Redpath Group employees who are getting close to retirement are beginning to have second thoughts. The North Bay mining contractor is so busy and the projects it is working on are so exciting that a life of golf and relaxing by the pool sounds dull by comparison.
"I've been here 30 years and I still get excited coming to work every day," said Redpath Vice President David Hansman. "There are new projects, new places to go and new and interesting things to do."
The company is currently working on overseas projects in Central Asia, Africa and Indonesia and has a full slate of mine development contracts in Canada and the United States.
In Mongolia, Redpath is sinking a 1,220-metre exploration shaft at Ivanhoe Mines' Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project in the Gobi Desert, 550 km south of Ulaanbaatar and 80 km from the border with China.
Work on a second shaft at Oyu Tolgoi, measuring 10 metres in diameter and 1,500 metres deep, gets underway in March.
"It will be the largest excavation the company has ever done," said Hansman. "There's really nothing in Canada that can compare to it. There are deeper shafts in Sudbury, but nothing comes close to 10 metres in diameter."
Redpath began working in Oyu Tolgoi in September 2004 and currently has 100 employees at the site, including 25 or 30 Canadians, many of them from Sudbury, Timmins and Kirkland Lake.
Canadian miners and engineers bring to the project the skill and experience required, and share their "culture of safety, work processes and technology" with Mongolian workers.
The Mongolians "can drink, swear and fight just like Canadian miners, so they get along well," joked Hansman.
The site camp is a 12 or 13-hour drive from the country's capital, Ulaanbatatar. There are no roads or signposts, just tracks across the desert, "so you either need people who know where they're going, or you fly."
Redpath is also working on a contract for Western Prospector Group Ltd. to dewater and rehabilitate a uranium mine in northeastern Mongolia that was developed and later abandoned by the Russians.
Equally challenging is the company's work in Indonesia for Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold Inc. Redpath now has 400 people on its payroll in Indonesia, but is gearing up to double its workforce early next year, as Freeport expands its underground infrastructure to access new ore zones.
"We started doing raiseboring and specialty excavation and reconstruction in their ore passes using Alimack equipment. From there, we got involved in training and then started doing tunneling," said Hansman.
One of its projects for Freeport is an 18-kilometre twinned tunnel to accommodate a high-speed rail system accessing the Lower Grasberg deposit. It's also doing pre-production development for a block cave mining operation and engineering work for an internal shaft.
Each overseas project has unique challenges.
"In Indonesia, you're way up in the mountains," said Hansman. "In Tanzania, it's the heat. In South America, it's the altitude - you're usually working at 4,000 metres or more above sea level. Then there's the climate. In Mongolia, -30 Celsius is not unusual in the winter, whereas in Indonesia, it's warm, humid and rains a lot. In the Andes, they grow grapes in the valleys, but you have blizzards up in the mountains, so it makes life interesting."
Transportation is also a problem, especially in Mongolia because everything is shipped through China to Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway, then to Ulaanbaatar and south across the desert.
In Tanzania, where Redpath has a contract for development work at Barrick Gold's Bulyanhulu operation, "everything goes in by ship to Dar es Salaam and overland with no assurance that it will get there in one piece or at all because of various things that can happen along the way."
Concurrent with it projects overseas, Redpath is busy doing development work for Teck-Cominco's Pogo Mine and Couer d'Alene's Kensington gold project in Alaska. There are also projects for Kinross and Barrick in Nevada, and development work in Sudbury, Timmins and northern Quebec, including an expansion of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory at the 6,800-foot level of Inco's Creighton Mine and contract mining at Falconbridge's Montclam Mine.
"We've been busy before, but what's different this time is the amount of backlog we have," said Hansman. "We've never had the kind of volumes ahead of us that we have now, so we have to be careful because one of our golden rules is that we don't over commit. We want to be able to do what we say we're going to do. It's the only way we can keep customers coming back for our services.
"The first question we ask ourselves is whether we have the supervision and personnel to do the job. Equipment is a consideration, too, because of the long lead times, but personnel is the big issue. We turn down work if we don't feel we can put the right people on a project."
Redpath's human resources department operates two programs to help overcome the current shortage of skilled miners: a graduate development program for engineers, technicians and technologists fresh out of school, and a raw recruit program targeting high school graduates.
Hansman attributes Redpath's success to the company's broad range of capabilities.
"One of our customers chose us to build their complete mine, erect the headframe, sink the shaft, install the hoists, do the mine development and put in all their underground infrastructure," said Hansman. "They said they chose us because we were the only ones who could do all that. Everybody else can do parts of it. That's one of our strengths. That's what differentiates us from our competitors."
The Redpath Group was founded by Jim Redpath in 1962 and is now part of Deilman-Haniel International Group, based in Dortmund, Germany.