Ian Telfer, Goldcorp | BCBusiness
"I pinch myself daily – for quite some time, the reality has been way ahead of the dream," says Telfer, whose wealth arrived late in life.
Self-effacing Goldcorp chair Ian Telfer, on being in the right place at the right time, and the satisfaction that comes with finding wealth late in life.
“Financial success is like being struck by lightning; it’s pure happenstance,” says Ian Telfer, chair of Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc. “Many people work hard and have great visions, but the stars really have to line up.”
And align they most definitely did for Telfer. Over the past decade of his 30-year career in gold, the precious metal rose from $270 an ounce when he was CEO of Vancouver firm Wheaton River Minerals Ltd. to above $1,500 after that company’s 2004 merger with Goldcorp. As president and CEO of Goldcorp, he helped transform the company into the world’s second-largest gold miner, as measured by market cap (valued today at around $40 billion) and fifth in terms of gold production.
“Who knew?” he says self-effacingly, referring to the precious metal’s breathless ascent since 2001. “I would love to say I had it all cleverly worked out, but I hadn’t. I dreamt of it going to $400 because it seemed cheap at the time, but I never imagined it would go higher.”
As we lunch at Vancouver’s Il Giardino, Telfer repeatedly returns to the subject of chance. Such as how the young Torontonian squeezed into the last place in a career-altering MBA program, or how afterward he lucked out choosing a career in gold, despite knowing “shockingly little” about the geology involved.
“It’s all about which cards turned up,” continues the 65-year-old over asparagus salad, scallops and a glass of wine. “Once you have been in it for a while, you have a lot of respect for all the circumstances that play a part other than drive and determination.”
Given his reputation as a strong negotiator, Telfer is clearly being modest. However, he does lay claim to one business asset: his ability to make people excited about gold. He points out, for example, that if you put together all the gold that has ever been mined in the world, it would only fill two Olympic swimming pools. “That’s 163,000 tonnes,” he enthuses. “So that’s how precious and exciting it is.”
Referring to his own monetary rewards, Telfer is quick to emphasize that, because wealth arrived late in life, he can think beyond his own personal gain. While it means he can now afford to split time between homes in West Vancouver, Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes and Palm Springs (where he golfs with his wife, Nancy Burke, and their two grown-up sons), Telfer puts more value on philanthropy. “I simply didn’t expect any of this financial success, so to give a huge percentage of it away doesn’t seem like that big a sacrifice,” says Telfer.
Four years ago, he donated $25 million to what is now known as the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, “returning the favour” to the alma mater that let him study for that MBA when every other institution he applied to rejected him. (The donation started with a cold call from the university to set up an endowment fund of $5,000, which he stipulated had to be awarded to the last person accepted.) With his wife, he also supports the Vancouver Playhouse and Lions Gate Hospital Foundation.
Today Telfer continues to travel extensively worldwide. (“I’m in a gentlemanly one-upmanship with a friend to reach 100 countries,” he explains. “He’s at 83 and I’m at 80.”) As chair of the World Gold Council, his main destinations are China and India, two countries whose governments invest heavily in gold to safeguard against currency fluctuations. “No matter how high the price, they are still buying it,” he says, adding that the WGC’s “biggest coup” was establishing the first gold exchange-traded fund (trading as GLD on the New York Stock Exchange), which allows people to buy gold like shares. “What we thought would be a sliver of a fee,” he adds, referring to the $60-billion-worth of gold now involved in the fund, “has now turned into serious income for the council.”
Telfer relinquished the top executive spot to become chair of Goldcorp in 2006. “Everybody talks about delegating,” he says by way of justification, “but most people can’t. I can – and it’s a wonderful thing to not continually look over people’s shoulders.” Then, with another nod to luck, Telfer quickly adds, “I pinch myself daily – for quite some time, the reality has been way ahead of the dream.”