Man from Mongolia waits in wings to take charge at Bumi

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Hardly anyone’s heard of Brock Gill. That’s no big surprise. He’s spent much of the past seven years building a mine in Mongolia. But he could be about to see much more of the limelight.

Gill is planning to be the next chief executive of that internecine war zone otherwise known as Bumi if, that is, Nat Rothschild really can win the EGM on Thursday week seeking to sack 12 of the Indonesian coal miner’s 14 directors.

It’s a big if. But ask Gill, 32, whether he thinks the financier’s team can pull off its coup and he shoots back a steely “of course”.

Given his chance, Canada-born Gill has a pretty simple message. “The bottom line is that if you get away from all this personal stuff, you’ve just got a lot of fundamental management issues to sort out,” he says.

“This situation needs people who want to get involved, go live in Indonesia and mine things. We are digging black stuff out of the ground, throwing it in a truck, taking it somewhere else and selling it to people. That is what I’m here for.”

Gill is under no illusions about the complexity of “unwinding” 2010’s now broken $3bn (£1.9bn) deal that saw Rothschild team up with Indonesia’s Bakrie family to create a London-listed miner with a 29pc stake in Bumi Resources and 85pc ownership of Berau Coal.

But he’s also adamant the business would be far easier to manage if “we could shift the centre of gravity to Indonesia and not have the company being run by people living here, in London”.

“People haven’t gone to the mine sites on a regular basis and lived there to make operational changes,” he says.

“In the case of Berau, you have a company that hasn’t had any TLC (Taiwan OTC: 4152.TWO - news) [tender loving care] for at least a year. By that alone, if you spend time there with people on the ground, if the CEO can work with the operations manager on the same time zone you can affect the change.”

Gill plans to manage at the coal face, while proposed new chairman, Australian businessman Wal King, will also be far closer to the assets than Bumi’s London office.

“My plan is to relocate into the area, probably Jakarta or Singapore,” says Gill. “But I would assume for the first six to eight months I would be in Kalimantan non-stop.”

That is Gill’s style. Unlike Bumi’s current ceo Nick von Schirnding, who has an investor relations background, Gill is a third-generation miner. Both parents and grandparents were “involved in potash mining in Canada” .

“My paternal grandparents had an iron ore mine that I grew up on as a kid,” he says.

"They were selling it off. Every summer I would spend wandering around an old process plant that had an open pit and a lake where you could fish for trout. When people say how much time they have spent in mining I can pretty much say I have lived my entire life in the space in one form or another.”

Brock initially planned to escape the family vocation. But having joined Chubb Insurance found himself quickly insuring mining companies. One of his clients, Ivanhoe Mines, then employed him, first as risk manager and then as deputy project director at the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia.

By 2006, Gill had relocated to Ulan Bator, which is not only “brutally cold” in the winter but also “the most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organisation” due to coal emissions from traditional fires. “The matter in the air is incredibly bad for your lungs,” he says.

If that wasn’t tough enough, Gill’s arrival had a tragic beginning. “My very first day in the job, just 30 minutes in, we had a fatality at the mine site,” he says. “For the next two weeks I was dealing with the family, the politics, the government relations. All the authorities got involved. One of the comments was that the most senior guy in the country should go to jail, which in this case was myself. It didn’t come to pass.”

Things hardly got easier. Thanks to an impasse with the government, Ivanhoe “couldn’t negotiate a contract of work. We had to downsize the mine. I moved to the mine site and spent 19 months cutting the staff by about 1200 people to around 400. It was one of the most difficult things I did. The people lived at the mine and I did every one myself. If you are going to do something that nasty, don’t ask anyone else to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. I managed to do that without any riots.”

The story has a happier ending. The contract got sorted and today the mine, now controlled by Rio Tinto (Xetra: 855018 - news) , employs 14,000 staff. Gill oversaw a $1.4bn chunk of a big construction project, managing 4,500 workers.

With his role at Oyu Tolgoi which translates as Turquoise Hill complete, Gill was planning to spend four months with his girlfriend in Germany. But three days into that career-break, he received a call from Rothschild, an acquaintance of Ivanhoe boss Robert Friedland.

How did that go down with his girlfriend? “In those three days she realised I really needed to go to work because otherwise I’d be managing her and she keeps explaining she’s not an employee of Brock Gill Incorporated,” he says, laughing.

Was he wary of joining forces with Rothschild, who some believe would have a better chance if he dropped his plans to return as an executive on a new Bumi board?

“I haven’t known Nat for very long,” says Gill. “But when he believes something he believes it down to his toes. He has incredible passion for this. He very much wants to resolve this situation.”

Besides, Gill says, his real focus will be growing Berau from “20m tonnes to 30m tonnes”, building on his experience with construction projects. That includes, he says, revisiting the planned $300m of capital expenditure at Berau that the board put on hold in January.

“One thing I can demonstrate through what I’ve done is that I am more than willing to spend months of my time in a row trying to sort through the issues. I think there are a number of operational things we can improve,” he says.

“You’ve got to remember this is a mining company. It’s not a complex financial derivative where you need a degree in rocket science. Nasa is not going to hire me away. This is open cast coal. Truck and shovel. And in Indonesia there is a track record of people doing it for a long time with profitable mines. We can turn this thing around and not just make shareholders their money back but increase it.”