July 6, 2020 | Ivan Martin
Mas Gold Corp: How the junior mining industry is making a comeback
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Mas Gold Corp (TXS: MAS) is a Canadian mineral exploration company located in Saskatchewan. Jason had the opportunity to interview Andrew Davidson, CFO of MAS, who explained to him how COVID-19 has affected the company.
In the discussion, Andrew explained to Jason how Mas Gold Corp started as Saskatoon’s first mineral investment fund and evolved into Saskatchewan’s premier gold junior exploration company. He continues to detail how the mining industry is experiencing a comeback after having had a lethargic past decade and how a rebound in gold prices has poured investment money back into the company.
Overall, it seems that COVID-19 has not affected MAS substantially and they have been able to continue operations without major interruptions. Nevertheless, Andrew points out that the virus has had a minor impact in permitting processes, laboratory work and contractual labor for short term projects due to CERB.
Jason and Andrew also talked about the ways that the virus has changed how business is conducted at MAS Gold Corp from the required technology infrastructure to conferences and deal-making trips.
POLICY ACTION RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GOLD MINING SPACE
- Create a central database that companies can use to stay updated on guideline developments and regulations from a national, provincial and regional level
- Update the digital infrastructure in the industry to ensure a proper and effective transition to the working from home economy
- Capitalize on the transition to a greener economy to expand on a national level programs such as Alberta’s oil well capping program
Sector: Basic Materials
Industry: Metals & Mining
Government support programs/grants being used pre-COVID: None
Government support programs/grants being used post-COVID: None
Core challenges post-COVID: Ensuring that permitting issuance and laboratory timelines are optimized. Learning how to adapt to a post-COVID era where big mining conferences and corporate travel might not be possible for business development.
Recommended industry support pre-COVID: Granting flexibility for projects in areas that are not affected by COVID-19. Total lockdowns do not make sense in these areas.
Jason: Thank you so much for talking with me today Andrew. With this series, I am trying to speak with small business owners and management teams as I make my way across Canada.
I am really trying to understand the impact that COVID has had on their businesses. My hope is that I will be able to get information from a variety of companies in different industries such as transportation, mining, forestry, etc.
The intention is to try and expand the gamut of businesses and industries that are being heard to be able to assemble some information that I can share with policy makers and hopefully be able to help. This is because there will be additional stimulus and support that comes out of this COVID situation at some point. We want to know what is working well in what the government is doing, what’s not working well and how we can provide some guidance to improve support.
Jason: So, let’s start by talking about your business. What do you guys do and where are you situated , what do you do?
Andrew: Sure. There are a few companies that I work for. They are junior exploration companies in various things. The primary two are gold and helium exploration. I am based in Saskatoon. Most of the companies I work for are based out of here, the other ones are based in Vancouver, with a lot of the work being focused on Saskatchewan and BC.
We work principally in Canada, but have some US properties as well. So we’re sort of the tip of the spear when it comes to resource investing. We are the early guys when it comes to exploration to be able to grow something into a minable deposit.
Jason: Are there any specific areas you focus on?
Andrew: Yeah. Right now gold is the principal focus. Other interesting ones we do is Helium, here in Saskatchewan and some copper in Quebec. The majority of the time is spent on gold exploration.
Jason: Okay excellent. I guess I would also like to hear more about you and your background and what drew you into the industry.
Andrew: Sure, I’m a CPA chart accountant by training. I was raised in Saskatoon, and then moved to Calgary where I finished my schooling and started my career. Then I moved home back to Saskatoon to raise a family in a smaller centre.
I was in public practice for seven years and the risk profile of public practice did not match my interest level so I actually needed to do something a bit more entertaining. Something more high risk but where I could command my own future to a greater degree.. and that’s really what I was interested in.
I have been entrepreneurial at heart since I was young and because of that I like deciding the rules of how we operate here and not having to follow other things, except, you know… laws.
Jason: Awesome, I hear you. How did you guys go about selecting the city that you wanted to be headquartered out of and was there any kind of science behind it?
Andrew: Actually, not a lot of science behind it. When we started here, we did it as a small investment fund into junior exploration companies. There was really no such fund existing in Saskatchewan so we decided it was just a good place to be the first ones in.
It’s been good in that way. Saskatchewan is a very small community, you know. A million people in total across a fairly large area. It’s always been good. We’re still one of the few in the area. There are a couple of others that have started but we like to think we are still the premium one. And that just left us with options for companies that we’ve invested in, and a number of them that we loved so much that we actually ended up taking them over, selling them off and starting doing it all over again.
Jason: That is very interesting. How many of those transactions do you think you have been able to run throughout the course of your business?
