Chris Vermuelen is a mining veteran of the old school: an amiable, straight-talking leader with more than 30 years of global experience and a fondness for checked short-sleeved shirts. His big thing is relationships – get people to understand what you’re doing, and you can get them to work together.

You’re six months into your tenure: what has been your key priority since taking the helm?

Relationships. Particularly with government and our local stakeholders. Discussing issues like power, skills, work permits and why international expertise and investment is critical to the successful operation of our mines. It’s meant a lot of missed flights, nights in Lusaka, meetings at various Ministries and the local communities. It’s all about getting government and local stakeholders aligned with us. We’ve spent a lot of time explaining to them our vision, our strategy, where we’re going and how important a strong partnership with the government and local communities is to ensure the ongoing success of Mopani.

You were again in Lusaka recently to meet new Ministers.

Yes, we took our top team to meet the new Mines Minister, Honorable Richard Musukwa and the Minister of Labour, the Honourable Joyce Simukoko. We touched on a number of areas such as skills, power, VAT, Rail SI. We look forward to a constructive relationship with all the Government ministries relevant to Mopani.

Chris Vermeulen with his wife, Lillian, at the 2018 Mufulira Sevens Rugby Tournament.

Has that led to better understanding?

I think so. We had both Ministers Musukwa and Simukoko visit Mopani afterwards. We took them around the operations and had them visit our state-of-the-art $20-million training centre. This facility is unique in Zambia. This is where we take students, pay them a salary, feed and house them and provide them the necessary skills for the mining and more widely – electrical skills, engineering, computing.

What’s your take on Rail SI?

We’re broadly positive about moving copper by rail. It will have positive benefit of cutting congestion on the roads. The industry and government need to work together to meet the 30% target.

As new CEO, what has been your focus at Mopani?

Getting people to work together in a spirit of trust and cooperation. We’re involving our people more in decision-making. From day one, we’ve been open and have put our cards on the table. As an example, we concluded our annual wage negotiations recently fairly quickly, without any dispute.

How was 2017 on the operational front?

We continued to focus on upgrading our operations to ensure Mopani becomes Zambia’s leading copper producer. The communities surrounding our operations are an important part of our current and future success. We focused on ensuring they understand our goals and that we continue to minimise the impact of our operations on the surrounding areas. Providing the necessary support for projects that are not reliant on the mining industry remains a key goal of ours as well. Our state-of-the-art training centre is a good example of this. Another big positive from last year was safety. Our SafeMining journey that started in 2014 is starting to pay off. Our numbers are better than they have ever been. We did not have a single underground fatality in 2017, and that’s the first time in the history of this mine.

From day one, we’ve been open and have put our cards on the table.

How is 2018 shaping up operationally?

The energy has picked up nicely this year. Our new $323-million Synclinorium shaft is now hoisting ore from underground every day, and that’s made a big difference. It’s the first new hoisting shaft in Zambia since 1970. More generally, we are also producing finished copper from underground mining.

What level of copper production are you projecting for 2018?

A lot of it depends on how much third-party copper concentrate we can channel through our smelter. With that in mind, we’re forecasting a significant increase on last year’s figure.

Are you on track with your long-term plans?

We are on track in our journey to becoming a world-class, low-cost mine. We’re broadly on target with our cost profile, our capital-expenditure profile and our production profile. But it’s a very steep build-up in production that we have to do over the next three years. It’s not going to be easy. I’m going to have a lot less hair on my head by the time it’s all done!

See also: Exclusive interview with Finance Minister Felix Mutati