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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, right, hugs Mario Sepulveda after the miner was rescued from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine where he was trapped with 32 other miners for more than two months. (Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP/Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP)
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, right, hugs Mario Sepulveda after the miner was rescued from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine where he was trapped with 32 other miners for more than two months. (Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP/Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP)

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Chile's CEO moment Add to ...

On the morning of Aug. 6, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera spoke to his Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne.

Twenty-four hours before, a small gold and copper mine had collapsed in northern Chile, sending a geyser of dust into the air and plunging the families of 33 men into despair. Accidents are not uncommon in a country with a mining tradition that extends back to the Spanish conquistadors and a blemished safety record nearly as long.

Yet this tragedy struck a chord with Mr. Pinera, who took power in March just two weeks after a devastating earthquake struck the country. He immediately dispatched Mr. Golborne to the mine.

His instructions: Fix this. Spare no expense. Baldo Procurica, a Chilean senator who was present, recalls the leader saying that there was "no limit to the resources" to be spent on the effort.

It was a critical executive decision by a man whose long walk through the halls of a different kind of power - the world of business - made him uniquely qualified to make a gamble that anyone with political savvy would have avoided.

It didn't hurt that Mr. Pinera's mining minister happened to have a similar pedigree.

What followed was what might be called the MBA rescue.

It was a $10- to $20-million exercise in crisis management run by a Harvard-educated billionaire President and his Stanford-educated retailer lieutenant, each only recently transplanted into government office.

It ended this week, of course, as a brilliant political masterstroke, one that has vaulted to immense popularity the first conservative government to reach power in this country since far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet's reign ended in 1990.

But behind the scenes, it was a carefully directed exercise by men whose pasts have given them an uncommon appetite for risk - and an uncommon expectation of success.

Mr. Pinera is among the world's 500 richest people, a man who has grown small airlines and television networks into major players.

Mr. Golborne has run some of the top companies in South America.

Together, they staged the rescue with the meticulous execution of a new business venture. Its planners were innovative and persistent.

They learned from others' mistakes, hired the best talent, worked out hundreds of contingencies, put in place multiple backup plans, carefully managed expectations, assiduously marketed every move - and, above all, accepted a level of hazard that would have made weaker-kneed leaders tremble.

"From a political point of view, his advisers probably told the president to do something different," Mr. Golborne says, in a one-on-one interview with The Globe and Mail.

"But the president was very moved by this situation. He made this decision because he felt it was his duty."

In acting on that decision, he did away with the bureaucratic responses that often make even greater disasters out of tragedy, in cases such as Hurricane Katrina.

Instead, he positioned himself as one of a new generation of business leaders who have found political success - a Chilean Michael Bloomberg.

And he orchestrated an unlikely victory by bringing together a group of people whose pasts similarly suited them to make their own good fortune.

Theirs was, after all, a mission with an overwhelming likelihood of catastrophe.

Experts pegged their initial chances of finding anyone alive at 10 per cent.

Those odds diminished even further two days later, on Aug. 7, when rescue workers only narrowly escaped a secondary collapse that ended all chances of extracting the miners through a ventilation shaft.

Mr. Golborne delivered the news to waiting families, his words catching in his throat.

"The sadness I have," he said in an emotional statement, "is because, obviously, we're not optimistic."

THE ULTIMATE IN MULTITASKING

The Mining Minister arrived at the mine in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Numerous volunteers from numerous companies had flocked to the site, all attempting to rescue the men below.

"There was turmoil," he recalls. "The situation was pretty complicated."

But complications were nothing new to Mr. Golborne, who previously served as CEO of Cencosud S.A., a major clothing, hardware and grocery retailer that competes with Walmart across South America.

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