In his 40-year career Kevin Foo has done what others would consider impossible, dangerous and improbable: He develops mines in very remote locations—in constant search of the Holy Grails of mining.
Today, Foo is Executive Chairman of the Victoria Oil and Gas, which is a significant supplier of industrial natural gas to Douala, the main city of Cameroon in Central Africa. Having lived and worked on five continents, Foo has earned the title of Indiana Jones of the mining industry.
The dangers to miners themselves are well known: Gas explosions, underground rock collapses, chemical leaks, electrocution and fires. And Foo, as the manager, has had to deal with that from the C-Suite.
Mining in some difficult parts of world brings significant challenges, and over his career, Foo has confronted most of them.
A metallurgical engineer by trade, Foo first began exploring extreme mining opportunities in 1990. It began in Kazakhstan when it was still a state in the Soviet Union and over the arc of his interest period the Soviet Empire collapsed.
“Mines, mills and smelters that had powered the Soviet Union were for sale at fractions of pennies on the dollar. Massive iron ore mines and coal mines to feed the steel industry were lying dormant, huge copper deposits, lead, zinc, manganese and gold mines were there for the taking,” remembers Foo.
Though he was supposed to be focused on managing a Bolivian tin mining project for a company called Minproc, the potential that Kazakhstan represented consumed him. Foo thought it was literally a gold mine. But his bosses could not see the opportunity and brutally let him know it.
“In summer of 1992, on my way to Kazakhstan I was at Kennedy airport in New York when I was paged. I had never been paged at an airport before, so I went to the counter and picked up the phone. It was the Managing Director of Minproc calling me from Australia,” remembers Foo. “He was agitated and abusive and the message was that I was the manager of the Bolivian project and was to abandon these crazy Kazakhstan adventures and do my job properly. I told him that the opportunities in Kazakhstan far outweighed the Bolivian project and I wanted to carry on to Kazakhstan. He said that if I got on the plane I would be fired. I did and I was!”
When Foo returned to his office in Denver, Colo. the situation would take another turn.
He convinced his boss to change his mind.
“He then marched me into the board room and explained to the other directors that he was assigning me full time to the Kazakhstan project and I was to be given a budget to enable Minproc to secure the gold mine,” says Foo.
He and the project moved to London. And within a year, the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange as Bakyrchik Gold PLC.
“It was the first ever Former Soviet Union resource based company listed on the LSE and we were really doing some pioneering stuff.”
The odyssey would require him to move again, this time to Kazakhstan. He had already uprooted his wife, Rosa, and kids from Denver to London. Now it was to the Former Soviet Union.
“Rosa and the kids had just moved from Denver to our home south of London and the culture change for them from the free expression of Denver’s excellent primary schools to the rather uptight, disciplinarian and repressed Private School system in the UK was black and white,” says Foo. “It was very difficult for the children to manage this, especially with me leaving for Kazakhstan for an unknown period, but Rosa is a brilliant manager and mother and we got by.
Foo founded Victoria Oil and Gas Plc in 2004 and has held CEO and Chairman positions in several AIM-listed companies, London Stock Exchange’s international market for smaller growing companies, including Celtic Resources Holdings Plc, Eureka Mining Plc, Bramlin Limited and Bakyrchik Gold Plc. over the last 20 years.
Kevin Foo: The Early Years
Kevin Foo was born in Australia to very humble beginnings. His dad was a boilermaker and union leader and his mom, a seamstress. He was the oldest of three boys.
“We grew up in very modest surroundings but never lacked anything. Poor was normal,” says Foo.
He and his family lived in a two bedroom wooden house in Brown Hill on the outskirts of Ballarat, on the edge of open fields and the bush, so roaming around the fields, old mine shafts, forests and creeks near his home was the norm, and to hear him tell it, “simply wonderful.”
“He’d come home from work covered in soot and sweat but always had time to play some Australian Rules football or ‘footy’ with us boys before supper, or tea, as we called it,” says Foo.
His manager mom kept the house going. She was brilliantly organized; she was talkative and funny, very skilled in crafts and Foo says she could make him and his brothers’ clothes from any fabric without using a pattern.
