Known best as the mining industry’s “turnaround man,” William (Bill) James used his skills as a geologist, miner, consultant and senior executive to build and strengthen several of Canada’s most important mining companies. He restored a money-losing Falconbridge to profitability in the early 1980s, and secured the best deal possible for shareholders when Noranda acquired control of the company later that decade.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1929, James earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal. He spent his early career with the renowned consulting firm of James, Buffam & Cooper and with major companies including Noranda Mines.
When James took over the reigns in the early 1980s, Falconbridge was losing millions of dollars each week. He rolled up his sleeves, slashed corporate spending, cut jobs and otherwise positioned the company to benefit from rising nickel prices. Falconbridge’s healthy profits made it an attractive takeover target, particularly for Noranda, which had long coveted Falco’s Kidd Creek base metal complex in Ontario. James rebuffed several advances from suitors, but changed his strategy when Noranda teamed up with a Swedish partner to make a stronger bid. In 1989, he became a stock market hero when his auction tactics raised Falconbridge’s sale price to well above Noranda’s initial offering.
In the early 1990s, James was asked to work his turnaround magic at Denison Mines, then teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Some of its problems were beyond human control, but James pushed through a restructuring plan that kept the uranium and oil-and-gas producer operating and active well after his departure to take on new challenges at Inmet Mining.
Inmet’s main challenge was to secure a project that would make it a major industry player. James supported the company’s plans to secure rights to the vast Antamina zinc-copper deposit in Peru, which he saw as a “company-maker.” Unfortunately, weak metal prices and other factors complicated financing efforts, forcing Inmet to sell its interest. New owners placed Antamina into production in the summer of 2001.
Throughout his career, Bill James demonstrated a charismatic style that made him one of the great characters of Canadian mining and business. He gave freely of his time and energy to industry associations and causes, and received numerous awards, including the CIM’s Fellowship Award in 1992 and the Inco Medal in 1993.