Ivanhoe founder Robert Friedland awarded Mongolia’s Order of the Polar Star

Robert Friedland meets with Mongolia’s Minister of Mining and Heavy Industry, Ganbaatar Jambal, during his recent trip to Ulaanbaatar. Credit: Ivanhoe Mines

Mining billionaire Robert Friedland, founder of Ivanhoe Mines (TSX: IVN) and Ivanhoe Electric (TSX: IE), has been formally recognized by the government of Mongolia for his contributions to the country’s mining industry.

On October 9, 2023, the Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh presented Friedland with the Order of the Polar Star, the country’s highest civilian award to a foreign citizen, for his leadership role in the discovery and development of Oyu Tolgoi, one of the largest known copper and gold deposits in the world.

The Order of the Polar Star was created in 1936. Its previous recipients include former US President Barack Obama, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former US Senator John McCain.

“We would like to sincerely thank the government and people of Mongolia for this very special award. Our experiences in the country, including the discovery and development of the exceptional Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold deposit, will forever have a special place in our hearts,” Friedland said in a press release Monday.

Oyu Tolgoi discovery

Between 1996 and 2012, the original Ivanhoe Mines group conducted mining operations across Mongolia, Australia, China, Myanmar, South Korea and Fiji.

Initially founded in 1994 as Indochina Goldfields – a name that reflected its initial mining interests in the Asia Pacific region – the company later adopted the more universal Ivanhoe Mines identity in 1999.

Friedland served as the founding president and chief executive officer of the original Ivanhoe Mines from June 1996 to May 2006, and again from October 2010 to April 2012. He also served as executive chairman and chairman for 17 years, up until May 2011.

In 2000, the original Ivanhoe Mines began exploration in Mongolia that led to a decade of discoveries that revealed a 12.4-kilometre-long, tier-one chain of copper and gold deposits in the South Gobi region, now universally known as Oyu Tolgoi.

Open pit mining began in 2011. The copper concentrator, the largest industrial complex ever built in Mongolia, began processing mined ore into copper concentrate in 2013.

The original Ivanhoe Mines’ Oyu Tolgoi exploration camp in 2003. Credit: Ivanhoe Mines

During that time, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto acquired control of the original Ivanhoe Mines and, as required under an agreement with Friedland, surrendered the Ivanhoe identity and renamed the company Turquoise Hill Resources – completing another chapter in the ongoing Ivanhoe Mines story.

In 2015, Oyu Tolgoi secured a $4.4 billion finance facility with a syndicate of 20 international financial institutions. At the time, it was one of the largest ever project finance facilities arranged in the global mining industry and included agencies representing the governments of Canada, the US and Australia, which also agreed to a total debt capacity of $6 billion.

Between 2014 and 2017, the Oyu Tolgoi mine produced a reported 780,000 tonnes of copper, 1.8 million oz. of gold and 4.5 million oz. of silver, generating $2.1 billion of operating cash flow (before interest and tax).

However, the majority of Oyu Tolgoi’s vast mineral wealth is deposited deeper underground, where copper grades are 360% higher than those found in the open pit. In January 2022, Oyu Tolgoi approved the beginning of underground operations, with sustainable underground production expected during the first half of 2023.

According to Rio Tinto, Oyu Tolgoi is now expected to produce around 500,000 tonnes of copper per year on average from 2028 to 2036 from the open pit and underground, enough to produce around 6 million electric vehicles annually, and an average of around 290,000 tonnes over the reserve life of around 30 years.

Well-decorated career

The award in Mongolia adds to the long list of recognitions accrued by Friedland over nearly three decades of work in the mining industry.

Robert Friedland in Mongolia in 2000. Credit: Ivanhoe Mines

In 1996, Friedland, then co-chairman of Diamond Fields Resources, was named Developer of the Year by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) for his work in establishing and financing companies engaged in mineral exploration and development around the world — a recognition, in part, of his leadership role in the development of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador, Canada.

He also received the Dealmaker of the Year Award for the original Ivanhoe Mines (renamed Turquoise Hill Resources in 2012) from Australia’s Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum in August 2011, which acknowledged his success in “managing some of the more interesting asset development logistics our industry has seen for many years.”

In March 2012, Friedland was recognized as Mining Personality of the Year at the inaugural Asia Mining Awards, sponsored by the Hong Kong-based Asia Mining Club and the Mines & Money conference. The award noted his role in Mongolia’s emergence as a major destination for mining investment. Ivanhoe’s Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mining complex was also voted Project Development of the Year.

In January 2016, Friedland was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, honoring him as “a dynamic, transformative force in the Canadian and international mining industries” and “one of the most recognized mining personalities and achievers in the world”.

He was also inducted into the American Mining Hall of Fame in December 2021, recognizing him as “an entrepreneurial explorer, technology innovator and company builder.”