Polo-playing engineer excels holding reins of mining junior

Kelly Ryan

By Kelly Ryan


The subject of our 20 Questions feature this month is an anomaly.

Claudia Tornquist is one of a tiny handful of female CEOs in Canada’s mining industry.  According to the latest breakdown, only 19% of executives at publicly traded mining companies in this country are women. (2022 Diversity Disclosure Practices: Diversity and Leadership at Canadian Public Companies: Osler) A fraction of those are chief executives.

But sitting in the offices of Kodiak Copper Corp. (KDK.V) high above the streets of downtown Vancouver, Tornquist does not see any glass ceiling; only opportunity for those who put in the work.

She spoke with Business Edge News Magazine’s Rob Driscoll and Kelly Ryan about going from the second-largest mining company in the world to a junior startup, copper in the Green Revolution, and bringing polo (yes, the kind you play on the back of a horse) to Vancouver.

1. You went from Germany to London to Vancouver. What took you to those different places?

Well, I grew up in Germany, and my training is as an engineer – mechanical engineer – and I then started my professional career in the automotive industry. After a couple of years, I did an MBA in France, and then worked after that in London in finance for a little bit because I wanted to apply what I had learned in the MBA.  

And just as I was planning to go back into the automotive industry, I had a headhunter approach me with a job at Rio Tinto. Until then, I had no intention of going into the resource industry. I had no touch points with the resource industry. In fact, I googled Rio Tinto because I didn't even know what Rio Tinto was at the time. They were specifically looking for people from outside the mining industry, and I ended up joining Rio Tinto. That was now more than 20 years ago. I've been in the resource industry ever since. With Rio Tinto, I had a fantastic time, and then made the switch to the junior sector. Moved with my family to Vancouver and have been in the junior mining industry ever since.

2.  What is the biggest difference between Rio Tinto and the junior mining industry?

There's a very big difference. I would say Rio Tinto is a very large company, obviously much more slow moving and bureaucratic, much bigger projects, bigger sums of money, etc., involved. It's a great company to work for because things are done properly in a big company, and you really learn things properly.  So I'm very grateful for my time at Rio Tinto, because it taught me a lot. The junior sector is much more entrepreneurial. You see much more the impact you make yourself. It's much more up and down because it's a very cyclical industry, and in the downturn, life's tough as a junior.

3. Tell me about working with Kodiak Copper in British Columbia. I have read somewhere that you appreciate that the general rule of law is followed here compared to in some regions. Is that something that draws you to work in Canada?

Yeah, it's a great place to work, and many of our investors really like Canada and B.C. because it's a safe jurisdiction, rule of law, you know what you get. And it's been fantastic working here.  At our MPD project, we have a very good relationship with the indigenous communities in the area. Sometimes, B.C. or Canada can be slow and bureaucratic when it comes to permitting and things like that, but, overall, you know that, and you plan with it. Overall, it's a fantastic place to work.

4. Let's talk about the whole safety issue because certainly if you are working in South America there are real risks. Do you come up against protests or people who don't like mining companies in their community? Because mining has a reputation of just going in and getting what they want, and then leaving when they're done.

We haven't had any opposition so far. I think what you just described, mining companies just going in and doing whatever they like, that's maybe what happened in the old days. But, really, those times are over. It's expected that companies are responsible for the environment and work together with the local communities – take their views, their input into consideration, and we certainly work very closely with all the local First Nations. And it's a very constructive working relationship. We keep them up to date, we meet with them, they give us their inputs. They work, for example, with us on our environmental work, on our heritage surveys, and it's very constructive.

5. How is it working with Kodiak? I've read there has been some positive news.

Well, we've just wrapped up a big year of exploration. We were able to execute a large exploration program. We drilled over 25,000 metres, have some results already, and have much more to come in terms of results. We just made a gold and silver discovery recently in trenching, which is a very exciting new development and are now busy planning an exciting and big program again for next year. We're hoping to conduct a similar size program to what we did this year. So lots more news to come from Kodiak.

6.  The gold find – is that going to be a major part of your company going forward? How significant are the results?

Well, the recent biozone discovery is a bit out of the box, I would say, in that it was a gold, silver, precious metals discovery. And, in general, the main project is copper porphyry. That's what we've primarily drilled for so far. It’s not uncommon in a large porphyry system like the one at MPD to also have precious metals zones. So it's an interesting addition and additional potential essentially for the project going forward. The main focus is copper porphyry exploration and certainly we have lots of targets for that next year to drill. This new discovery just adds another class of targets to our list. It helps to bring investors in when you say, oh, not only have we got copper, we've found gold, potentially, and silver.

7. In a market where everybody's worried about a potential recession, how do you make people spend their money and invest?

It certainly helps to make discoveries. I think that's what the excitement is in a junior mining company. And to be able to point to a discovery that gets excitement, gets interest, and whether it's copper, whether it's gold, it just shows that we've been successful in our approach. We have a very systematic exploration approach. And last year we came up with the Gate Zone copper discovery, which we've since successfully expanded. And now this gold discovery is a brand new addition and certainly an exciting one.

8. Can you help readers understand why copper is so significant in terms of the direction of our economy and in different industries?

Well, copper and the demand for copper will be driven in large part by the whole energy transition, the green revolution. There's lots of demand already materializing, and there will be more materializing over the next years and decades. This whole energy transition is a real global mega-trend and all the industry or technologies that underpin the Green Revolution – electrical cars, solar, wind, etc., they are all very copper intensive and use much more copper than the industries they replace – say, an electric car takes 3, 4, 5 times as much (copper) as a conventional car, and so we know there will be strong demand.