But, Foo concedes, his mother had a dark side.
“Mum was also emotional and volatile and for half of her adult life she was an alcoholic.”
Foo remembers how the alcohol would manifest itself. Those demons, he said, would be released from her “by clubbing my father over the head with a lump of firewood or trying to stab him with the carving knife,” says Foo. “On one now hilarious occasion she tried to drive over him with the old Dodge car we had but she had no idea how to drive, so that attempted assault never rolled! Fortunately [Harold my father] was patient and fast and he usually dodged the bullet but he never retaliated.”
Foo says those experiences helped shaped the man he’d grown to be.
“I think my patience and calmness under pressure is thanks to [(Harold) my father] and my OCD elements are thanks to [(Joyce) my mother],” Foo says. “I guess we grew up in a somewhat violent household, but in 1950’s Australia it was more the norm than the exception.”
His early life was “sports dominated” but he also did well in primary and secondary school, usually finding himself at the top of the class academically.
“Looking back, I think my escape from the home dramas was through reading and at age six I was consuming large books and novels and had an insatiable desire for knowledge,” says Foo.
Sports taught Foo the value of fitness, team work and determination and the “highs” that can be enjoyed from success and the agony of failure.
“Sports also taught me that if someone attacks you, get them back, but in time and never immediately. That freaks them out more, waiting for the pain,” Foo says.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Foo became bitten by the entrepreneurial bug later than most: he was in his late thirties when he decided to venture into areas that had high risk, and also high financial rewards. But along the way he figured out how to minimize risks.
“This particularly applies to the resources industry which has a very low success rate because one is trying to manage nature, usually in hostile climates, with difficult people and competitors who want to destroy you. And of course markets almost never cooperate with your plans,” Foo says. “All one can do is understand your project or business intimately, classify the risks and mitigate those risks by having the best technology, the best people and nerves of steel. You need to have a clear plan of what you want and when you want it but not much more than that.”
He says in every venture he creates a business plan. But he says these are useless unless they can be understood by all the stakeholders and they can be executed quickly.
“Most of my successful business plans were simple and clear; such that everyone from the board of directors to the tea lady could understand what our business was trying to do.”
He says when he looks back at his successes, it’s about using the best technology, finding the best people and doing your homework.
“Once you find that special project, be totally focused on getting to cash flow in the shortest time, usually with people of a different skillset. To ensure that your odds are better, don’t try to develop marginal or big capital projects and try to find those that are almost management proof,” he says.
All of the successful projects are well-known by those in mining: Isasmelt, Bakyrchik, Nezhdaninskoye, and Suzdal through to the Logbaba gas project in Cameroon, he says involved an alternative way of looking at a familiar project or problem. Foo and his mining team have successfully made the cross over from mining to oil and gas and have built a significant business in Cameroon by successfully monetizing an onshore gas deposit to the benefit of local industry and all stakeholders.
“Most true industrial innovations come from outside that sector rather than inside and I was never daunted by experts in a field saying that ‘it can’t be done.’
Over the last 20 years or so, Foo has built a circle of workmates and lifelong friends who have like-minded approaches to projects and have proven to be incredibly loyal and hardworking individuals. Loyalty, he says, is key and should not be taken for granted.
“These guys and girls would often run through the proverbial brick wall for me and often under “war-footing” situations, they would deliver miracles. I was very lucky that our various random paths crossed at the right time and I am so indebted to them.”
That was 20 years ago. And a lot has happened since then.
“We certainly became proficient at crisis management. Since the early days of Bakyrchik in 1992 I don’t think I have had more than a month of “peace and quiet” and the business threatening head shots and attacks from the various low lives far outnumber the highs. Such a life requires 24/7 attention.”
And, as such, he says he could never have done what he did in the business world, had his wife not been there to be CEO of the family.
“You cannot have any long term success in business unless you have strong support at home. Without the support of Rosa and my kids over the last 35 years none of this at all could have happened,” says Foo. “Rosa in particular managed the family and our lives brilliantly and bought up our children without much support at all from me. She understood my drive and my ambitions and made huge sacrifices to her own career and life to make my own dreams come true.”