Mark O'Dea | BCBusiness

Mark O'Dea | BCBusiness

Mark O’Dea, who sold his last company for $2.3 billion, 
is as much financial 
guru as rockhound.

Mark O’Dea’s answers are clear-cut but thoughtful as he considers the current state of the mining industry. Known for a financial acumen that garnered $370 million in equity capital for Fronteer Gold Inc. prior to its sale to Newmont Mining Corp. last year, O’Dea looks at markets with the same eye he does when sizing up rock formations. He sees the big picture without missing the details.

And when it comes to advice, he’s quick to tell colleagues not to fall in love with projects. “If something looks really good initially and ends up not panning out after you’ve spent a sufficient amount of capital on it to form an opinion, move on,” he says. “Don’t throw good money after bad. Be pretty ruthless about cutting projects loose that aren’t working.”

The strategy served him well at Fronteer, which he joined in 2001 after attracting the attention of Toronto venture capitalists Wayne Beach and Hugh Snyder, two people he now considers mentors. In addition to spearheading the equity rounds of financing, he raised close to $330 million through asset sales that kept the company sleek.

“Your focus really needs to be on making sure that you’ve got the absolute highest-quality project portfolio that you possibly can have at any given time to maximize your chances of success when the stars do align and you’re in the right market,” he says. The secret, he says, is “to be patient, but to be incredibly rigorous
. . . constantly trading up assets, so you’re always looking to have the highest quality projects you can.”

The strategy ultimately made Fronteer an attractive target for Newmont, which paid $2.3 billion for the company a year ago. The sale allowed O’Dea to launch Pilot Gold Inc., and more recently he has developed Blue Gold Mining Inc., of which he’s chair and CEO.

Given the uncertain times in mining markets right now – volatile commodity prices, and more 52-week lows on the exchanges than highs – he knows he’s got his work cut out for him. But it’s harder for potential investors, who have his sympathies in the wake of the sector’s growth over the past decade.

“There’s been a huge proliferation in mining companies over the last 10 years,” O’Dea says. “It’s becoming increasingly hard for investors to be discerning and to sift through the array of opportunities to find the right ones to invest in.”

O’Dea believes a risk-averse climate for financing will require companies to do what he did at Fronteer – pare back portfolios to the best properties – or be acquired. Companies need to be production-ready because investors don’t want to invest in projects with nothing to show.

“My sense is that there needs to be somewhat of a consolidation so that there’s fewer companies out there, and the ones that are out there have a more substantial project portfolio,” he says. “Companies that have production visibility and are in production already, and have lots of liquidity, are going to be the go-to names at least for the foreseeable future.”

The comments stem from the sort of savvy that prompted the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C. to award O’Dea its Murray Pezim Award for perseverance and success in financing mineral exploration. Previous recipients include Ian Telfer, Peter Brown and John Tognetti – people in whose company O’Dea is pleased, if humbled to stand.

After all, O’Dea – who plays guitar in his spare time, laying down tracks the way some people brush paint on a canvas – wasn’t always known as a financial guru. Born the son of a lawyer in Cambridge, England in 1967, O’Dea moved with his family to Ottawa and Halifax before finally settling in Renews, an outport south of St. John’s on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The rugged geography overlooking the North Atlantic explains in part O’Dea’s nonchalant observation of himself: “I’ve always been sort of an outdoorsy guy, loved nature and been around it, embraced it. And as a young university student I really sort of gravitated to [geology] and fell in love with it.”

He graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa with a bachelor’s degree in science (honours), majoring in geology. He soon found himself working in the mountains of northern B.C. with Equity Engineering Ltd., a Vancouver-based consulting firm that works for many junior and big-league players. A doctorate at Monash University in Australia followed, and after a few years of consulting he got the break that led to the opportunity with Fronteer.

But it’s his first job that may well shed the most light on what he’s done since then, and what he has yet to offer. As a kid, he would get up to meet the returning fishing boats, cut and collect cod tongues for sale door-to-door. It wasn’t the stuff of exploration, but rather entrepreneurship.

O’Dea sees that kind of leadership becoming increasingly prevalent in his career trajectory. “Being at the helm, and being the architect of the construction and the growth of these companies, I find incredibly fulfilling,” he says. “It’s taking a project or an idea that’s generally at a fairly early stage, its value is unquantifiable and unknown . . . and translating that opportunity into something that has real value.”