In conversation: Charlene Ripley, general counsel, Goldcorp

Charlene Ripley shares the risks and rewards of working in Canada’s goldmining industry.

GC magazine: How did you come to be working in-house?

<img title=”Charlene Ripley, General Counsel” src=”/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2017/09/charlene-ripley.png” alt=”image of Charlene Ripley

Charlene Ripley (CR): I did my legal training in Canada, where I grew up. Calgary is very much oil-and-gas-focused and my father worked in the industry, so I naturally got pulled into it. There was an opportunity at Amoco Petroleum, which is now British Petroleum, and I thought I would see what it’s like to work in-house. I loved the environment, I loved the culture, I loved the oil and gas business, and it didn’t feel like work to me. I’ve been in-house ever since.

GC: What was your journey from oil and gas to gold mining?

CR: Having gone from Amoco to Anadarko and then a startup, I was working and living in Houston, but my husband and I wanted to eventually come back to Canada for family reasons. I got headhunted for this job at Goldcorp – I didn’t know anything about mining, I didn’t know anything about gold, other than jewellery – so I was quite shocked that they actually selected me!

GC: What was that transition like? What are the main differences between mining and oil and gas?

CR: I expected significant differences, but the legal issues, the risks, the international operational issues and some of the regulations are very similar. The culture is also very comparable in that it’s high risk, high reward. It attracts a certain type of personality.

Mining is a very intense business, because there are so many surprises. Risk management is absolutely critical, as well as staying ahead and being proactive. In mining, the things that can happen just boggle your mind.

Another big difference was innovation – innovation has been the lifeblood of the oil and gas industry. Mining has not embraced innovation the way oil and gas has, and the techniques and even the machinery haven’t changed much in 30 years. But in the last few years, that has shifted. Goldcorp is investing a lot in innovation and automation, making things safe for our employees. There’s been talk about ‘peak gold’ – have we found all the gold that is easily accessible without more innovation? The industry is going to see gold reserves start to decline, and so we have to innovate, not just to make our mines safer and reduce costs, but to find gold where we never thought we could find it before.

GC: What are some of the challenges unique to mining, from a legal and business perspective?

CR: I have found it’s to do with stakeholder community issues around our mines. Corporate social responsibility and sustainability are absolutely critical. You cannot skimp on resources and you need to have top quality people managing these issues. You can never be complacent. For example, the unions at our mines are sometimes fighting amongst each other and if you get caught in the middle they might blockade your mine. So then it’s about: how are we going to manage this, how are we going to negotiate, how are we going to come to a compromise and how are we going to keep operations going? That kind of thing just pops up.

GC: You restructured the legal team at Goldcorp when you first joined. Can you tell me about that process and what that was like?

CR: We have done a lot of restructuring over the past few years. When I started at Goldcorp, I had one lawyer reporting to me directly, because it was set up as a decentralised function. There were lawyers in the regions, even in our Toronto office, who reported into regional heads. I didn’t even have a dotted line – it was very odd. I worked extremely hard to forge very good relationships with all of the lawyers and treated them as if they were directly reporting to me. I would have weekly phone calls with the lawyers overseeing the various countries and in the Toronto office, and I forged a dotted line relationship so that I had input into their annual goals, targets, bonuses and promotions and things like that. Now all of the lawyers report directly to me. It was baby steps, because I didn’t want to rock the boat too quickly, but slowly and surely I was able to convince the business teams and the senior management that, from a compliance standpoint, it’s best to have the lawyers reporting directly into the general counsel.

The second big change was the fact that we were heavily using outside counsel. Very little work that I thought should be done strategically in-house was done so because of resource levels. Legal work was being done externally that I didn’t even know about! I stopped that pretty quickly. That meant some rebalancing – hiring new lawyers, readjusting workloads and entering into strategic service provider relationships with our outside counsel. We have approximately 20 lawyers now, co-located with operations, mainly in Latin America and Canada. That was an 18-month process.

GC: Do you currently have other business lines reporting into you at Goldcorp?

CR: I have human resources, internal audit, ethics and compliance, insurance, and enterprise risk management.

GC: Where is Goldcorp now in terms of its growth, and where is it looking to grow in the future?

CR: Goldcorp is not interested in getting bigger at all costs. Our strategy is to have a sustainable gold profile of about three to four million ounces of gold per year, out of six to eight sustainable mines. So we don’t have a lot of mines, we have key mines that drive our gold production.

We have a 20/20/20 strategy to increase production by 20%, decrease costs by 20% and increase reserves by 20%. An area of growth for us is to look around our existing mines for opportunities, rather than to go into completely green field exploration. Another very common growth area is to buy equity interests in junior mining companies, let them take the risk, then either buy their project or sell our position.

GC: What are the main challenges as GC currently?

CR: The legal team is centralised, but we have a very decentralised company, and the mine general managers are like CEOs for their mines. The challenge for me as a GC is making sure that the in-house lawyers have strong relationships with the mines, and that they are wrapped around the business. We need good communication across the organisation about standards and expectations, especially when it comes to compliance – anti-bribery and anti-corruption, for example. We must be always vigilant because, in mining, a little smouldering campfire can turn into a wildfire and destroy a forest.

GC: Can you tell me about the big events on the horizon over the next year or so?

CR: We went through significant change as a company last year, with lots of lay-offs, operational change and alterations to the senior management teams. We are in the process of creating the vision and values for a new organisation and communicating that out to the organisation. That’s a big part of my job, which I love.

Goldcorp is investing a lot in innovation and automation, and making things safe for our employees. Sustainability is absolutely critical, and we are putting a lot of effort in to that area. For example, we are aiming for net zero water usage at all of our mines. If we can make a difference around water usage, that will have a big impact on the way we operate and on our communities.

Finally, one of the things I’m very happy to be involved with making changes at Goldcorp around diversity. Mining has got a way to go around diversity. At the moment, we’re focused on gender and we’re in the process of finalising a strategy and setting targets with teeth. That will be a huge cultural change for the company. We need more women at our mines – fewer than 10% of our employees are women and we have hardly any women in the management of our mines. That’s going to be a big effort for the company.

GC: More broadly, what are the challenges faced by the mining sector in the foreseeable future?

CR: Every day we are destroying our reserves because we’re producing gold. It’s hard to replace what you’re producing every year and the acquisition opportunities are getting harder and harder. That’s a huge pressure on the industry.

Corporate social responsibility, NGOs and other people opposing mining are going to be an issue that the whole industry needs to rally round, embrace and be proactive about – because that will stop your operations in a heartbeat.