Neil Warburton with WASMA President Christian Price after being awarded WASMA life membership

Story by Ngaire McDiarmid

Mentoring people and seeing them succeed is one of mining veteran Neil Warburton’s top three career highlights.

His willingness to give back to the industry where he’s enjoying a standout career led to being awarded a WA School of Mines Alumni life membership at WASMA’s Sundowner in Kalgoorlie during Diggers and Dealers.

“To be recognised for the work I’ve put back into the School of Mines and the Alumni itself, I’m very humbled and very proud,” he said.

“It’s a great honour.”

Neil is Chair of the WASMA Advisory Council and has spent 40-plus years in the industry – although mining wasn’t originally on his radar, growing up on a dairy farm near Brunswick Junction in WA’s southwest.

He followed his two older brothers to board at Scotch College in Perth but “a disagreement with the headmaster about how the school should be run” saw him finish his education at Bunbury Senior High School.

The family business had meanwhile been split between his older brothers and father, who told him to find something else to do with his life as they were not going to split the farm again for him – which was “probably the best thing Dad ever did”, Neil said with a smile.

He recalled a school visit by WASM explaining how its graduates were regarded worldwide and was inspired to apply, receiving a scholarship to start mining engineering in 1974 at the Kalgoorlie Campus.

Neil describes his first job after graduation in 1979, with Western Mining Corporation in Kambalda, as a career highlight.

“The amount of freedom they gave me as a junior mining engineer, I think at the age of 24 or 25 I was producing about 8% of the world’s nickel, being in charge at one of the larger underground mines there,” Neil said.

“WMC really looked after people and encouraged new ideas and new technology … and really gave the grads the experience and the know-how and the training that you need to gain a rounded background in all types of mining techniques and challenges.”

His next highlight was joining Barminco in the late 1990s, becoming CEO in 2007 and building up the company (now part of Perenti Group) – doubling revenue and establishing it as the largest underground hard rock mining contractor in Australia and West Africa.

“The third highlight of my career is actually training and mentoring people,” Neil said.

“At one point we had 50 to 60 mining engineers that were working within the Barminco group and the majority of those were out of the WA School of Mines.

“We were fortunate enough to mentor them, train them up to understand that people make good mines work and a lot of them are now running significant, large operations like Bill Beament and Stuart Tonkin to name a few.

“That’s another highlight, seeing them do so well.”

As for his own mentor, Neil named industry icon Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall, who was a director of WMC when Neil left the company in 1988 and had approached him, along with the chairman of Coolgardie Gold, to become managing director of the gold miner.

“Our board meetings used to be in Sydney, so we spent quite a bit of time on the plane every month, going over and back, talking,” Neil said.

He said Sir Laurence provided leadership on how to handle people, crises and go through downturns.

“He said ‘You know, the lights get turned back on again, you’ve just got to buckle down’ – he was an exceptional person, leader and a really good mentor which his wisdom and advice I still use today in the companies I’m associated with.”

Neil is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Member of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, plus sits on the board of several ASX-listed mining and services companies.

He was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Curtin University earlier this year for distinguished service to Curtin and the mining and resources sector.

Neil cited the old adage – the harder you work, the luckier you get.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be lucky enough throughout my working life, and hopefully there’s a few more years yet,” Neil said.

He hopes to see sustained strong leadership and high standards at WASM so graduates continue to be regarded among the best in the world and the school retains its world-wide acknowledged “mining excellence” brand.

He also paid tribute to the Alumni for its role in supporting networking and promoting the industry, saying it had helped improve the perception of a career in mining and associated industries.

“I would certainly recommend it to anyone,” he said.

“The world’s your limit and with the revolution to decarbonisation, the mining industry is now front and centre in this new industrialisation era utilising clean energy metals.”

Author: WASMA

The history of the Western Australian School of Mines Alumni (WASMA) reflects the ups and downs of the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) and the role it has played in supporting graduates in a range of activities and events. It also describes the important role that graduates have played in ensuring WASM remains in Kalgoorlie. Learn more.