Going for the Green: Wilkins Was Mining Star

I picked up the Globe this morning to find an obituary of former Barrick Gold CEO Greg Wilkins, who died after a lengthy battle with cancer. I only met Wilkins once — playing golf with him for my Going for the Green column in the National Post in 2003. Here is that column:

MARKHAM, Ont. – Greg Wilkins is hoping the second time is a charm.

In February, Barrick Gold Corp., Canada’s largest gold producer, announced Wilkins would take the helm of the company as chief executive after former CEO Randall Oliphant was unceremoniously ousted.

It is Wilkins’s second tenure with the gold producer, having risen to the ranks of chief financial officer in the early 1990s before leaving to run real estate company Horsham Corp., which would later become TrizecHahn Corp.

Now 10 years after he left Barrick, a company created by serial entrepreneur Peter Munk, Wilkins is back. But it is a very different Barrick from the one he left, he admits as we tackle the opening hole at York Downs Golf and Country Club. “I was there for the start of Barrick and have seen a lot of changes at the company,” he says as he prepares to hit his approach to the 378-yard opener.

“It is now much bigger than when I left with many more people. Top off all that with the fact that the challenges of running a public company have really changed.

“It is a great company with great bones, but it was tired. Creating enthusiasm at the company is my number one priority.”

Wilkins, 47, returned to the company at a time of turmoil. In 2002, under Oliphant, the company had announced ambitious expansion plans, but followed that news by cutting its profit forecast.

Wilkins has spent months examining the situation at Barrick and determining a strategy for the business. Though he continued to sit on Barrick’s board of directors after leaving the company in 1993, Wilkins tells me on the second hole that it has taken time to get reacquainted with the business.

“If you sit on the board and meet five times a year, you get management’s take on things. You need your own version,” he explains as we head to the third hole, a lengthy par three with a large green where Wilkins makes par.

Soon after taking the job he went travelling, heading to company mines in Australia and South America. After all, he says as we head towards the par five seventh hole, he believes one of Oliphant’s failings was that the former CEO became too outward looking and didn’t stay in contact with the internal workings of Barrick.

He also points out that the US$2.3-billion acquisition of Homestake Mining Co. in 2001 might have proven to be a burden for Oliphant, who was once a protege of Wilkins.

So what did he learn from his trips? Wilkins is circumspect when discussing the situation at Barrick.

“The basic plumbing of the company needed to get straightened away,” he tells me as we finish the seventh, where Wilkins takes a bogey and head to the short par three eighth. “All of it is a work in progress, but there are quite a number of things that we’ve gotten sorted out.”

Wilkins has belonged to York Downs, a private golf club designed by Bill Robinson, since 1990. While he only plays a handful of times a year, he has an athletic swing and maintains a respectable handicap.

But golf isn’t his primary distraction from the trials of running a large public company. For 10 years, Wilkins has been a racing aficionado, racing GT Endurance cars around North America.

As we hit the south nine at York Downs, we discuss Barrick’s hedging program, an issue that has become increasing controversial among investors over the past two years.

Hedging is designed to protect a company from falling gold prices. However, gold prices have been trending upward in the past year, making Barrick’s hedging program an issue for Oliphant and now Wilkins.

Despite the pressure, Wilkins says he’s not prepared to do away with Barrick’s hedging program.

“If we didn’t have a hedge program, we’d be sitting on a billion dollars of debt at the moment,” he says on the 13th hole, a lengthy par four. “Instead we have US$1-billion in cash. That’ll make us a powerhouse going ahead.”

As we reach the final stretch of holes at York Downs, I ask him about his relationship with Munk, a man who has regularly shuffled senior executives at his companies.

Wilkins, who has worked with Munk for two decades at Barrick and TrizecHahn, says detractors of the Barrick chairman have it wrong.

“I learned early on that we had complementary skills,” Wilkins says as we ride in our golf cart up the 15th fairway, a 521-yard par five. “Is he difficult to work for? Absolutely not. He is a consensus builder.”

As we ride up to the 17th, a 177-yard par three where Wilkins will make par, I ask him to assess the situation at Barrick, six months after he took the job as CEO. Wilkins admits the situation has been more difficult than he anticipated.

“I knew it would be challenging, but it has taken longer than I thought it would,” he says, adding “not everyone at the company probably believes change is necessary.”

On a day when neither of us hit the ball that well, we still manage to score well, with Wilkins shooting 85, while I record an 80.

Wilkins scrambles well, often coming up with a good shot when the pressure is on. It is a trait he wants to see at Barrick, he says, adding that nothing can be taken for granted.

“I’m always saying that we should run the company with a crisis mentality, only without the crisis. That’s what I’m aiming for.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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