From Howe Street to the Big Time: Robert Friedland Celebrates 40 Years in Mining

Robert Friedland shakes the hands of workers at the Kamoa Kakula mine in Feb 2014. Tommy Humphreys photo

He’s the most celebrated mining entrepreneur alive but 40 years ago, Robert Friedland arrived in Vancouver, aged 34, with no contacts nor experience in mining.

“You might say I literally entered the mining industry on my hands and knees,” Friedland told author Michael Caldwell. Crawling into an abandoned gold mine in Southern Oregon he was permanently bitten by the mining bug.

“From that day on, I really knew what I wanted to do–had to do.”

In mid 1982 Friedland floated Galactic Resources on the Vancouver Stock Exchange at 50 cents per share with no properties nor management. The stock hit $13.25 by 1984.

For Galactic’s flagship asset, Friedland negotiated to acquire a 100 year old mining site in Colorado from ASARCO for $7 million before financing was in place.

“The thing about Robert is he likes to see things finalized before he goes on to something else,” said Dr. William Bird, a Denver-based geologist.

By 1986 it was one of the largest gold mines in production in North America.

Friedland retired from the company in 1990 before setbacks that would haunt him throughout the 1990s.

An accidental leak in the liner under the mine's leach pad would force the EPA to take control of the site in late 1992. The company declared bankruptcy in 1993 amid rising costs and falling gold prices.

To settle accusations that Summitville contributed to pollution of a nearby river, Friedland voluntarily paid the US government US $20.28 million in 2001.

But the US government could not stall the force of nature that is Robert Friedland.

In 1992, with backing from financier @Frank_Giustra, Friedland led Fairbanks Gold to discover and sell the Fort Knox mine in Alaska for US $152 million. The mine has yielded over 8 million ounces of gold and is still in production.

Also in 1992, a Friedland founded company began to explore for diamonds on the coast of Namibia. It also funded a small reconnaissance exploration in Newfoundland, Canada which identified a gossan outcrop by helicopter in 1994.

The outcropping became the massive Voisey’s Bay nickel discovery which netted the company $4.3 billion in 1996. Friedland played a central role as major shareholder, chief negotiator and co-chairman.

Flush from this score, Friedland moved to the tax haven of Singapore. It has been the home base of his expanding empire ever since.

As the new Millennium dawned, Friedland’s Ivanhoe Mines found one of the largest copper gold mines in the world at Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Remarkably, Friedland helped attract over $5 billion in capex to develop the massive mining complex.

There’s a story of Friedland almost dying of a burst spleen while running in remote Mongolia. He checked out of hospital a day after surgery to attend an important meeting, bleeding profusely under his suit, unbeknownst to his colleagues.

“Robert is a complicated man,” Friedland colleague Sam Riggal told me in 2014. “His only vice is that he works very hard.”

In Congo Ivanhoe discovered the richest new copper mine in the world at Kamoa Kakula which has just entered commercial production. In South Africa the company is developing one of the world’s largest new platinum nickel mines. .

Exploration legend David Lowell said that 3 of 1000 good looking prospects become mines. Friedland's success is unparalleled in modern times.

“The one thing our group does is drill,” Friedland said. “We’re famous for it.”

Like anyone serious in exploration, he’s had lots of misses. Take for example Vengold, which reached a market capitalization of $500 million in the mid 1990s before it ever made a discovery, and never did live up to expectations.

Everyone knows that Friedland was a close college friend of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Friedland served time in prison in the early 1970s for trafficking LSD and travelled extensively in Nepal and India before landing in college with Jobs.

“[Friedland] was charismatic and a bit of a con man and could bend situations to his very strong will. He was mercurial, sure of himself, a little dictatorial. Steve admired that, and he became more [like Robert],” remembered Daniel Kotte.

“It was a strange thing to have one of the spiritual people in your young life turn out to be, symbolically and in reality, a gold miner,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson.

Jobs’ dig aside, Friedland is also an astute investor in ultra luxury real estate. In one example, he bought the penthouse of Vancouver’s Pacific Rim Hotel, yet stayed in the hotel below while visiting to preserve the property’s allure.

Friedland flipped the PH in 2013 to the Dubai Royal Family at a large profit before the city moved to tax unoccupied homes.

He owns ultra luxury resorts in Italy and Thailand. Friedland is rumoured to have commissioned the sensational mega yacht, SYZYGY 818, from Feadship, in 2019, and sold it to starbucks founder Howard Schultz.

“Promoting a stock is like making a movie,” Friedland once said. “You’ve got to have stars, props, and a good script.”

So it was natural for him to get into making movies. His Ivanhoe Pictures produced the blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, and acquired the rights to the book, Million Dollar Whale, among others.

These are just a few of Friedland's achievements.

The man who was once chased by the EPA has come a long way in 40 years, now celebrated by the Canadian and US mining hall of fames. He’s become a leading figure in sourcing metals for a greener future and industry best practices.

In mining, tech, real estate, hospitality and entertainment, Robert Friedland has succeeded in everything he has set his mind to.

“The one thing my father said to me about a vocation,” he once said. “Whatever you decide to do–do it right.”

Read more about him here:

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