...Mather, who has previously had big wins in coal and minerals sands. His Brisbane-based holding company, DGR Global, takes early-stage properties off independent geologists, vending them into listed subsidiaries and pulling in additional capital.
Mather's vehicles therefore tend to be a web of cross-holdings: DGR owns shares in SolGold, whilst Cascabel is split between SolGold and Cornerstone, a third company linked to Mather that also owns SolGold stock. All three companies are listed, though Mather's private company, Samuel Group, is also somewhere in the fray. “You’re selling upside,” Mather has said. “Zero to hero. Make shareholders heroes and be one of them.”
Not all his adventures have ultimately lived-up to the hype. Before landing on Ecuador, SolGold announced “excellent” gold results from soil-grab samples in the Solomon Islands, pointing to a “world class” discovery that was “similar in style” to the massive Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The shares jumped, but SolGold has since shelved the project, citing rainfall, landslides, flash floods and grades that were “too low.”
Mather is meanwhile renowned for being remorselessly tough on costs. Unafraid of the dicey tropics, SolGold has ventured into offbeat regions partly because DGR likes “breaking new ground”, rather than paying-up for assets where value has been “realised by others.” One of SolGold's recent equity placings was mailed out directly from Brisbane to large investors, dodging the cost of a broker and circumventing stock market rules on how investors are usually given sensitive information.
Separate sources linked to Mather all land on the same two words to describe him: “grumpy” and “defensive”. “He's not the most user-friendly CEO,” one investor says. “Take great care,”
warns another. But peers also praise him as technically heavyweight, with a brutal focus on money and a forensic eye for details and data. “He is a very determined and driven geologist.”
Exploration, Mather says, is about finding a deposit too big to ignore: “majors eventually have to buy you.”
Having been shunned by SolGold, BHP has taken its own land position in northern Ecuador, budgeting $41m for exploration on two nearby concessions, according to Ecuador's mining ministry. Hancock Prospecting, a private company owned by mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, is also reportedly plotting a move into the country, whilst Rio Tinto has visited SolGold's property.
Ecuador represents “the last unexplored stretch of the Andean copper belt”, says John Meyer, senior partner at brokerage S.P. Angel in London, which has done several placings for SolGold. The Andes can lay claim to nearly half the world's copper, but Ecuador has always been overlooked, thanks to its left-leaning politics.
Bankers credit Lundin Gold, backed by prolific mine-builder Lukas Lundin, for tipping the balance and turning Ecuador into a palatable investment. Lundin paid $240m for the Fruta del Norte gold deposit in Ecuador in 2014, after its former owner, Kinross, failed to negotiate an agreement with the government over windfall taxes.
After a collapse in oil prices, denting Ecuador's exports, the country is now courting foreign investors and Lundin Gold pocketed an agreement in 2016. “We know that bankers and the industry are looking at Fruta del Norte,” Ecuador's mining minister Javier Cordova told Global Mining Observer shortly before the deal was announced.
“Ecuador as a frontier play is certainly not the
no-go investment destination that it was in the past,” one London-based analyst says. “If you look at what's happened in Ecuador, it's pretty hard not to provide almost all of the credit to Lukas Lundin for turning the tide,” says Bob Sangha. “Lukas is a genius. He deserves the credit there for sure.”
The key question for Mather is where all his billion-plus shares are held. At one recent investor meeting, he was spotted totting-up tables of which funds hold how many shares, trying to get a handle on how a battle for SolGold could play-out.
Newcrest owns 14.5 per cent and is bound by a standstill agreement, blocking it from lifting its stake in the next twelve months. DGR also owns 14.5 per cent, whilst Cornerstone has 11.3 per cent, having scooped up 92 million shares last week. Nick Mather personally holds another 6.3 per cent, according to SolGold's website, bringing the total close to majority control. Up to 800 million shares are meanwhile sloshing around in the market. “He's got stacks of retail shareholders,” one fund says. “It's a bit of a tightrope.”
Scott Caldwell, the CEO of Guyana Goldfields, resigned from SolGold's board in June, prompting speculation that a takeover was in the offing. But sources close to Caldwell say he is simply too busy running his own company. “There's no good time to be on the phone.”
As investors jockey for position, staff on the ground at Cascabel are putting drill-rig platforms in place, making the most of Ecuador's dry season. “It's complete blue-sky,” an institutional investor in London says. “If Aguinaga disappoints, the focus will be on whether Alpala stands up on its own.”
Large copper systems “are like fine wines,” says John Meyer. “They should not be rushed.”