Barrick's Bristow bet seen as boosting South America revival

Mark Bristow built a reputation as the developer and operator of lucrative mines in Africa. Now the world’s biggest gold mining company is betting he can do the same in another complex region, South America.

The Randgold Resources Ltd. founder is set to become chief executive officer of Barrick Gold Corp. after Barrick said this week it was spending $5.4 billion to buy Randgold. He steps into the job at a time when global gold reserves have shrunk by almost half from their 2012 peak.

That’s increasing the urgency to find new projects and revive stalled ones, a challenge that puts a spotlight on South America, where Barrick has struggled to thrive. Bristow’s plan, outlined on a call with analysts: Create a focused South America team driven to unlock value from a region “where there’s still big elephants to be found.”

Bristow “has been very successful at building strong relationships with the countries where his operations are,” Andrew Kaip, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think that’s just an Africa-centric approach. He’ll use that skill set on a global level.”

Barrick intends to create a dedicated South American division with its own corporate office.

Barrick intends to create a dedicated South American division with its own corporate office. The company’s other assets will fall under a North America division, to be headed by current Chief Financial Officer Catherine Raw, and an Africa & Middle East division.

The Pascua-Lama project straddles the Chile-Argentina border, an area thought to contain roughly 21.3 million ounces of gold resources. It was expected to cost no more than $3 billion when construction was approved in 2009. But by 2013, the company had spent $5.5 billion on roads and worker camps, and the total cost was estimated at $8.5 billion.

But then the dream dissolved. The company was forced to halt construction in Chile after indigenous communities filed a court injunction that denounced potential water-supply contamination.

Now the company, to be led by Bristow working with Executive Chairman John Thornton, is looking to revive the project just on the Argentine side of the border, following an agreement with Shandong Gold Mining Co. that includes evaluating synergies with the nearby Veladero mine, owned by both companies.

Prospecting work was expected to start this month, Argentina’s Mining Development Undersecretary Mariano Lamothe said in August.

Also located in Chile is Norte Abierto, a gold and copper deposit formerly known as Cerro Casale. The company received an environmental license to develop a $5.2 billion mine in 2013, according to a filing with Chile’s environmental authority. But that project remained dormant as commodity prices plummeted. Barrick now owns the project in a joint venture with Goldcorp Inc. and has requested environmental permits to start drilling.

Barrick’s South America team “will be focused not only on bringing to account and dealing with the challenges around Pascua-Lama and Veladero,’’ but also on expanding assets and partnerships in Peru, Bristow said, where Barrick owns the Lagunas Norte mine.

About half the combined company’s assets will be located in so-called "complex jurisdictions," Bristow said, with about a third of its reserves and resources in South America. Last year, 13 percent of the two companies’ production came from the region.

“Our intention is to implement the Randgold way,” with a flat structure, efficient systems and the “real-time ability to make decisions,” Bristow said. “We don’t have a choice of places to build mines; to thrive, we have to go where the gold is."