Breathing New Life into an Old Mine
Executive Chair at Wiluna Mining, Milan Jerkovic analyses company transformation, thinking for the long-term, and unleashing the site’s multi-million-ounce potential
Writer: Phoebe Harper | Project Manager: Thomas Arnold
On the prolific Northern Goldfields of Western Australia, gold has been encrusted in the earth’s crust for thousands of millions of years.
It is here, in this vast and prosperous landscape, that the Wiluna Mining Corporation (Wiluna Mining) occupies a vast area of 1,600 square kilometres spanning the rich grounds of the Yilgarn Craton.
The mission at Wiluna Mining is simple; to build and operate a Tier One gold mine in a Tier One jurisdiction.
“We have mined about four million ounces of resources already and we are currently very close to commissioning and upgrading production from an underground operation to mining predominately sulphide ore which will be processed through a concentrator which is going to be operational in December this year.
“That will bring our production to about 120,000 ounces of gold; most of it in gold concentrate and the rest in gold bars produced on site,” outlines Executive Chair, Milan Jerkovic.
2019 heralded Jerkovic’s arrival to the company which spearheaded a new era of restoring vitality and prosperity to the Wiluna gold mine, effectively cleaning up operations and lending the company a new lease of life.
The strategic change in a new highly skilled management team also bought a new name, celebrating the next chapter in the mine’s history and a fresh, culturally united identity.
The company’s current goal concerns a three-year path to achieving a steady state of production to the tune of producing 250,000 ounces per annum (ozpa).
The Wiluna Mining enterprise encompasses approximately 200 employees on site and at head office, alongside an additional presence of contractors and drillers. The company’s operations rely on their long-running relationship with mining contractor Byrnecut.
“In Byrnecut, we have the world’s largest underground mining contractor fully mobilised on site, with three development crews underground and a production crew. We are fully headed towards developing that mine to a steady state by March next year with production starting from our new facility in December this year,” Jerkovic adds.
With a rich background in mining bolstered by decades of expertise since achieving his first mine management position at a very young age, Jerkovic is well placed at the helm to steer Wiluna Mining’s redirection.
Jerkovic’s career trajectory showcases tenacity and experience that has seen him climb the career ladder over the decades.
“I first came to Australia as a political refugee from former Yugoslavia aged nine in 1971, without a word of English,” he recalls.
Young Jerkovic found work as a roughneck on an Oil Rig before going on to study science and geology at the Ballarat School of Mines in Victoria. Soon, Jerkovic was assigned a position at the Kalgoorlie pit, now known as the Super Pit.
Following a graduate programme, Jerkovic rose to mine management before establishing a copper mine in New South Wales – which stands today as the Tritton Copper Mine owned by Aeris Resources.
“I ran that mine with a company I set up with my partner called Straits Resources. I was CEO of that company for 10 years and took it from an AUD $40 million market cap to a combined market cap between two companies that I had listed to about six billion dollars over 10 years. We ended up having six mines and about 10,000 employees and contractors in the group.”
When the financial crisis hit, and Straits Resources began to sell off its assets, Jerkovic turned his attention to assisting boards, guiding restructuring and working with manic turnaround or undervalued assets and companies in helping them fulfil their potential. This is where the opportunity at Wiluna Mining rose to the fore.
“I got involved with Wiluna Mining when the company needed a change in direction, both from a planning point of view and an execution point of view and the team needed to be refreshed,” he explains.
“What was being done wasn’t quite working and it needed more investment in its main asset. It was short dated with its planning, and the company was going from feast to famine with some funky balance sheet issues which I helped to clean up.
“I took all that on, and here we are today after a significant amount of work over the last 18 months, biding our time to see the full reward from the market point of view.”
“First, we intend to reach 250,000 oz pa commercially. The rest will look after itself because the asset will be significant enough to support its own growth"
READJUSTMENT AND REINVIGORATION
In guiding the company to calmer waters, strategy is everything in pioneering a true ‘business clean-up’.
“The main shift was to guide the immediate focus on short-term business improvement and cash flow. We did that by redoing the plant rather than chasing volume and open pit ounces,” he explains.
“We’ve actually reduced that to just chasing profitable ounces, finishing off the open pit mining and starting to focus on what actually needed to be fully drilled out and developed.”
At the forefront of the change that Jerkovic is driving is the commissioning of a new gold concentrator that is set to become operational by December of this year. For Wiluna Mining, concentrated gold currently represents the greatest volume of production, with over 70 percent of that product destined for the company’s primary offtake partner, Polymetal International PLC, based and listed in London.
The commissioning of the new concentrator is therefore an apt move in fully leveraging a transition to an increased rate of production.
“We intend to demonstrate commissioning for the new concentrator in December 2021 and achieve a steady state of production within the subsequent six months. By attaining commercial production after that, we will prove that it was capital well spent,” Jerkovic comments.