Andrew You know… in the last eight years, we have had four or five exits. And generally when we have an exit, we keep a portion of what we’re selling it and start again. So for example, we sell off a gold project and then we keep a certain subset of the properties and then work to develop those, to build them up and be able to sell them off separately.
We also have some oil and gas assets in Saskatchewan and some copper projects in Quebec as well. Generally, we get involved when we really like a region and when we really like a management group. And then we will get involved to build it up and set it off.
Jason: Awesome. It seems like you get work with a lot of entrepreneurs and great management teams as a part of what you’re doing.
Andrew: Yeah we do. I mean, the resource exploration business is a relatively big industry but there is a relatively small number of large players. And whenever there is a bull market in commodities, the number of exploration companies goes up exponentially. When tough times hit, they all go away. And it’s the core group that remains and then we do it again. We’re three getting into the bull part of the market here.
Jason: Cool. So I guess you have gone through a couple of economic cycles as part of your job.
Andrew: Yeah, when I got over to this industry, we were approaching the peak of the last good market. And that sort started coming off in 2011 and has been declining since then up until basically the first quarter of this year when we saw a reversal.
So I basically worked through what was a very long very long downturn in this industry. Our resource investment just sort of dried up. Interestingly enough I moved into tech and recently I moved into cannabis. But that wave also seems to be ending. Interest is coming back into our sector and so money is coming back into it as well. Things are being developed and there is actual activity again. It’s not beating your head against the wall every day like it has been for a while.
Jason: Yeah. That is exciting.
Andrew: Yeah, it is. It was a long run but you know… with good management you can ride through those times and still grow. It sounds funny but you can grow while you’re declining. And a number of our entities experienced just that. So things get better even though on a capital market perspective, it seems to be getting worse. What ends up happening is that we basically pull the sling shot back to its stretch point and then when it goes the other way you’re the first one to bounce and we have seen that with a few of our investors.
Jason: Very interesting, thanks Andrew. So, I would like to get a little bit more into the pre and post COVID world. How were things going pre-COVID and how would you say your role and your business was affected ?
Andrew: Yes, absolutely. So my answer may be different than what you received elsewhere. A couple of things have happened. One, our industry was still slow before COVID hit. There were signs that it was coming back but nothing really moved.
Our operations are all very small, regardless of which project you are in. There’s usually no more than five people on the ground anywhere at any given time. So to the extent that we’ve been delayed it has been minimal and it has just been a function of you know, understanding the policies and regulations in the area were operating within and complying with them. So that part hasn’t been that tough.
However, we have had some delays. Say, permitting delays from governments that are all working off site so we have had some administrative delays but generally….I mean, It’s tough to say this and to be happy about it but when the world falls into economic crisis mood, things like gold price rise substantially. So what has happened is that while the world is contracting, the gold space specifically has been expanding and in a material fashion.
COVID has been treating us rather well because we have not had to shut down any mines because we don’t have any. We can continue drilling on and exploring. Those are small programs so we should be able to continue accomplishing things during those times.
Jason: Okay. So your team has been able to keep working through COVID. You also mentioned permits. I guess I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you’re kind of seeing in terms of the delays and the change in permitting processes compared to what you would normally experience.
Andrew: So I would say that on the permitting side it has been slower than usual but it hasn’t been atrocious. You can still get it done. It’s just you have to understand going into it that it’s not going to be as quick of a process as you’re used to.
Andrew: We are actually going through it on one one of our major projects. We put our permits in a couple months ago and they’re still going back and forth. To a large degree, that’s understandable given that there is not a team in the office working on these anymore. And as much as you can connect electronically is not quite the same.
Andrew: Workflow is just a bit slower so it is annoying but in the context of what’s going on… it’s really not that bad.
And in terms of getting work done off site, whenever you’re sending results off to the labs for analysis… all of these things are slow as well. You know, the running skeleton crew and shifts. The labs are operating at half capacity. But again we weather all of this with the understanding that it is still happening. We could be in the restaurant industry and be shut down. So we try not to complain about it
Jason: Yeah, definitely. Gotta look at the positive side of things for sure.
Andrew: Yes! And the technology that has come up during all of this has truly been helpful. We have remote teams as well and we are as in touch with them now as we were before. As for before we would fly to Vancouver and then meet in person. I wouldn’t doubt corporate travel staying low after this.
Jason: So do you kind of see a shift in your business in terms of doing a lot more tele and video conferencing versus meeting in person and going to specific events.
Jason: Are there certain areas where you think this would not change? Meaning, are there certain times when you think you would really need to meet in person? Is there a percentage you expect to drop off?
Andrew: Yeah I would say that corporate travel will return eventually. For us, I think deal related travel would probably continue. When you’re making a transaction… that’s always better in person and not online.
