On the growth path

AMANDA Lacaze finds herself in a fairly enviable position for a chief executive: leading a company whose products are on what business books call a rapid growth path.

Amanda Lacaze (left) with WA governor Kim Beazley beside the Mt Weld pit.

Amanda Lacaze (left) with WA governor Kim Beazley beside the Mt Weld pit.

Lacaze is managing director and CEO of rare earths producer Lynas Corporation.
Not only does it mine rare earths ore, it separates them into different products.

The company is the only one of scale producing separated rare earths outside of China, which puts it in a very good position. Geopolitical issues aside, the demand for rare earths is only going to grow as the world seeks to transition to carbon neutrality.

It mines its rare earth ores at Mount Weld in Western Australia's Goldfields region and is building a plant in Kalgoorlie to crack that ore away from the iron phosphate bound to it.

The bulk of Lynas' rare earths separation is conducted in Malaysia.

Lacaze said the rare earths industry was enjoying a bit of momentum at the moment.

"It hits this inflexion point and we've all been expecting it for some time," she said.

"Unfortunately, you can only perfectly pick the inflexion point in the rear vision mirror."

Some believe the inflexion point should have come earlier, given the growing demand for things such as electric cars and wind turbines, two things rare earths are critical to.

However, a little thing called COVID-19 turned up and upset things.

"I'm not 100% certain of how much the pandemic and subsequent economic closures have affected this but we've come back from the pandemic effects and lockouts with accelerated demand," Lacaze said.

That means another challenge for Lynas: finding ways to grow to meet increased demand.

"We're looking at the opportunities to grow faster rather than some of the more difficult situations you can find yourself in," Lacaze said.

"Our job is to do everything we can to ensure we can grow at least as fast as the market if not faster.

"We're the only scale producer of separated rare earths outside of China, we are the supplier of choice to many of the downstream users of the materials we produce.

"We saw in the pandemic that it's not geopolitics that seriously disrupted markets, it's something like a health crisis that can seriously disrupt markets.

"The materials we produce are critical in all the 21st century technologies, particularly for green markets."

Part of the demand companies such as Lynas are facing are being driven by government policies.
"For economies to recover post pandemic they need their manufacturing industries to be running really efficiently," Lacaze said.

"If you look at the number of people in the German automotive industry, they need supply into those industries."

That means Lynas must get bigger, better and more efficient.

Here lies a challenge many miners are facing in WA - the skills shortage.

That skills shortage is another legacy of the pandemic and the state government's hard border stance.

"The WA market is tight and, I suspect, will continue to be until the borders are open," Lacaze said.

Those borders are not going to open until WA reaches a 90% vaccination rate of those aged 12 and over - a milestone the government believes will be passed by the end of February.

That means retaining any staff is critical.

"Being successful helps," Lacaze said.

"Offering people really good quality and challenging work is the key. That's at the heart of how we go about attracting and retaining people in the business.

"Actually caring about whether we keep people in the business can have its own benefits."

Making a success of the rare earths industry involves a lot of moving parts.

As Lacaze explains, from the moment the ore comes out of the ground, it is a matter of purifying the product.

The material is cracked and then separated.

With its cracking plant in Kalgoorlie Lynas will produce a rare earths carbonate that will be shipped to the Malaysian separation plant.

"We potentially could do more of the separation in Australia," Lacaze said.

That is certainly something different tiers of Australian government are keen to see happen.

Cost will be crucial though because Lacaze points out that Lynas' competitors operate in low-cost environments.

"Onshoring in Australia comes down to our ability to execute cost effectively," she said.

Lacaze's path to the mining and rare earths business has not been a typical one.

It is fair to say an Arts degree and a graduate diploma in marketing do not make up the typical educational background for a mining executive. The norm is more grounded in earth sciences or engineering.

Indeed, the bulk of Lacaze's career was in the telecommunications space. She has been CEO of Commander Communications, executive chairman of Orion Telecommunications, CEO of AOL7 and managing director of marketing at Telstra.

Lacaze also had management roles at ICI Australia, which later split to become Orica and Incitec Pivot. She also gained experience in consumer goods with Nestle.

These days Lacaze is a Minerals Council of Australia board member and a member of Chief Executive Women and he Australian Institute of Company Directors.

What Lynas' success shows under her tenure is that business smarts are the key, along with a willingness to look for answers and listen.

"I joined the board of Lynas in 2014," Lacaze said.

"We weren't quite the success story we are today. The business was facing some quite serious challenges.

"The board asked me if I would be prepared to step in as CEO.

"I'm not a miner. But I do know how to run a business, to really engage the people in the business. As it turns out that's probably proved to be a good thing.

"We went through some very tough times and came out the other end."

Lacaze said a large part of the success was having good people who knew their jobs.

"It's rare that I've seen a company get into trouble because it doesn't know the industry it's in," she said.

"But I've seen a lot of companies get into trouble because the have been unable to access the knowledge resident in the company.

"My experience is mostly the answers will be known. It's a case of asking the right people and listen to them and letting them execute.

"Generally that will get you a good outcome."


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