Neil Pettigrew has witnessed the decline and rebirth of Thunder Bay's mineral exploration sector.
A decade ago, the vice-president of Fladgate Exploration Consulting Corp. remembers Noranda Mining closing its northwest office and a handful of juniors in town struggling to stay afloat on shoestring budgets.
“Everyone was moving out,” Pettigrew said, “and all those people that were leaking along 10 years ago, now there are a lot of success stories out of Thunder Bay.”
Fladgate is among an emerging field of mining service and supply companies in the city.
A raft of exploration projects in northwestern Ontario has resulted in explosive growth at the four-year-old firm, which has grown from four employees to close to 70 geologists, geotechnicans and support staff.
Located in the downtown north core, Fladgate was forced to expand its office space inside a former bank across Park Avenue from the Prospector Steak House.
“We're not huge employers like Bombardier, but of all the exploration companies, we're probably the biggest in town,” said Caitlin Jeffs, one of three partners along with Pettigrew and president Michael Thompson who founded Fladgate in 2007.
The company has evolved into a full-service project management outfit that can shepherd mineral finds from the grassroots phase into the feasibility stage.
Where once junior miners were basically grassroots explorers, now “super juniors” have blossomed as financial vehicles raising multi-million dollar exploration budgets.
“That's where a lot of our work is coming in, these heavy drill programs worth tens of millions in modelling,” said Pettigrew, who serves
as exploration vice-president for PC Gold.
“A lot of juniors are set up with a board of directors and a pool of capital, but have no technical staff. We can come in and run the entire junior company (from the technical standpoint).”
With 21 mining companies based in Thunder Bay, all needing 3-D modelling and resource estimates, there's no shortage of work.
The three partners met while working on the Placer Dome exploration team at the Musselwhite Mine, a fly-in gold operation 480 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
Following the Goldcorp-Barrick takeover in 2006, Thompson and Jeffs opted to freelance.
“Working as an independent consultant is a lonely life,” said Thompson. “You're doing everything.”
Going from employment at a deep-pocketed major producer, with plenty of geological support, to working on your own for small juniors was a culture shock for Jeffs.
“You get used to having the (high-tech) resources available to you with 3-D planning programs, and all of sudden we're back to pencil and paper.”
They decided to join forces and hired some support staff.
“We thought maybe we'll get up to seven or eight people and we'll have a tight little group,” said Thompson.
The hiring binge started when Fladgate landed PC Gold's exploration contract for Pickle Lake in 2008, followed by Tamaka Gold at Sioux Lookout.
Success was brief when the stock market crashed that year and exploration budgets dried up. With junior miners reigning in their field work, Fladgate concentrated on report writing.
“It was pretty scary,” said Pettigrew. “we managed to survive quite well, because PC needed to do a whole whack of compilation and 3-D modelling to digitize all their old mine workings and get their 43-101 resource set.
“It was tough. We had a good stable of clients in the fall of '08 and we got down to just a handful.”
One unique specialty Fladgate developed was making ice roads for companies like Magma Metals at its Thunder Bay North nickel-copper project.
Jeffs, who managed ice roads at Musselwhite, wrote a handbook of safety guidelines extracted from the best industry practices.
It's an invaluable service for clients needing to drill deposits under lakes.
With exploration activity back at a breakneck pace, the company's client base has grown to include Bending Lake Iron, Osisko Mining, San Gold, Canadian Orebodies and Claude Resources.
While the focus is northwestern Ontario, Fladgate has worked projects in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, the Yukon, and this past summer in Turkey.
Pettigrew said they would like to pursue more international work.
“We like being involved in projects from the beginning because it's what we all enjoy,” said Jeffs. “It's a passion to see something developed from the exploration through to the 3-D modelling and the resource estimation.
“On the geo jobs, where we just go out and run someone's small program and hand the data to them...that isn't as interesting. We like being involved with bigger things.”
A side venture is Red Metal Resources headed by Jeffs, that's prospecting and drilling off an iron oxide copper gold-type deposit in Chile.
They joke that's why they're preferential to recruiting international staff from Columbia, South Africa, Chile, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
“We've turned into the unofficial cheerleaders for Thunder Bay,” said Pettigrew. “We've moved so many people to town that we joke the city should give us a tax break.”
But luring qualified staff to northwestern Ontario is always a challenge.
“We have very good retention and that's been a big issue in our business,” said Pettigrew, “and the reason is we move people around projects and don't let them stay in the field for more than four weeks.”
Employees have licence to interpret data and Fladgate trains them up in managing programs, budgets, logistics, modelling and report writing.
“Here people learn what happens to the data after they log the core,” said Pettigrew.
The company has also invested heavily in hardware and software, including a new server for data base management.
“It's all about the data,” said Thompson. “That's the work of any of the companies.”
The partners attribute their steady stream of work to a word-of-mouth reputation in taking a by-the-book approach to resource compilation work and in analyzing historical data.
“Our experience with Placer Dome gave us a real strong base in running big programs,” said Jeffs. “It involved a lot more management and logistical skills than running a one-drill program.”
Northen Ontario Business