Pioneering geologist recalls the golden years of Western Mining Corp

Pioneering geologist recalls the golden years of Western Mining Corp

The telephone call, when it came, was from one long-time friend and colleague to another.

Making the call was Sir Arvi Parbo – an Estonian refugee who arrived in Australia in 1949 and went on to become one of corporate Australia’s most significant figures.

Answering his call was Dr Roy Woodall, a 42-year Western Mining Corporation veteran and pioneering geologist credited with discovering some of the world’s great mineral deposits.

As Dr Woodall recounted to the WA Mining Club’s end-of-year St Barbara’s Day lunch, he and Sir Arvi had started with WMC at about the same time.

Sir Arvi’s first job with WAMC was as a surveyor at the Bullfinch mine north of Southern Cross in 1956.  By the time he retired, Sir Arvi had been managing director and chairman of WMC and chairman of BHP after the mining giant bought WMC in 2005.

Dr Woodall began as a geologist in 1953 and by the time of his retirement in 1995 was Director of Exploration – a position he had held for 17 years.

“One day, Arvi telephoned me to enquire what I planned to do with my records of 42 years; the same length of time they accumulated as his own,” Dr Woodall recalled at his lunch address.

“He told me that the history of WMC in his opinion would not be written in our lifetime.

“He was wrong. As soon as certain people decided that would be a sinful thing to do… the ex-WMC employees, by now retrenched by BHP, put their hands in their pockets and made it possible to fund the publication of a history of Western Mining.

“And so came this book: Mandarins and Mavericks – Remembering Western Mining 1993 – 2005.

“He (Sir Arvi) said his records had been accepted by the National Library in Canberra and ‘my records should be alongside yours’. Well if the history of WMC is to be written, I said, I could contribute my records, Sir Arvi.

“And he said I want your records in the National Library in Canberra alongside mine – a very humbling experience,” Dr Woodall said with a quiver in his voice.

His emotional reminiscence came towards the end of Dr Woodall’s address in which he traversed his life as a young geologist and his WMC career and its intersection with some of the country’s leading corporate figures of the time  – all of whom he referred to with the honorific ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, such is his enduring respect.

This from a professional credited with contributing greatly to the discovery of the Kambalda Nickel Field, uranium at Yeelirrie, the East Spar condensate field, the Darling Range bauxite deposit and the vast Olympic Dam copper-uranium gold deposit.

No surprise, then, that the 450-plus crowd at the St Barbara’s Day lunch listened intently to every word.

“It certainly is a privilege to be asked to deliver this St Barbara’s Day address,” Dr Woodall said.

“The organisers of the WA Mining Club were certainly very optimistic, I thought, to invite a near 90-year-old to come and talk to you.

“They seemed ready to take risks, and I thought that’s just what a good exploration geologist has to be ready to do: take risks and be optimistic.”

It was a maxim Dr Woodall followed throughout his career, along with the ability, as referenced in Mandarins and Mavericks of “seeing what other people have seen but thinking what no-one else has thought before”.

“I worked for Western Mining for 42 years and I was asked to talk to you about this interesting story, real-life story as a company from starting down low, just mediocre, to where it became quite famous,” he said.

“Western Mining from mediocrity to greatness, with tribute to Arvi Parbo.

“Arvi and I joined Western Mining about the same time. A refugee from Estonia who arrived in Melbourne in 1949 with no knowledge of the English language and who came to Adelaide and after three years of part-time study and two years of full- time study graduated with first-class honours in mining engineering.

“In 1964 Arvi was transferred to Kalgoorlie – and that’s when I got to know him very well – as superintendent of WMC’s gold mines in WA.

“Despite a rather shaky start we became very close friends and in 1964 I asked one of the directors of Western Mining – Mr Brodie Hall – to gain approval for geological mapping and testing of a nickel prospect near an old gold mining town called Kambalda.

“On April 21, 1964, Brodie asked Arvi for advice on the economics of a possible nickel discovery at Kambalda, to which Arvi replied immediately ‘any opinion I can offer at this time Mr Brodie Hall is affected by a complete ignorance of the occurrence of nickel ore at Kambalda, if it occurs at all’.

“That cost Arvi Parbo many nights in the club in Kalgoorlie because he said every time you get a big intersection we’re all going down to the club to play billiards and celebrate. There were about 16 high-grade intersections in a month – and I saw a lot of Arvi.”

Kambalda’s first nickel deposits changed everything for WMC, Dr Woodall said, enabling the company to make its first tentative steps from mediocrity to greatness.

“In advance of the nickel boom, as far back as the 1950s, the company was already down its path of diversification from gold to bauxite,” he said.

“In the 1950s the company was looking at a bauxite deposit in the Darling Range which I was asked to comment on.

“I happened to know something about the mineralogy of that bauxite deposit and was able to confirm and convince the board in 1957 that the bauxite deposit was not only a source for alumina, it was the best source of alumina in the world.

“That was the first diversion from gold and nickel and on to more prosperity.

“According to Arvi it was (WMC chairman) Gordon Lindesay Clark’s vision and persistence that were the main driving force behind the company’s push into aluminium.

“Not long after the nickel boom Arvi was invited to join the Melbourne staff in Collins House.

“Arvi retired and we kept in touch. I said to Arvi, why did Western Mining die, and he said you shouldn’t have found Olympic Dam.

“For a decade 1975 to 1985 Arvi struggled to create prosperity for his shareholders. Arvi said early in the period we had the world’s best bauxite, but Alcoa of America is the world’s best user of bauxite and they have all the money.

“In 1961 negotiations between Aluminium Company of America resulted in the formation of Alcoa of Australia in which they held a major interest.

“WMC took on an initial 20 per cent stake but this meant 20 per cent of the finance had to be found by them, not to sell the best alumina or bauxite in the world but to build alumina refineries, two smelters and develop a coal mine.

“When you think back to the early iron ore days, in which Western Mining was invited to participate, their strategy was not like steel; it was to mine Mt Tom Price and make a pile of money.

“Western Mining spent the money Alcoa of America provided by owning 80 per cent of Alcoa of Australia just trying to make aluminium. That to me is an interesting thing to dwell on:  where Western Mining might have gone if they had just stayed, like Rio Tinto did, with Mt Tom Price.

“Going back to where I would suggest that Western Mining took the wrong path, I have a picture of just out of Port Hedland. Brodie Hall, Lang Hancock, a representative of Rio Tinto, and the invitation for Western Mining to jointly join Rio Tinto in the mining of the first iron ore deposits which had been released for mining.

“Remember, there had been a total ban on mining iron ore…because we didn’t have enough or something…anyway.

“The offer was there for us to join with Rio Tinto in the mining of Mt Tom Price.

“The wisdom in Melbourne was let’s make good use of this famous bauxite deposit and make a million…”

Summing up his time at WMC and his admiration for the professionalism of those with whom he worked, Dr Woodall again turned to the words of Sir Arvi.

“Arvi was a director of WMC by 1970, managing director in 1971 and chairman of the board and MD in 1974.

“In 1986 after 15 years, sir Arvi retired but remained executive chairman of not only WMC, Alcoa of Australia but Alcoa of America.

“At a retirement dinner in the Melbourne Club early in 1991 Sir Arvi reflected on his association with WMC. ‘I have been truly privileged,’ he said, ‘to spend my working life with Western Mining’, and I can only say hoorah, it is no different for me.”