Donald Lindsay: Mining is in Teck chief’s blood

From underground mining in Saskatchewan to the top corporate tier, Donald Lindsay’s career has been a lifelong love affair with the industry

Donald Lindsay, president and CEO, Teck Resources | Chung Chow

As part of Teck Resources Ltd.’s (TSX:TCK.B, NYSE:TCK) Emerging Leaders program, president and CEO Don Lindsay greets aspiring vice-presidents, aged 30 to 45, by saying:

“It’s an honour to be selected to this program. It means that you’ve worked awfully hard. You’ve been successful and you’ve accomplished great things. But I’m here to tell you that you can never get yourself promoted again. It’s over.”

Lindsay pauses. At this point his listeners could be forgiven for thinking, What on earth? Then he explains, “The only people who can promote you from here on are those around you. If they don’t want you to succeed, if they don’t want to be led by you, you won’t be.”

Lindsay seeks leaders people want to have around – as opposed to those who try to intimidate or make them feel inadequate.

“The ones who are going to be really successful are going to go and talk to the customer, or talk to the potential partner, find out what their concerns are, find out what their needs are, find out how they like to work. They collaborate and figure out how to do it best together. Both sides feel they’re accomplishing something, and they’re moving forward.”

Previously, as president of CIBC World Markets (TSX:CM), Lindsay “learned a lot about people management, because there, especially on the investment banking and corporate banking side, you’re dealing with a lot of smart, capable, highly driven people. Learning how to manage a group like that was pretty valuable experience.”

Joining Canada’s largest diversified resources company in 2005 was a closing of the circle for Lindsay. The first two shares he ever bought – at age 10, from his dad – were from Leech Gold Mines. The chairman was Norm Keevil Sr., who built the modern-day Teck. The vice-president was Norm Keevil Jr., Lindsay’s current chairman.

Lindsay studied mining engineering at Queen’s University, worked underground in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, and was foreman at the Iron Ore Company of Canada.

“I learned about mining from the ground up,” he said. “That was my true love, and where it all began.”

Lindsay’s immediate challenge at Teck was the one all mining companies face: “Every day your assets are getting smaller. As Norm Keevil says, you can never rest on your ores. The goal of any CEO of a mining company has to be to acquire three to five large ore bodies to sustain the company for all of the stakeholders for the next generation.”

Teck Cominco, as it was called then, was resource-challenged.

“Key mines were depleting,” Lindsay said. “Highland Valley Copper, near Kamloops, was scheduled to close in 2008. Today we think it will run into the mid-2040s, if not longer. We had to make investments in resources. We made some acquisitions. We bought Aur Resources in 2007. We bought Global Copper, then Fort Hills in 2008. We also did two or three deals in the oilsands. So, we went from being resource-challenged to resource-rich.”

Teck reported profit attributable to shareholders of $84 million, or $0.14 per share, in the third quarter this year.

Lindsay foresees “challenging market conditions, mostly in the steelmaking coal business. With the downdraft in the markets the last couple of weeks, it’s really across all commodities. But one of the benefits of being diversified, as we are, is that when one commodity is having a hard time, another one might be doing better.

“For example, in the short to medium term, the zinc side of the business is likely to do very well. We’re reopening the Pend Oreille zinc mine in Washington state right now just because we think the outlook’s very good.”

For Lindsay, leadership also means giving back. Taking on global zinc deficiency – zinc is essential for growth and brain development – is a natural fit for the world’s third-largest zinc producer. Since the launch of its Zinc & Health nutritional advocacy program in 2011, Teck has reached nearly 80 million people.

Lindsay also chairs the Campaign for BC Children, which raised $200 million toward Vancouver’s new Teck Acute Care Centre.

“I want people who work for the company to know that if someone asks them, ‘Where do you work?’ they can say the name Teck with pride, knowing that the person who asked the question says, ‘Oh, that’s a good company. They give back. I wouldn’t mind if my kids worked there.’” 


What sort of character traits or leadership styles do CEOs have to cultivate in the 21st century?

As the world becomes more globally connected and technology continues to advance, the range of skills required to run a successful business today has perhaps never been more diverse. As a result, I think it’s more important than ever that CEOs surround themselves with a strong and diverse team.

This means you need to have processes and systems in place across the organization to attract, retain and develop the best people, because ultimately any company is only as strong as its people.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Teck has always had great people, and that’s something we’ve been able to continue to build. We have a very strong team here at Teck, and it’s exciting to see that talent continue to grow and evolve.

We have also significantly advanced our work in sustainability. Today, we’re often mentioned by others as a leader in sustainability within the mining industry.

And we’ve put more resources behind every share as we continue to grow and diversify our business.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

I would say the biggest challenge has been raising a young family. That said, it has also been the most rewarding. I’m extremely proud of my kids.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?

I’m not sure I would do anything different. I continue to have a very rewarding career, and often the mistakes and challenges you encounter along the way become the most important development opportunities that help you continue to grow. 

What’s one business lesson that you’d like to pass on to others?

I would say don’t underestimate the importance of relationships, as you never know which ones will be important. Ultimately, any relationship can turn out to be significant.

Celebrate exceptional leadership at Business in Vancouver's 2014 BC CEO Awards.