The details matter to Bert Monro, right down to how well the water and laundry systems are performing at Cora Gold’s exploration camp in Mali.
By Karl West
Bitter personal experience has shaped the Cora chief executive’s focus on these mundane, but vitally important, aspects of camp life.
He entered the mining industry as a 24-year-old, joining Hummingbird Resources, which dispatched him to Liberia, West Africa.
“I lived on an exploration camp, in a tent for two and a half years. There was no telly and it was quite isolated,” he recalled. “It was an amazingly exciting time – I was 24-years-old and in charge of up to 250 people. I’m not a geologist, I was managing the operational side – cutting access roads and making sure the camp ran smoothly.”
At the end of 2011, Monro returned to Hummingbird’s considerably more comfortable London office, where he remained until the end of 2019. Between 2017 and 2019 he was a non-executive director at Cora and became chief executive of Cora in January 2020.
His rise to the top has been swift. But Monro’s spartan apprenticeship in camp life has never left him – he can still
be spotted prowling around the edge of camp on his frequent visits to Cora’s Sanankoro project in Mali.
“I often have to bite my tongue when I hear about camp conditions [from staff],” he chuckled, noting the advent
of smartphones and better quality satellite TV since his time at the sharp end.
Being able to watch movies, sport and call family are important. But, he noted, other things – like good food and
freshly laundered clothes – are also key to retaining a harmonious atmosphere on camp.
“In the evening, I like to wander around the edges and kick the tyres, to see whether the water system and the
laundry system work. This is making it easier for people to be on site,” he said. “One of the first things I did when I became CEO was buy everyone company shirts and caps. It creates a togetherness.”
The Aim-listed explorer is nearing the end of a drilling campaign, as part of a definitive feasibility study, that has
consistently reported multiple high-grade intercepts at the Sanankoro gold project, in southern Mali. It is the
company’s largest-ever drilling campaign, designed to give some comfort to investors ahead of a move into the
mine construction phase in 2022 and production in 2023.
“Our drilling programme is due to finish around the end of August. We will update our mineral resources statement once all the assays are back and modelled independently to JORC standards. Mine construction should start next year  and we hope to start mining by the end of2023,” he said.
The Sanankoro Project, in southern Mali, is the most advanced of Cora’s portfolio of prospects. It has come at a good time in the cycle, with the gold price surging to $1,800 an ounce on the back of Covid- related economic turmoil. Gold is seen by investors as a safe haven to park their cash during uncertain economic times.
“The gold price is currently around $1,800 an ounce and I think the average operating costs of a mines globally are
in the $900 to $1,050 an ounce range.”
Monro feels fortunate to have the backing of his largest investors. Cora’s biggest shareholder is Brookstone
Business, a financial group with links to the Quirk family, with 28.99%. Paul Quirk is a non-executive director of Cora Gold. Lord Farmer, founder of the Red Kite Group of hedge funds, is the second biggest investor, with 14.3%.
In June 2020, the junior explorer signed a $21m term sheet to finance the development of Sanankoro. The finance deal was led by Lionhead Capital Advisors, whose founding partner is Paul Quirk.
Monro is grateful to have such a heavyweight endorsement and the financial backing to match.
“The goal is to build an operational mine in Sanankoro. A profitable mine. They [Quirk and Farmer] are not in the game of speculating. They are in the business of building a proper company. They are very sophisticated investors and have been doing this for a while. To have two large scale investors with long term ambitions is fantastic,” he said.
Monro said having the support of cornerstone investors is invaluable. Not just for their deep pockets, but also to be able to draw on their deep well of knowledge.
“It’s extremely important. There are lots of good projects out there,” he said. “Having guys in their 50s and 60s who have built dozens of mines in Africa that I can call up is very important.”
Monro knows the transition from exploration to production is a hurdle that too often proves insurmountable for junior miners.
“Most junior miners are single asset companies, so they will be aware that the business rides on that asset. So it comes with greater risk and any financing comes with a greater interest rate,” he said.
“There are plenty of examples of companies getting that wrong. Mali has a track record of producing good operating assets. That gives a sense of security.”
“From an early stage, Cora focused on two main areas – Mali and Senegal. Monro explained: “Exploration is a risky game so you try to get permits near other mines and projects so the chances of success are higher. You have to focus your money acutely. We believe we’ve got mine quality results there [Sanankoro].”
Monro reckons he was drawn to mining because of his ‘nomadic’ childhood. His father was in the army so Monro, who was born in Germany, moved around a lot.
“I think I lived in 18 different houses by the time I was 18-years-old. It was a bit of a nomadic life, perhaps that’s why the exploration life wasn’t such a leap for me. It created a bit of toughness and resilience,” he said. The Cora chief is the youngest of three siblings – he has two older brothers. One is a banker in London, the other, Alexander, played international rugby for Canada and is now a school teacher.
“We were a pretty sporty family and very competitive with each other. We were always in A&E with various injuries,” he recalled.
Monro went to school at Glenalmond College in Perthshire, where he played rugby, cricket, hockey, athletics and tennis.
“Hopefully, I was well behaved,” he said. “I was badly dyslexic, but it was diagnosed quite early so I got lots of help.”
When he finished school, Monro took a year out and went to Africa and worked in an orphanage for four months before going to university.
“It gave me the Africa buzz,” he said.
On his return from Africa, he went to Newcastle University and studied Politics – an interest that was fuelled by his grandfather, Hector Monro, who was in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.
Outside work, Monro likes to enjoy some down time with his wife and two young daughters (4 and 2 years-old). “And I still try to play a bit of tennis,” he said.
Monro has a big few years ahead of him. Cora’s big investors will be hoping the young chief executive can serve up a couple of aces to secure gold.
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