9. How is the supply side looking?

The supply side of copper is very different in that there are just not many projects coming on.  In the last 10 years, there have been very few copper discoveries, and no major discoveries. We know already – because it takes 10 to 20 years to build a copper mine from discovery to when it produces – there won't be much coming on in the next couple of years. On the other hand, we have, of course, a lot of demand.

10. Is there a plan to build up the drilling program and then merge or be bought out?

Well, our aim for the future is to add value at the drill bit. That is I think what we can do best as a junior. We certainly will execute big drill programs next year, the year after, to make more discoveries and add value that way for our shareholders. Now, in the long term, if you look around the world, the copper porphyry mines that are up and running, I don't think there is a single one that is run by the junior that originally made the discovery, because copper are big deposits. Big mines that cost many hundreds of millions, if not billions to build, and they're a big-company game. So for us, in the long term, the likely scenario is if we keep having success, that eventually a major company will become interested.

11. How many female CEOs are there in the mining industry?

In Canada, I don't know the exact percentage, but it's a small minority. It's a very male-dominated industry. Almost all of the CEOs are male.

12. Do you find challenges with that?

Not really. At the end of the day, it's what you do and your work. If you are doing good work, then, yeah, that's what counts. There might have been, in the past, glass ceilings or opportunities that people just didn't think of (for) a woman. People would go to the people they knew, the other CEOs. And so the logical choice for many roles would have been men. But I think that's really changing – lots of people want now a more diverse leadership, more diverse companies. And I can certainly say from my experience over the last year or two or three, that I've had as many opportunities come to me, particularly board roles … just lots of people are looking now specifically for women in leadership and board roles. So, really, the tide is changing. Yeah, I think more and more companies are realizing that having a woman at the helm or as part of the management group is actually really good for the success of a company.

13. I think that you naturally inspire young women just by doing what you're doing, by reaching the top level of management with a mining company. Do you find there is any extra pressure to be that inspirational leader?

I can't say that I'm thinking much about it; being extra inspirational. It's great if girls or younger women get inspired by my work or other female CEOs’ work. I think it would be great to have more women in the business. There's a lot of research that shows that diversity leads to better results, and diverse teams make better decisions.

14. There are a lot more women geologists than there used to be, aren’t there?

I don't know. I honestly don't know. When I was at university, I did not even know that you could study geology because, in Germany, geology is a non-event. There's not a single mine. And like I said before, I didn't even know Rio Tinto when they first approached me. I worked for Rio Tinto for almost 10 years, and I was in England, so very often I’d go back to Germany. And in those 10 years there were three people in Germany who knew what Rio Tinto was. That tells you how much mining is on people's mind. In Germany, it’s just a non-event. It doesn't happen.

15. There are lots of people who are going to say, ‘Why would you stay in the resource industry?’ It is so fickle. What is the draw for you?

I just like the entrepreneurial side of it and, yeah, it's a very exciting industry. Sometimes a very frustrating industry because, if you do explorations, sometimes you find nothing. It's a very cyclical industry, so sometimes there are downturns that can take long years, so there are certainly lots of ups and downs. But if you make a discovery, success at exploration is just very exciting, and that's really what I like about it.

16. Switching gears a little, you were instrumental in bringing polo back to Vancouver. Tell us about that.

(Laughing) Well, polo is one of my big hobbies. In fact, our family hobby. My husband plays, my children play – we are a polo-playing family. And when we moved to Vancouver from London, U.K., we planned to join the Vancouver Polo Club and arrived here and found out there was no polo club. So we founded one.

17. Were many people interested?

For the first couple of years, the Vancouver Polo Club was my husband and me - two members. But since then, it has grown and we are now the second-largest polo club in British Columbia, and a very active club. It's great fun to play and a really fantastic sport. So (the club has) gone from two people to 14 members. You have to keep in mind, polo is a very small, elite sport. I think the entire community of polo players in North America, is 5,000. So there are probably more people in Vancouver, many more people in Vancouver that play hockey than there are people who play polo in all of North America.

18. I've never played polo, and I don't know anything about it other than that horses are involved. Can you tell me the greatest things about polo?

It's a very exciting sport. It's a lot of adrenaline, and it's very hard in that you have to ride, of course, then you have to hit a ball from the back of a bouncing horse. A small ball. While going at a gallop and with a long mallet. So there’s a lot of hand-eye coordination, and I think it's a bit like golf that many times you hit it and it just doesn't go anywhere. And then you hit this one shot, and it goes. And it’s such a fantastic feeling. So that, and then it's also a lot of just strategy on where to go and how to go, and how to play the game. And you can imagine it's very fast. You are galloping on a horse. And so, yeah, there are many different angles to it. It's a very addictive and very fun sport.

19.  And dangerous to some degree. There have been some high-profile injuries. Have you been able to avoid injury?

It is, I think, less dangerous than many might think. Obviously, whenever you ride on the horse, every once in a while, you hit the ground, and generally that's not so pleasant. But it’s not more dangerous than many other equestrian sports or other sports. So, no, we haven't had any serious accidents, which is great.

20. One more question about Kodiak – why would somebody want to invest in Kodiak?

Well, with an exploration company, it’s always the management. We have Chris Taylor, our founder, who's famous from his Great Bear success, one of the major gold discoveries in Canada in recent years, if not decades. And having him at the helm is obviously fantastic. We have made a discovery, and are fully funded, and have lots and lots of results coming, and much more thrilling ones to come. So it's a very exciting stage in the company's development.