George Burns: Gold record

With a history of overhauling underperforming mining operations, new Goldcorp COO George Burns aims to raise the bar for one of Vancouver's resource industry heavyweights
George Burns, Goldcorp Inc. COO and executive VP: “you've got to have time when you're not purely executing the work when you can sit back and dream and think of what might be possible”

A "backward" company might not attract most ambitious young mining professionals. But it was exactly what George Burns was looking for in his mid-30s.

The company was Asarco Inc.; the year, 1996; the job, managing a process plant in Arizona.

Besides offering Burns the stable, rooted life that he desired for his family, the job seemed the perfect opportunity for Burns to do what he loved best: build a company.

"I thought with my experience and my love to create value and change, this is fertile ground," said Burns, now 52, who in September took over the reins as COO and executive vice-president at local mining heavyweight Goldcorp Inc.(TSX:G).

Burns tackled the Asarco turnaround backed by the company's upper management – despite an immediate boss who opposed all his efforts.

"I put my head down and just said 'It's going to happen and [my boss] is going to have to fire or stop me, because I'm not going to give up.'"

Burns brought in acid-cure leaching to improve the plant's productivity; he mended fences with the union; he redesigned a workforce that hadn't been overhauled in 50 years; and he tackled an employee drug problem.

"In the end, we cut the work force in half, doubled the production, drove our unit cost from $0.60 a pound down to about $0.20 a pound," he said. "And I had fun doing it."

However, if Burns was an accomplished "change agent" by his mid-30s, he didn't grow up dreaming of that kind of role.

He attributes his decision to study mining engineering to "outside forces" – the natural result of growing up in a mining family in a Montana mining town with some skills in math and physics.

Burns entered the mining world with modest ambitions.

"My mindset was: work and retire for the Anaconda Co. in my hometown, which is what my grandfathers did; it's what my dad almost did," he said, explaining that his dad's employer changed only when the company sold the local mine in Butte, Montana, to a new owner.

Burns remembers, as a child, being uninterested in leadership.

He described riding home from a scouting expedition with other Boy Scouts, hearing one of the boys' dads declare that only leaders have an impact on the world.

Burns remembers arguing that leadership wasn't his thing.

"[I said] 'I want to be the guy that goes to work and executes the work that somebody tells me to and then I want to go home and play hard.

"I want to go backpacking, I want to ride my motorbike, I want to have kids and have fun.'"

Burns launched his career on that trajectory.

He took a co-op style job with Anaconda in his hometown and imagined a career as a long-range planning engineer.

But that plan, and Burns' career ideas, changed when Anaconda sold its Bute mine and he went to work at a Colorado coal mine for Cyprus Minerals Corp.

But Burns got frustrated at his new job when he realized that the productivity-oriented plans he'd labour over weren't getting followed in "the pit."

"[The workers] would say 'You don't have the field experience, and your plans aren't very good – that's why we don't follow them,'" he said.

Burns concluded that he needed to get out and run the pit himself – both to ensure his plans got implemented and to achieve the credibility of "field experience."

But when he manoeuvred his way into a pit foreman position, he didn't just gain experience, he found a new passion.

"I loved it," he said. "I suddenly had power; I had people working for me; I could make things happen in the field."

Burns instantly lost all interest in being a long-range planning engineer; he wanted to run a mine.

Seeing opportunities to stretch his career, Burns took a new job with his company at a new gold mine in Arizona.

There, he cut his teeth as a "change agent" when he was thrust into the unfamiliar role of mill superintendent and was given the task of overhauling a mill's processes – and winning the employee buy-in to do so.

"I didn't go in and tell [the mill workers] we're going to do this. I said, 'Here's the opportunity.'"

Burns won over the employees and transformed the mill, acquiring the skills he would use to turn around Asarco's plant.

In more recent years, Burns said he has expanded his financial and management skillsets.

In 2003, Cameco Corp.(TSX:CCO) hired him to lead an initial public offering as COO and vice-president of Centerra Gold Inc.(TSX:CG), which owned mines in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.

"Twice in the five years, the government of Kyrgyzstan was overthrown, the president was run out of the country and the mine never shut down."

Burns added that when Goldcorp came knocking a few years later, he was glad to leave the extensive travel and political wranglings of Centerra for a North American job.

Burns ran Goldcorp's Canada-U.S. region for three years and then the company's Mexico operations for a year and a half before being promoted to his new C-suite job in late summer.

He said one highlight of his tenure at Goldcorp thus far has been helping negotiate and achieve a collaboration agreement with the Cree Nation in connection with the company's Éléonore gold project in northern Quebec.

"It's a very business-oriented deal, whereby after we recoup our capital investment and a return on that capital investment, then the sharing with the Cree increases," he said.

John Paul Murdoch, legal counsel for the Cree Nation of Wemindji, spoke highly of Burns' role in the negotiations.

He said it was clear from how Burns' staff treated him that he was no puppet negotiator but someone of stature in the company.

Murdoch added that Burns' big-picture thinking was invaluable in jump-starting negotiations when they got bogged down in details.

And he said that Burns, like the First Nation itself, was keen to raise the standard of what had traditionally been ineffective discussions between native bands and resource companies and strive for positive outcomes for both sides.

Burns' quest to reinvent processes and organizations is unlikely to stop soon.

As he settles into his new job, he said he's already looking at opportunities to catalyze positive change in the company.

"If you look at any of our mines, we're in different positions in terms of being maybe best-in-class versus middle of the pack."

Burns said that he'll be looking for projects that can move all the company's operations up to top performance levels, and he'll be abiding by a principle that has served him well in the past.

"You've got to have time when you're not purely executing the work when you can sit back and dream and think of what might be possible."

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