High-grade drilling is also a core part of the company’s agenda for growth, thereby building an inventory of longer dated resources and reserves.
“The focus shift to our highest-grade ore body awarded a different processing solution, so the work for the past 18 months has entailed 180,000 metres of drilling.
“We have a modest reserve to support that initial stage which we’re drilling now, and the work is all about trying to get to a fully-funded feasibility study for our 10-year operation that can produce 250,000 ozpa of gold from this main ore body since it has our largest endowment and is sitting right under our noses.”
The main ore body at the Wiluna Mining Centre is a 4.5-kilometre-long ore body, with five access points developed into it and major services already in operation. By utilising the sub capital from the past, Jerkovic is pioneering long dating the business, as opposed to drilling up small resources to feed into Wiluna Mining’s current circuit.
For Jerkovic, avoiding these peaks and troughs means that renewal begins with the balance sheet. The intended transformation is encompassed and fully outlined in Wiluna’s 24-month five-point strategy.
“The first part is all about the balance sheet, since without the financial support you obviously can’t reach your goals and aspirations,” Jerkovic comments.
With an emphasis on internal cashflow and thereby improving the balance sheet, Wiluna Mining will generate equity for shareholders and seek to alleviate debt, which is currently at US$42 million.
“Once we successfully complete the commissioning of the new concentrator, we expect to be generating a significant amount of annualised cashflow to support our efforts, so we are fully proceeding with that.”
“We’ve fixed the balance sheet, we’ve put new capital in, and we’ve done the drilling... now it’s a question of demonstrating the commercial value of the operation and demonstrating to the shareholders that the money invested in drilling and mine development is going to lead to that commercial outcome”
NAVIGATING A CHALLENGING MARKET
Whilst the value of gold may be timeless, the conditions of the market can be unpredictable and as per today’s climate, unfavourable. The resource’s shifting perception as a strategic asset is something that Jerkovic is fully cognisant of.
“Our main job now is to get through this flat, and uninterested environment for gold, with a view to a market that will hopefully give more value to cashflow.
“We currently have AUD$160 million market cap, which is very modest compared to our peers in small scale production,” Jerkovic tells us.
The mining landscape has shifted, with the values of other metals rising to the fore in line with the demands of a modern market.
“All commodities, including gold, are totally driven by sediment and price, particularly commodity price, in terms of when you make capital decisions. The sediment for gold is now drifting sideways, whilst the sediment for other metals has increased with future-facing metals, such as base metals.
“The liquidity in the world is so high, real assets and cashflow are not valued as much as future prospects,” he comments.
Nevertheless, Jerkovic remains confident that with the new changes spearheaded at Wiluna Mining, the company’s numbers are right where they should be, and stand as testament to the success to come. Indeed, the figures speak for themselves.
“The monetary expansion globally is at its peak, so I think that we are heading for a good time in the next two years, when people start to focus more on real assets.
“If you consider our financial results for the past 12 months, we are very proud of the fact that we turned the profitability of the company around.
“Whilst achieving this whole construction and business clean-up phase, we generated AUD$20 million profit and AUD$34 million in cashflow, which is a significant achievement given the past performance of the company.”
Profit was generated despite significant spends on investment, amounting to just under AUD$100 million in business and mine development, construction and drilling – all of which may be considered investments in the company’s future. Of course, the fruit of these labours will only be truly realised in terms of resources.
“We anticipate our new resource numbers in November. I expect these to be an improvement on past numbers and will successfully show to both the market and our shareholders the result of our efforts,” Jerkovic states.
MINING FOR PROSPERITY
Exploration within diversification is on the Wiluna Mining agenda to exploit further sources of cashflow, fully tapping into the commercial potential of the Wiluna mine.
This pertains to the potential of future nickel operations, with the company currently undertaking studies to explore increasing production from the large inventory that Wiluna Mining are strategically positioned on top of, with the nickel belt extending into the mine’s tenements.
“We are currently sitting on top of a large nickel resource and so are conducting research to see if this can be effectively commercialised.
“A key part of our medium-term strategy is to explore the full potential of these aspects, both in gold, cobalt, and nickel, and identifying whether this is worth pursuing.”
Everything considered, the future for Wiluna Mining is full of promise.
“So far we’ve fixed the balance sheet, we’ve put new capital in, and we’ve started the drilling. We’ve basically finished off stage one and now it’s a question of demonstrating the commercial value of the operation and showing the shareholders that the money invested in drilling and mine development is going to lead to that commercial outcome of a 250,000 ozpa operation. I am confident that it will but that work probably won’t be finished until March next calendar year.
“Over the course of the next six months we will begin to see recognition for our efforts. Otherwise, I am extremely proud of our team and the support that we have seen from shareholders.”