A Self-Made Mining Magnate Lifts Up a Forgotten Region
She built a business from scratch, and now Shirley Hayes is sitting on a copper bonanza in a downtrodden patch of South Africa.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s on the verge of becoming a resource queen.
After being laid off from her job as a quarry manager in South Africa, Shirley Hayes struck a deal with the owner of the nearby Blesberg mine: She would rehabilitate the abandoned site for free, and he would buy back whatever minerals she was able to extract. With only a temperamental, rented front-end loader and 50 liters (13 gallons) of borrowed diesel to her name, she and her team of eight workers started sifting through the trash heaps in 118-degree heat. “At the end of the first day, we had enough feldspar to buy another 50 liters of diesel,” says Hayes, who is now 51. “And so on.”
Fast-forward 20 years and Hayes’ company, SHiP Copper, is finalizing exploration on an 89,000-acre concession she was granted in 2009. Within two years, she plans to begin production on the first of 10 mines, which SHiP will operate using an innovative cluster mining model, bringing all ore to a central processing plant to reduce costs. The mines — which could generate up to $30 million in annual profits for around 70 years — will breathe new life into an underpopulated and overlooked region where centuries of mixed fortunes have been tied to mining.
“The Northern Cape is the future of South African mining,” says Jan Nelson, a geologist and CEO of ReThink Resources, SHiP’s primary investor. “And Shirley is sitting on the rump steak.”
I am passionate about women. But I’m even more passionate about every person who wants to go from rags to riches.
Born near the spot where Simon van der Stel first scoped the region’s copper mining potential in 1685, Hayes spent her childhood in and around Pofadder, a one-goat town that is the butt of many a South African joke. “Even as a child I hated being dependent on others,” she remembers.
Working as an administrative clerk at a granite mine in the ’90s, Hayes volunteered to train as the magazine master (the person responsible for the explosives) because “no one else wanted to drive out to the magazine in the heat of summer.” Then, after three years of on-site training, she qualified as a permanent blaster — a skill that would come in handy after she lost her job.
Recovering feldspar — an industrial mineral used by the glass, ceramics and paint industries — with that rented front-end loader allowed her to “put bread on the table” for a few years, but it soon “hit a roof.” The next logical step was to open her own feldspar mine. Her first attempt failed because the spot she tried was a “geological disaster,” but she got it right the second time. In the early days at Altemooi mine, she and her workers spent every lunch break hiding from the sun under her pickup truck. But soon enough the business had grown to a point where she employed 18 people and had built offices (in repurposed shipping containers) and an all-important explosives magazine. Hayes wanted to take things to the next level by installing her own crusher and mill, which would allow her to export her product, but the reserves at Altemooi didn’t justify the expense.
Instead, she took a moonshot and applied for the exploration rights at Concordia. At the time, no one was interested in copper (the only smelter in the region had been dismantled about 10 years earlier) or in exploration (the 2008 global recession, remember). “Everyone thought I was mad,” she laughs. “But for me it was common sense that the area would have copper.”
As it turned out, not only was Hayes’ hunch vindicated, but the global appetite for copper soared. The price of the mineral — vital to the manufacture of electric cars and renewable energy components — has more than doubled since hitting bottom in December 2008. Better still, little actual drilling was required on Hayes’ concession, which had been extensively explored by big guns Newmont and Gold Fields in the second half of the 20th century — but they gave up on it due to low copper prices. Nelson puts the value of the data and infrastructure Hayes inherited at a cool $100 million.
Which is not to say it’s all been clear sailing. Hayes’ first two attempts at joint ventures turned sour, with the second culminating in a High Court victory for SHiP in late 2017 — though Hayes will still have to part with 15 percent of her company. These setbacks can partially be credited to what Jaco Olivier — a lawyer who has consulted with Hayes on legal matters on and off for the past decade — describes as her “trusting personality” and “generous nature.”
She herself says she’s “learned a lot of lessons.” Not least the importance of surrounding herself with the right people. Initially, “always being the stupidest person in the room” got her down — until she realized that her job was not to understand the “technical stuff” but rather to “condensate” advice and “make the best decision for [her] company.”
Somewhere along the line she also learned to be a “very tough negotiator,” says Nelson, who speaks from experience. As ReThink Resources’ name suggests, the firm employs a novel approach where they expect a twofold return on investment as opposed to a share of the company. What sets them apart from loan sharks, Nelson explains, is their team of mining experts who carefully crunch the numbers ahead of any deal. “We don’t think Shirley’s cluster mining model will work. We know it will work,” says Nelson, adding that not even a drop in the copper price will change this.
SHiP has not processed an ounce of copper yet, but already Hayes has become the darling of women’s empowerment in a male-dominated industry. Not that the glove always fits. “I am passionate about women,” she says, “but I’m even more passionate about every person who wants to go from rags to riches.”
This attitude goes some way toward explaining her decision to simply donate the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE, a legal requirement in South Africa) component of her business to the people who have worked with her since the beginning. This stands in contrast to most businesses, which strike deals with well-connected firms that specialize in BEE deals. “They lived with me. They kept me safe,” she says. “They also went without running water for 12 years.” (True story: She had to truck water in to both Blesberg and Altemooi.)
Don’t get her wrong. “I am not a socialist. I’m in it to make money,” she says. “But I also want to have an impact three, four, five generations from now.”
Read more: She is a gold digger — women strike it big in East Africa.