Paul Piercy is managing director of WesTrac, a Perth-based company that provides heavy equipment to the mining industry. Before that, he spent many years in the mining industry, working in senior management for Novacoal in New South Wales, Kembla Coal and Coke, Rio Tinto and Hamersley Iron’s Dampier division. He has also worked in Zambia and Papua New Guinea with Bougainville Copper. He has a diploma of Metallurgy and Assayers from the Bendigo School of Mines. He is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: How long have you been in management?
Piercy: I have been doing management jobs since 1964, when I had a supervisory role with Rio Tinto. So, 25 years.
AIM: What would you regard as the highlights?
Piercy: In 1969 I went to Africa to work as a superintendent. I was with Anglo-American at the time. After two years I came back, and I haven’t done much metallurgy since. My family did not like it there, but coming back was one of the biggest mistakes of my life in a career sense. I went to Bougainville Copper in 1972 and stayed for 15 years.
AIM: Do you have any comments about the dissension at Bougainville?
Piercy: I don’t think it was predictable, but I do not want to go public about it.
AIM: Do you have any general thoughts about working in other countries?
Piercy: When I went to Africa I realised I was in a minority and living in another country, and I did not think it appropriate to comment on what happened in the community or the politics. It was the same in New Guinea. When you are in another country you have to live by their rules, not yours, although that does not mean you throw your own away. When I went to Africa, I was not certain whether I was a racist. I discovered I am not, and that most Afrikaners are not. One day I will write it all down.
AIM: When you joined WesTrac, did you find the move out of the mining industry difficult?
Piercy: In the mining industry, management was about people, systems, safety, keeping costs down, quality and getting the tonnes on time to the customer. Now, management is about people, systems, and safety, keeping costs down, ensuring quality to the customer and being on time. No difference really.
AIM: The mining industry successfully globalised long ago, and many of our best international managers are in this industry. Why do you think this is so?
Piercy: It is often said that a good manager is made by a good ore body, but it takes a good manager to make an average ore body good. Our technical development in this country is world class: in the mining industry people are well trained in management and supervision. For more than 100 years there has been the Mines and Inspection Act and Regulations, which sets the criteria for looking after people’s welfare and the standards for operations. We also have a habit of seeking to be the world’s best. We are not happy with just being average. But there are also a lot of good managers in the United States and Britain.
AIM: What do you see in the future?
Piercy: The biggest problem facing the mining industry is that it is not considered the place to go. People are more interested in the social and arts areas and less in areas like science and engineering. My belief is that the mining industry is one of the real wealth generators in this country. But it does not sell itself well enough.
AIM: How accurate is the public perception of mining?
Piercy: I visited the Kakadu National Park and saw what Ranger was doing there 10 years ago. Back then they were rectifying damage caused by feral buffalo and actually improving the park. But they get no credit for that. Uranium is one of the cleanest of fuels, but you do not see that side of the argument. If you are going to build a cyanide plant next to someone, they will get emotional about it, even though it is perfectly safe provided it is well handled.
AIM: What can be done to improve mining’s public image?
Piercy: One thing I have learnt is that if you want a good career path, make sure that your boss knows that you are doing well; do not rely on his seeing it himself. The same thing applies to the mining industry. The industry needs to make sure that the public sees the good things and acknowledge that some things need to be fixed. Western Mining at one of its sites marked all the trees it wanted kept, and anyone who knocked over any of those trees had to replace it and was not be allowed back on to the site. That sort of thing is really not acknowledged because they do not tell people.
AIM: What are the biggest lessons you have had in management?
Piercy: You cannot rely on your boss to pick up on the fact that you are doing a good job. In my work I have managed down more effectively than I have managed up. I discovered that you need to manage up. I also believe in giving people resources and then getting out of the way. You monitor it, but you should not try to do their job as well as your own. How do you get trust from people? First you show that you trust them. Loyalty is not something you buy at the corner store.
AIM: What do you think of industrial relations in the mining industry?
Piercy: The reason unions have developed such a strong power base is that management has not done what it needed to do. Management does not have a right to manage, it has an obligation to manage. The unions have also been helped by boards that just want production kept going. There are times that you have to say “no” to get the relativities right.