Nick Mather, widely recognised as the grumpiest, most irritable man in the mining industry, is sitting at home in Brisbane, eating popcorn, talking on the phone, zooming-in on Google Maps to look for copper deposits in South America.
“Not every day is a good day,” he says, wondering whether to fetch a beer from the fridge. “There have been many times in London where I'd wake up and just walk in circles around the park.”
Mather founded and is CEO of SolGold, the hottest mining stock of 2017, thanks to a blockbuster copper-gold discovery it has made in Ecuador's jungle. But only 18 months ago, it was looking very different. Funds were bearish on copper, wary of Ecuador and sceptical about the depth of mineralisation at SolGold's Cascabel project. Its cash levels were nearing zero and the market was holding the share price below 3p.
Since then, SolGold has risen tenfold, after drill results at Cascabel hit more than a kilometre of rock grading over 1 per cent copper equivalent, in line with the world's largest copper discoveries. Mather has raised capital in the equity markets and SolGold now has over $100m of cash in the bank, greatly upscaling its drill programme from one drill-rig to thirteen.
“Any big project is a marathon not a sprint and I think sometimes investors think that it all just happens overnight... I hate having to re-drill a hole because it wasn't done right the first time, so we put a lot of work into collecting our data methodically and we try to wring as much data out of our samples as possible.”
“Good & Bad”
The wider industry has followed Mather into
Ecuador, betting that the vast copper mines of Chile and Peru can be repeated further north, having previously been covered-up by Ecuador's thick clouds, high levels of rain, dense vegetation and a socialist-leaning government.
Australian gold group Newcrest has bought into SolGold's stock, whilst Mather rebuffed an approach earlier this year by mining giant BHP, which wanted to buy into Cascabel directly. “It's big, it's rich, there's a lot more to come, so do I want to farm this project out? No, I don't,” Mather says. “Shareholders invest in companies like this to take part in the upside. There's nothing clever about giving it away to someone else.”
Other companies are circling: Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart recently outbid Newcrest on copper blocks in Ecuador's north, whilst Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining are both in talks with the government over winning new concessions. Mining companies will spend $1bn in Ecuador in 2018, the country's mining ministry says.
“It's good and bad,” says Mather. “We would prefer of course to have no competition at all.”
Behind the grumpiness, is Mather planning something devious? SolGold owns 85 per cent of Cascabel, with the balance held by Toronto-listed Cornerstone Capital. SolGold holds shares in Cornerstone, and Cornerstone holds shares in SolGold. DGR Global and Samuel Group, two other companies linked to Mather, are also in the ownership mix.
Why the cross-holdings and complex ownership structure? Like the so-called “shell game”, which of the paper cups is control of Cascabel really sitting under? Is Mather guarding against a hostile takeover, or using SolGold's
equity to finance drilling, before flipping the asset into another vehicle?
“I can't comment on any of that,” he says coughing and nearly choking on a piece of popcorn, before repeating himself. “I can't comment on any of that. You don't have to be Blind Freddie to work out that putting the two bits together would be a good thing to do.”
Any deal would be subject to “properly constructed merger proposals” and “all of the normal takeover rules,” Mather adds, before turning more emphatic. “What I can be definite about is that there won't be any shifty deals.”
Mather is lumbering up to release a resource statement at Cascabel, but is keen not to move too quickly. “We've got enough data to spit one out at the moment, but if you put one out prematurely, you get tarred with that brush forever.” Having overcome a number of “technical dead-ends”, SolGold wants to make sure Cascabel's first resource is “a big one.”
“The world is electrifying,” Mather adds, talking slower and slower, sounding bored by his own predictions. “Markets go up and down... I have big plans and big ideas and they come off low bases.”
He returns to looking at Google Maps. “There's one,” he says, spotting a copper system in Argentina. Zooming-in, Mather sees he's been beaten to it. “It has drill pads all over it.”