...sprung-up, hoping to pick-up bargains. Mining boss Mick Davis raised $5.6bn for a vehicle in London, whilst New York-based private equity group Warburg Pincus earmarked $1bn for mining acquisitions.
Both funds have been unwound, having failed to land any deals, but EMR Capital has veered in the other direction, diving into unfashionable investments that were either short of capital or in need of a technical blitz, from Toronto-listed Crystal Peak Minerals in Utah to Hong Kong-listed G-Resources in Indonesia. “You've got to go where the orebodies are,” Hegarty says. “That's the mining business.”
The result has been some spectacular wins: one $10m investment that EMR made in Highfield Resources (focused on potash outside Pamplona) rose twelve-fold in two years. NexGen Energy, a uranium play backed by EMR's founders, has meanwhile unearthed a discovery in Canada's Athabasca basin.
“We're not waiting around here letting grass grow around our feet,” says Hegarty, who expects to have fully invested EMR's second fund “in the next year or two... then you might be back into fund-three mode. You could go again. I'm a serial investor here. I continue to be involved in the mining business and I don't know how to do anything else.”
One factor behind EMR's success could be that Hegarty, now in his late 60s, has always remained an unabashed bull on Asia and metal prices. Other private equity funds that were founded to capitalise on falling prices struggled to get off the diving board, because deals looked pricey for anyone with a negative outlook. But Hegarty has no such qualms. In copper and gold, he says, “demand is going up forever and it isn't going to stop.”
Having initially focused on listed investments, EMR is increasingly buying assets outright, paying $210m for the Golden Grove copper-zinc mine in Western Australia (an asset that once sat inside Oxiana) and $775m for the Martabe gold
mine in Indonesia (an asset Oxiana owned before it came into production).
“We've got that long-strong-deep operational experience, so we've got to have control,” Hegarty explains. “Or there's got to be a pathway to it. You can't just be there for the ride. We're not watching things on a screen.”
Commanding his own fund means Hegarty can now backstop his own investments. “It takes an element of risk out and you can concentrate on the work that you do best, which is build-own-operate-grow-develop-improve, rather than working the market all day long.”
EMR is not the only private equity group thriving in the mining industry. Denver-based RCF, which was originally spun-out of investment bank Rothschild, promises large investors a two-times return over the life of its 10-year funds, raising $2.5bn for its seventh fund last year.
EMR's funds also have a 10-year lifespan, “but we like to be gone by about five,” Hegarty says. “You've got to have that exit in mind. Can you get in and do the feasibility study and then get out? Can you get in and build it and get out? At some point they have to go, so you start with that in mind.”
He describes EMR as his “last stanza” and “the main game really for the rest of my career.” But could EMR's Australian copper assets be bundled-up into a single company listed on the ASX? “There isn't much in the base metals space in Australia,” Hegarty says. “You've got Oz Minerals, you've got Sandfire, and then you run out. But we're not trying to rebuild Oxiana here, or rebuild Rio Tinto. The empire we're trying to build is EMR Capital.”
At EMR's office in Melbourne meanwhile, Jason Chang has a photo on his desk of an Australian politician at the signing of an agreement between EMR and a bank in China. By positioning themselves bang in the middle of the channel of resources and money that flows between Australia and China, Hegarty and Chang have quickly built a prolific business.