Vancouver Sun: Executive headhunter makes tracks through mining doldrums

Vancouver Sun: Executive headhunter makes tracks through mining doldrums

With a focus on relationships rather than transactions, Andrew Pollard has his finger on pulse of the sector
By James Kwantes, Vancouver Sun November 25, 2014 5:48 PM

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While his classmates at Sentinel secondary in West Vancouver pondered what university they would attend, Andrew Pollard crammed for a business career.

He picked up sales strategies from his stockbroker father, devoured business books at the library and passed the real estate exam the same week he wrote provincials.

But it’s in the resource sector that he’s making his mark as president of the Mining Recruitment Group, a boutique executive search firm for the mining industry.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of having to go to school for another four years, I was ready to be unleashed,” Pollard, 29, said in a recent interview. “I had so much theory within me that I wanted to put to practical use.”

He’s had plenty of practice, despite the worst mining bear market in decades.

After encountering the “shadow world” of human resources at a sales job two years out of high school, Pollard landed a gig with an international executive recruitment firm opening a Vancouver office.

“These guys figured that I’d be good on the phones, you know, as long as clients didn’t meet this young kid,” he laughed.

His first day on the job, Pollard’s boss got fired, leaving him to expand the client base, learn about the mining industry — and help hire the new boss. The more immersed he got in executive recruitment, the more opportunity he saw in mining.

“I saw, jeez, there’s a huge segment of the market that is completely under-served here, that really doesn’t even know what they don’t know and how a recruiter could help them,” he said.

Pollard launched his company of one in 2006. He was 21 and the commodity super cycle was lifting share prices and sector salaries.

“Oftentimes you’d see a first- or second-year kid straight out of UBC with a geology degree earning over 100 grand — that’s just the way it was,” he said. “Now most of them are bartenders or looking for part-time work.”

A decade after launch, Pollard has become a go-to guy for Vancouver mining firms in search of top talent.

His referral-based company — the only mining-focused executive search firm in Western Canada — will expand to Toronto next year when Pollard joins forces with a boutique headhunter in that head-office city.

Business is booming, despite a market that has led to headhunting of a different sort.

“The industry is going through tough times, but for my business, I see nothing but opportunity,” he said. “Whether or not gold stays at $1,200, whether it goes down to $900 or whether it goes back up to $2,000, the fundamentals of what I do are sound.”

In mining, cost overruns on a major project or bad timing on a major acquisition can torpedo a chief executive’s career. While booming commodity prices and bull markets can shield poor decision-making, a bear market exposes it. That makes hiring critical, Pollard pointed out.

“At $1,900 an ounce gold, every CEO out there, every COO out there, looks like Jack Welch.”

His office is in a nondescript building at Granville and Hastings, but Pollard’s workplace is the tennis court, coffee shop, mining shows, even the bar — anywhere he can pick up intelligence on who’s looking for a move, who’s looking to hire.

“You get to know who the movers and shakers are, the personas and the secret sauce every executive brings to the table.”

Pollard says he focuses on relationship-building and focused, individualized service in an industry that often takes a transactional, “cookie-cutter” approach to searches.

A digital presence in a world where the Rolodex is more than an expression, Pollard is at least 10 to 15 years younger than his competition.

That puts him at the vanguard of an industry that will soon be swamped by a “silver tsunami” of exiting execs. According to Statistics Canada, the mining industry’s workforce is even older than in other industries.

As the mining sector has withered in recent years, Pollard says his business has migrated from junior companies to advanced-stage, development and mid-tier producers. It has meant fewer deals but bigger paycheques for Pollard, whose fees range from 25 to 33 per cent of a year’s salary for the executive who is placed.

His billings can be lucrative — his biggest deal this year was $108,000 for a CEO search — but Pollard said he gets most stoked about deals that pave his track record rather than fatten his wallet.

“The searches I’m most proud about are the ones where I can look back and say, ‘This guy came in and I pushed for him and I lobbied for him, and they took a chance on him, and two years later the company’s a ten-bagger.

“Those are the ones where I look back most fondly.”

One success story was Prodigy Gold, which was a struggling junior called Kodiak Exploration when Pollard got the call for help in 2010. Pollard helped Prodigy clean house at both the board and executive level, helping recruit new directors — including George Salamis — as well as a new CEO, CFO and vice-president of exploration. From a market capitalization of about $20 million, Prodigy was acquired by Argonaut Gold for $341 million in 2012.

Fast-forward two years and Salamis is executive chairman of Integra Gold, which is developing a gold project in a historic mining district of Quebec. Pollard’s latest placement was Integra’s chief operating officer.

According to Salamis, two keys to Pollard’s success are his extensive knowledge of mining power players and “great manner” with senior executives.

“I think Andrew is one of those rare few who are going to inherit the keys to the kingdom of the mining industry,” he said.

Eastern expansion is not the only way Pollard is doubling down on an industry that many have written off. He has begun to invest in client companies, up to and including 100 per cent of his client fees — a practice that aligns with his approach of looking at companies as an investor would.

Pollard, the youngest of four boys, credits his father — who died suddenly in 2010 while in Europe — with instilling “an entrepreneurial drive in me from a young age.” The final time the elder Pollard saw his son was when he watched Andrew’s first Business News Network appearance online.

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