Aptly described as “the soul” of Barrick Gold, Robert Smith is best known as the stalwart of one of the most successful partnerships in mining history. While Chairman Peter Munk supplied the vision and business talent that made Barrick one of the world’s largest and most profitable gold producers, Smith built, led and inspired the technical team that transformed Munk’s vision into reality. He became chief operating officer in 1984 and president in 1987.
Smith’s expertise and leadership enabled Barrick to grow from a small operation that produced 57,000 ounces of gold in 1984 to a company with production exceeding 3 million ounces in 1996. In the process, his name became associated with the development of mines across the continent, most notably the Betze-Post and Meikle mines on the famous Goldstrike property in Nevada.
An industry leader, Smith championed technical innovation, as well as environmental and social responsibility, at home and abroad. He inspired the loyalty of Barrick’s many employees and earned the respect of the world’s mining community.
Smith grew up in Haileybury, Ont., where he spent summers prospecting. He graduated with a degree in mining engineering from the University of Toronto in 1956. He displayed remarkable managerial capabilities early in his career, gaining skill and experience at Denison Mines, the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Canadian Bechtel, and Camflo Mines.
Barrick acquired Camflo in 1984 and, in the process, Smith and a mining team considered one of the best in the country. Smith expanded Camflo’s gold property in Quebec, which eventually became one of the continent’s lowest-cost, underground gold producers. He also worked magic at the Mercur mine in Utah, which Barrick acquired in 1985. Within 90 days, he had reduced production costs to US$212 per ounce from US$290. Within a year, annual output rose to 111,000 ounces from 79,000 ounces, while reserves were doubled. Just 18 months after Smith arrived, Mercur was worth five times its original purchase price.
In 1988, Smith brought the Holt-McDermott mine near Kirkland Lake into production. The discovery of a high-grade zone in 1993 reversed a disappointing start and almost doubled reserves. Today, the mine is producing gold at US$140 per ounce.
Developing Goldstrike was Smith’s biggest challenge. From a modest start, he transformed it into one of the most efficient gold producers in the world, investing more than US$1.3 billion in large-scale technology. He oversaw the design and installation of the largest autoclave facility in the world, which enhanced gold recovery from sulphide ores to 90% from 30%.
Throughout his career, Smith gave many students their first break – a summer job. His commitment to education was acknowledged by his peers in an event that raised over $1 million for the creation of the Robert Smith Chair in Geotechnical Mine Design and Analysis at the University of Toronto.
In 1993, Smith was named “Mining Man of the Year” by The Northern Miner.