SEMS Exploration has built its reputation as a mineral exploration service consultancy on a unique business model. Managing director Simon Meadows Smith talks to Gay Sutton about the secrets of retaining staff through good times and bad.
In the nine years since Simon Meadows Smith established SEMS Exploration as a geological consultancy for the gold mining industry in Ghana, the company has grown to lead the field in West Africa, providing a full range of geological, mining and engineering services that span from grassroots early stage reconnaissance exploration through to the completion of feasibility studies and mine design—and all the steps between.
“We started in gold,” explains Meadows Smith, SEMS’s managing director. “But as our business and reputation grew, we were asked to get involved with other minerals, so lateral growth has been very much a logical progression.” Today, the company works with a wide range of minerals including manganese, iron ore, bauxite, kaolin and even water. And it provides everything from full turnkey exploration operations to specialised technical services.
The company’s headquarters are still in Accra, Ghana, but offices have also been opened in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Now boasting almost 100 employees, SEMS has field crews and teams working in all corners of West Africa, from Mauritania and Senegal to Cameroon.
“All our staff are permanent employees,” Meadows Smith says—and this is one of the true secrets of the company’s success. “In the mining industry staff tend to be quite transient. But we believe you can’t provide a reliable and consistent consultancy service if you’re constantly hiring new people for each job. Our business model is therefore different from many other consultancy groups who tend to employ staff on short term contracts.”
Continuity has played an important role in many of the long-term contracts the company has worked on. Between 2002 and 2008, for example, SEMS provided a complete turnkey service for Adamus Resources, an Australian diamond exploration company based in Perth that acquired a gold exploration licence in Ghana. “We managed Adamus Resources from the first acquisition of the licence through to granting of the mining lease. We built up their landholding, performed all the technical ground work, established a large resource, completed the feasibility study and went through the application for a mining lease. Then we handed over everything to them. Right now they’re building the mine and should pour their first gold next year.”
In a similar way, the company has been working with Gryphon Minerals in Burkina Faso, and recently enabled Gryphon to announce a 1.5 million ounce resource on their Banfor Gold Project.
Another unique feature of the SEMS business model is that the majority of its staff are West African, supplemented by a small number of expats who supply specialist skills the company has been unable to source locally. Countries such as Ghana have a well established mining culture, and are endowed with mining schools and universities providing high quality training in subjects such as geology and mining engineering. The region therefore produces well qualified people with all the necessary knowledge and experience.
There are many benefits to employing staff in the long term, and West African staff in particular. Not only do they not require the investment in international travel, visas and accommodation that expats do, but they also bring an in-depth knowledge of community relations and cultural customs, which tends to vary from country to country.
“This is almost as important as technical knowledge, especially in the exploration industry where you’re at the forefront of meeting the communities and introducing them to the idea of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Meadows Smith. “And that is much better coming from someone who can speak the local language and understands the cultural effects of our actions.”
Over the past nine years, SEMS has also accumulated an in-depth knowledge of the political landscape and industry marketplace in each of the countries in which it operates, and this is put to good use for many clients, helping and advising them as they enter the exploration field in West Africa.
With such a strong focus on continuity and long-term service, staff retention is of paramount importance to SEMS, which can be very difficult in an industry as inherently volatile as mining. “The mining industry is very cyclical, so when we’re in a boom period as we are at the moment, some companies will offer high salaries. We can’t compete with that. What we can do is offer security and stability,” Meadows Smith says.
Interestingly, Meadows Smith has been able to retain all his staff, even through the downturns. This is largely due to the wide range of clients and projects on the company’s books; but it’s also due to the fact that during boom times—as now—mining companies flow into the region from around the world, setting up offices and deploying large workforces. “Then during the downturns in the cycle, they’ll let go of their offices and staff. However the last thing they want to let go of are their mineral assets. We have picked up a considerable amount of work during the lean periods doing a range of care and maintenance work, completing reports and doing basic field expansion work.”
Training forms an integral part of SEMS’s company culture, and it offers both internal and external training programmes, along with on-the-job monitoring and mentoring. In recent years, many of the West African staff have been sent to Pitney Bowes in the UK for GIS (geographic information systems) training, leading to formal accreditation. Having formed a strong relationship with Pitney Bowes, SEMS has become the first accredited training centre for MapInfo and Discover software in Africa, and operates training centres in both Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Looking to the future, Meadows Smith sees two areas for expansion. Firstly, he is keen to extend the company’s geographical spread. Having achieved considerable success in the Ivory Coast after setting up an office there just 18 months ago, he sees significant opportunities in mineral-rich Guinea. His other area of focus is to attract some top-end technical staff in areas such as GIS, database management and mineral resource estimation. “It’s not always easy to attract people at the top end of the market because of the conditions they expect. But we’ve just about attained a size where we can offer the volume of work and remuneration they’re looking for.”
It must have been very tempting, over the last few years, to migrate from consultancy into exploration and mining, but the lure has not attracted Meadows Smith. “The rewards can be very great,” he concedes, “but it’s not the life for me. We pride ourselves on being an independent group of consultants and we don’t involve ourselves in licence ownership. If we are able to build good relationships within the mining industry and help other companies achieve a good exploration result, then that will provide security for us.” www.sems-exploration.com