwardian metaphors): the fundraising was “an absolute mission”, Hummingbird is “full steam ahead”, and his project managers are “absolutely smashing it... they're on every detail.” But he delivers them
with the conviction of someone coming out of a corner. “It's been a different year, that's for sure,” he says. “Start of the year, it wasn't good.”
Hummingbird is now gunning for free cash flow from Yanfolila of $70m to $80m a year, with production of 100,000 ounces per annum at low all-in costs of $700 per ounce. It has a short mine life of 5 to 7 years and would be “a rounding error” for a larger company, but “it's the perfect project for a junior to cut its teeth on.”
The mill is currently being made in Italy and Finland, before being shipped to Mali. For Betts, it is an epic convergence of pieces, which he has spent ten years bringing together. “I'm not obsessed by any particular cog in the watch, I focus on the whole watch. That's the key isn't it? Make sure the whole machine's working.”
“I like rolling my sleeves up and seeing it, but being totally blunt about it, I'm not an engineer. I've always believed that control freaks can never grow. If you want to grow a proper business you've got to employ people that are better than you in every single role.”
Analysts at mining funds point to Aureus in West Africa as a recent example of what can go wrong, when small companies build their first gold mine. Initially sung as a success story, production fell drastically short, Aureus ran out of cash and the shares imploded. Old-time analysts, who learned the industry drilling rock in underground mines in South Africa, also see Hummingbird as an outpost of English toffs, larking about in the jungle.
“I guess with Hummingbird, for whatever reason, people don't really know what to make
of it,” Betts says, “so I think the proof of the pudding is slightly in the making. We're building this mine and we're going to deliver it. Certainly the last three years have been stressful, absolutely stressful. You do everything you think you should be doing, you do it right and the share price goes down.”
Betts is shy in putting a timeline on Yanfolila. “We're not behind on anything. Things change, but we have said that we'll be pouring gold by the end of next year and that's what we're sticking to.” Nor has he given up on Hummingbird's huge gold resource in Liberia.
“I think you've got to be fluid, but everybody's wrong about Liberia. And we are guilty of helping perpetrate that lie, because we've changed horses. It's big, it has huge potential. There is no red flag. We kept trying to chase the capital cost down, trying to make it smaller, but we virtually never drilled a blank drill hole.”
Rival gold bosses who did due diligence on Yanfolila, before it was bought by Hummingbird, warn that its strip ratios, the amount of rock that Hummingbird must shift for each tonne of ore, have swung around inauspiciously. For all the criticism, the industry is clearly keeping tabs on Hummingbird's progress. And doubt only seems to stiffen Betts' resolve further.
“Until you've done it no-one's going to believe you,” he says, “so you don't have to shout too much about it. Just get your head down and do it. The market's out there saying, who are these guys? They're never actually going to build the project. Now we're building a project. Let's see.”