We have had a number of conferences over the years. it’s really going to be interesting to see what happens with those. I was at the big job mining conference in Toronto in the first week of March.And you know, about 20,000 showed up. You know there were some confirmed cases back then so I am going to be really curious to see what happens with this stuff going forward, if it continues or not and what form.
Andrew: As of right now, a lot of those smaller conferences are happening online.
Andrew: It is a different experience but it’s still happening.
Jason: How significant do you think these kinds of conferences are for your business by the way? Do you guys perhaps have a lot of business development going on? Are these an important part of you harnessing growth?
Andrew: I would say that it is a huge part of our business. For us, for what we do here, what we are generally doing in those conferences is shopping. Shopping for new projects, new companies. Whereas most other people are there for business development and shareholder engagement. And we certainly do that as well but for us it is just important to get face to face with different management groups. You can have around hundred companies in three days. And so if it stops…I mean, it will not kill what we do but it’ll certainly make it a little less convenient.
Jason: Yeah. Is there any other way where you can source these deals? Is there a marketplace of some sorts that exists?
Andrew: Generally, a lot of it is just by reputation. We know a lot of these players. When a new story comes up, even if our principal contacts are involved with it, if we haven’t heard about it, they probably have… and then we spruce it that way. So yes, there are certainly work arounds. But when we’re meeting a new group for the first time, we generally like doing that in person. But I mean to the extent that is not possible, we will do it this way.
Jason: Yes, I understand. Have you noticed any other kind of supplier constraints? Maybe in terms of materials that need to be received to do drilling or exploration.
Andrew: A lot of the dealers and contractors that are generally tied up for drilling and exploration for baby companies are no longer tied up. The availability of contractors is really good. The availability of supplies is a little less so. But you know, we are able to get it done in time and there has actually not been an increase in cost because of supply and demand.
Overall, it has not been terrible. We are moving to a larger operation in BC in the next month or so. In the meantime, everything seems to be moving relatively smoothly.
Jason: Awesome. How have your employees endured this transition? Have you encountered some employees worried about their health and safety with COVID? Are there any changes you are doing in that front to support or accommodate these people?
Andrew: For us, we instantly went into a model where anyone can work from wherever they want. Our office is small and we generally don’t have that many people around other than people coming to talk to us. That stopped, the door is locked. The executive team comes in most days but we are separate. But overall, for everyone else involved… If you are more comfortable working from home, please do so. If you are not comfortable going to sit if we need someone there, that is fine… we will hold.
We will certainly not be laying off anyone or making those types of changes. Our business here is based on a very tight trust relationship and the thought of letting them go is definitely not something we are interested in.
Jason: So human capital is not a problem
Andrew: Exactly, we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the people around who we have built trust relationships with. The age range of people we work with ranges from university to folks that are ready to retire. And the people in the last group most definitely don’t have any interest in coming out of their house… most of them. Everyone needs to stay healthy.
Jason: So you’re seeing that younger generations are more willing to come back while older generations are more reluctant.
Andrew: Yes, that is what we are seeing. But at the same time, we are stressing the importance of being socially distant and taking it seriously. I have seen that in Saskatoon here, since Phase 4 in Saskatchewan started opening up, it looks a lot like normal. Patios are full, bars are full. It is a little worrisome. There was an incident at one of the resort properties last weekend where one of the bar employees tested positive on Monday. I know that place and it would have been packed on the weekend. It will be interesting to see how that rolls out because it will be hitting a lot of people.
Jason: Most definitely, clusters seem to be an issue. I have noticed how here in BC, restaurants seem pretty full and even though bars have been spacing the tables a little bit, that only works a little.
It seems your business has been impacted on the minor side for COVID. Are there any support programs that the government has rolled out that you have been able to get support from and there any programs that you can think of that you would like to see put in place to be able to support you in the short and medium term?
Andrew: Directly, we have not used any support programs we could qualify for. We have not needed them so we have not taken them. I just think that is part of being a good citizen, that is, don’t abuse the system.
There have been some that have rolled out that will be beneficial to our industry in general. Saskatchewan and Alberta are rolling out programs to clean out old oil wells. That is quite beneficial for the province and the industry because it is a problem. To the extent that those get cleaned up, that’s a good program. It brings people back to work. So that would be great. Again, it does not directly impact us but they will benefit everyone.
However, one of the problems actually is that we have seen some type of inflation in terms of staffing cost. We had an experience with a group of young geologists who we wanted to come in and do some day work for us and they were dictating terms. They were saying that they would be better off staying in CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) than coming back to work. So that was interesting. I hope that’s a minor one off.
Jason: So there is a little bit of competition between government and private sector because of the support programs.
