Allen Ambrose sorts through sattelite pictures instead of rock samples these days, but so far his life as a geologist-turned-executive suits him.
‘I do miss getting out in the field,” said Ambrose, the head of the start-up exploration firm Minera Andes for the past two years. “But this has been a great challenge - it’s really put me out of my comfort zone.”
With nearly two decades of experience finding metals in rocks, Ambrose has transferred that knowledge to a larger scale. Minera Andes has about 13 geologists on contract hunting for gold and copper in Argentina.
It’s a game that gets miners out of bed early: the thrill of exploration, perhaps the last true speculative profession.
The carrot in front of him, Ambrose admits, is stories such as the company Bre-X Minerals Ltd., an exploration firm begun in a Calgary basement years ago.
Like Minera Andes, Bre-X Minerals started trading on a Canadian exchange for about $1.50 a share. After incredible mineral finds around the world, Bre-X stock catapulted to near $150 a share. The company was sold for more than a billion dollars this year.
Junior mining companies - so-called because they don’t have an operating mine on their books, only prospects - are commonplace. About 400 juniors are hunting for big deposits, Ambrose said.
What makes his outfit different is how it’s put together, he said. As a former exploration arm of Spokane’s N.A. Degerstrom Inc., a mining equipment and consulting firm, Minera Andes has the resources of Degerstrom behind it. “That gives our investors a lot of confidence,” Ambrose said.
Spokane has its share of exploration firms: Gold Reserve Inc., Royal Silver Mines, Yamana Resources, just to name a few. Ambrose worked with the heads of Yamana to hunt gold in Argentina, which, years ago, was relatively undiscovered.
“It’s a lot like Nevada about 100 years ago,” he said. “There’s plenty of potential.”
A mining-friendly environment and a slew of very promising metals finds has put a spotlight on the South American country. Minera Andes, like Yamana, was one of the first to ship big drilling rigs there to hunt for metals.
Minera Andes focuses solely on Argentina. Yamana has branched out to several countries and has even bought three mines in Washington State, a rare domestic move in a business that has become almost exclusively international, Ambrose said.
Ambrose knows what it’s like to stumble across a motherlode. As a Degerstrom consultant, he literally walked into the big Brisas gold find in southern Venezuela, now being developed by Gold Reserve Inc. The mine could hold more than 5 million ounces of gold and hundreds of tons of copper.
The Minera Andes team is lean and mean. Ambrose coordinates his geologists’ work from Spokane by phone and occasional trips down south. His office is crammed with big computer monitors to view satellite images and stacked with geology books and files on promising sites.
Ambrose also makes trips with Art Johnson, director of investor relations, to hype the company for investors. “I think we’re starting to show up on a lot of radar screens,” Ambrose said.
Minera Andes stock trades on the Alberta stock exchange, but Ambrose and Johnson hope to move very soon to the Toronto Stock Exchange, the preferred market to attract money for junior mining companies.
The company has interests in about 35 potential mine sites. To see if the areas hold the next big find, geologists drill in precise patterns around the find, then determine how much metal lies there. Using complex computer modeling, Ambrose can estimate how much gold or copper lies under the ground.
With success stories such as Bre-X, billions of dollars have flooded into the junior mining market. Ambrose’s job is to report the findings to shareholders, keep the company’s efforts funded, and then hope one of the properties blooms into something huge.
Minera Andes has already signed joint exploration ventures with companies such as Cominco Resources. Ambrose would prefer to find partners for copper projects, which require huge amounts of capital to develop. But if the right-sized gold deposit appears, Ambrose may want the company to develop it by itself.
A youthful-looking 40, Ambrose likes to travel with his wife and two kids and likes to snow ski when the job allows. After traveling around the country to different mining jobs, Ambrose, who got his geology degree from Eastern Washington University, had a homecoming of sorts.
“I think he’s done a great job juggling the work and his family life,” said Johnson. “He’s very focused on the family.”
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