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Aussie rugby player turns game around for Resolute Mining

In a former life John Welborn, the head of a West Africa-focused gold producer, was part of the Australian rugby union team that won the World Cup in 1999. Now, the executive is scoring points in his mining career.

Welborn labels himself an "accidental professional rugby player," which he did for 15 years. He was the first Western Australian-born player to represent Australia in rugby union, and played six matches for the Wallabies.

"I often say being a rugby player from Western Australia in my era is a little bit like being a windsurfer from Kalgoorlie, in that it didn't make that much sense," he told S&P Global Market Intelligence on the sidelines of the recent Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie.

"The reality is I am a born and bred Western Australian and so mining comes naturally to me, and what I did in rugby effectively as a Western Australian was start out with an ambition and follow it through to as far as I could go."

Following a stint as an investment banker, Welborn made the leap into the resources sector about 10 years ago and is now CEO and managing director of Perth-based Resolute Mining Ltd., which in the past two years under his leadership has seen its debt come down and market value improve.

"When I joined the company there was A$100 million of debt and there was an uncertain position and we focused very strongly on not just eradicating debt, but really building a balance sheet that could support our growth ambition," Welborn said.

Resolute's share price is currently over 250% higher at A$1.06 since Welborn took the reins, reaching a peak of A$2.35 in September 2016.

The executive also attributes the improved market value to having identified a clear operating strategy, as well as the company's return to exploration.

"We've rediscovered exploration," Welborn said. "Resolute can trace its history back to Samantha Gold, which won the Digger & Dealer award [in Kalgoorlie] 28 years ago. We were a ballsy, adventurous explorer and developer of gold mines in this region and that's in our DNA, and being able to add value by exploration to our existing assets has been a key part of turning around our market story."

Resolute recently picked up new exploration ground in Egypt, which Welborn sees as an emerging gold district, but a long-term focus for the company.

"There's a lot of gold in Egypt and we do think there's scope for regulatory change and that Centamin Plc's success will spawn a range of new gold projects, but it will need change," Welborn said.

"Our investment in Egypt is expected to be part of a long-term view on the region. We've applied for a government tender and we've won some interesting ground. The next step is for us to continue to review that region and negotiate with the government around the fiscal terms."

Resolute's main focus for greenfields exploration is West Africa, where it currently operates.

"As well as where we're operating in Ghana and Mali, the one area that we're really focused on, where we believe there will be some big future discoveries, is in [Ivory Coast]," Welborn noted. "We've got 6,500 square kilometers there and we're looking to add more turf."

Although Welborn has had success in improving Resolute's bottom line, the executive is not too proud to admit that while the company is good at mining gold, it still has work to do with respect to the "create value" part of its mission statement.

"Mining companies generally haven't got a great track record of creating value for their shareholders," he told S&P. "So it might seem tripe to have a mission statement that says 'mine gold and create value,' but Resolute has proven for 28 years we're very good at the first two words, we've mined 8 million ounces of gold … but what we need to work on and what we're focused on is the second part."

According to Welborn, mining is not unlike rugby, with both requiring teamwork and resilience.

"Running a mining company — where you've got geologists, engineers, finance people and investors — is not too dissimilar to building the team around the props, the second rowers, the flankers, the half backs and the full backs," he said. "A disparate range of skills, we all have to come together focused on a very simple outcome."

"As a player individually you have to adapt to negative circumstances, whether on the field or getting injured or the lack of foresight of the selectors, which is a little bit like dealing with the market. It's always nice to hear the crowd cheer, but most people in their sporting career have more disappointments than successes."