Andrew: If it would have been casual labor it wouldn’t be an issue. But it was a one week job that would pay you around 900 dollars instead of staying in income support that would pay you 2000 per month.
Jason: Gotcha, so it was a problem because it was a short term thing instead of a long term thing.
If you would have been able to see this coming one year ago, what would you have told yourself or what would you have done to prepare differently?
Andrew: I think we would have reviewed our technology abilities here. So that all of our staff would have the remote work capabilities that they would need. Some of our people still operate from desktop computers and that doesn’t work when you’re working at home. So I think that will be part of the planning going forward. We need those capabilities at all times.
Jason: What about the people that can’t work from home?
Andrew: Those are special projects. From the ones we are taking on right now, we are taking appropriate steps. But overall, there are some projects that you have to physically be on site and these are projects at once or started they need to be finished.
Jason: Has the government provided any kind of forward looking guidance on how you can expect to navigate these types of situations and to make sure that you can continue to operate and not worry about a forced shut down.
Andrew: Yeah I mean. There are general guidelines for a big number of people but we do not have anything specific. I mean, there were some guidelines that worked in the north where they were just a little longer going people past a certain point on the highways, because there was an outbreak
Being aware of that in advance is good but if we had had a program that was under way and that came in, that would be very very troubling for us. I’m not aware of any specific guidance on how we would handle that.
Jason: Okay excellent. And this would be something that would be helpful for you guys to be extent that it was provided.
Andrew: Yes, it’s almost like a shut down plan. By giving guidelines that are specific to projects. We could also use something such as “in the event that we have a shut down it would be lovely if you follow these steps to actually shut it down” or to the extent that it needs to to be gradually shut down. “If you’re in the middle of drilling a hole somewhere, please finish that…and then move out.” So hard deadlines can be hard to meet. But phase out is workable.
Jason: Are there any other kinds of areas that you think the government could provide you support on or any kind of observations that you would maybe like to pass along maybe to support other types of businesses that may not be specifically in your fIeld.
Andrew: I think flexibility is kind of key to any business. Shutting down everything is not an effective approach in my view I mean. You need some in the ground rules for
adaptation. So when there’s a lockdown in Montreal or Toronto, it doesn’t make sense to also lock down a small town in Saskatchewan where there are no cases.
And I understand that that’s tough being a centralized government in Ottawa and then e regional in Saskatchewan in Regina and you can’t accommodate everyone but there has to be some kind of flexibility where id you do not have any cases please proceed as you wish.
Guidance on interprovincial travel has been very confusing around here. We do not know if we could physically drive to tour sites in B. C. or Alberta. A lot of confusion around that. So it has been challenging in that way. So I think clarity of process is key.
Jason: Yes, I don’t think I’ve seen any kind of centralized location where you can go to kind of like check out l what is the policy here. It is all very fragmented. There are different news releases everywhere and different politicians saying different things. Overall, having a consolidated location for all that would probably be helpful.
Andrew: Exactly, a central data store that tells you “here’s what you do in XYZ situation”. And it needs to be different provincially and regionally, unfortunately.
Because the policies in Saskatchewan and Ontario are different. Canada doing that as a whole, I think it would be difficult unless it has some type of data aggregator pulling provincial data… which I’m sure they can do.
Jason: Absolutely. So I have gone through all of the questions that I had queued up. Is there anything else that you would like to add perhaps?
Andrew: I’d be curious to what the government will do for targeted support to the natural resource industry. It is the largest component of the Canadian economy. You need to do something there. As I said… the oil and gas clean up is great. That’s a good first step. But it is also not a Saskatchewan and Alberta only issue. There are mining operations all over the country. It would be lovely to have some kind of support there. I’m not sure what that even looks like frankly. But it is something that needs to be considered for sure. But that’s just my two cents being in the resource industry and what I would like to see.
In Saskatchewan, we still have a lot of crown corporations. I’d be really curious to see if they do anything with things like Sasktel, which is the largest internet provider to boost coverage in remote areas because that is a big issue in Saskatchewan. I am sure you have the same problem in Manitoba and Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec. Given that most information is traveling that way now… some increased infrastructure would surely be welcome. And the best way to get out of an economic hardship is generally through infrastructure spending.
So I think that’s coming in a pretty significant way. It would help with the response plan in the event that we have another pandemic which we will some day or any other natural disaster of any sort. This would help to be able to disseminate the information in a much faster and more effective way. I’m just not sure how hard that is or how easy it is but it’s something that should be considered.
Jason: Absolutely. Well thank you so much Andrew for taking the time to speak with me, it has been very insightful.
Andrew: Of course, right on. Have a safe bike trip!