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Ian Telfer (Anthony Jenkins)
Ian Telfer (Anthony Jenkins)

The Lunch

Ian Telfer: 'I'm more of an opportunist than a visionary' Add to ...

Ian Telfer was a screw-up.

The Canadian mining industry luminary didn't exactly excel during his undergraduate days in university. He was too busy having fun.

So at 25, after doing some travelling and bouncing around at entry-level jobs for a few years, he was exceedingly grateful to have been accepted (at the absolute last moment with two days until classes) to the University of Ottawa's MBA program.

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"I was not cum laude," he smirks with a creviced grin.

So appreciative was Mr. Telfer, in fact, that he has since created a scholarship awarded annually to the program entrant with the lowest university marks.

Despite a playful and self-deprecating sense of humour, the unusual academic endowment isn't just a lark. It tells you all you need to know about the 65-year-old's sense of self and his perceived place among Canada's corporate elite.

It has taken a while, but since receiving his MBA from the business school (which now bears his name), Mr. Telfer has done rather well for himself. In the last decade, he's become fabulously wealthy, having had a hand in creating a series of mining companies now valued at more than $50-billion. The most significant among them is Goldcorp Inc. , the world's second largest gold producer by market capitalization, where he remains chairman.

Mr. Telfer is lean, well over six feet tall with high cheekbones highlighting a sharp-featured visage and full silver pompadour. Tastefully attired in a light-grey suit and alizarin checked shirt, his facade screams corporate establishment.

Yet Ian Telfer doesn't count himself among the business elite. As far as he is concerned, he is still that screw-up with the crummy marks, who was given a break and has made the most of it. Over the years, he's gone head-to-head with the Bay St. and Wall St. bluebloods and has finally earned a seat at the table.

"I've met all the guys who went to Harvard now. I've negotiated against Goldman Sachs. I've worked with the guys who got into Western," he says.

Considering his deal record, there is little doubt that he is a formidable negotiator, but Mr. Telfer's personality differs from most of the hard-driving types who excel in the mining sector. He is much more easy going and quick with a laugh. Armed with a formidable intellect, a natural curiosity makes him keen to listen and learn.

"I think my whole experience has made me very conscious of trying to be open-minded. I don't go into any business situation with the assumption that I've got the answer and the other person doesn't," he says.

Gifted with these traits, he has worked alongside some of the biggest names in the mining business during a 34-year career. In the 80s he moved to Brazil and learned Portuguese while in the executive suite with multi-billionaire Eike Batista at one-time high flyer and eventual flameout TVX Gold. Next, he hooked up on a Venezuelan gold play with the man widely viewed as the consummate mining promoter, Robert Friedland. That company, called Vengold, did not end well. In 1999, with the price of bullion mired below $300 (U.S.) an ounce, Mr. Telfer relaunched the company as an Internet play called itemus Inc.

Mr. Telfer doesn't fall in love with the rocks. After all, he's a trained accountant, not a geologist. It's about making money for shareholders (and himself). So when tech stocks were commanding insane valuations Mr. Telfer turned Vengold into a so-called "Internet incubator," providing backing for startups.

It worked. For a while. After a pop in the stock from pennies to about $5 a share, a severe lack of revenue became a severe problem. Soon, itemus went bankrupt.

Then came the lunch that would change his life. Ten years ago to the week that we are breaking bread, he met mining financier Frank Giustra for a midday meal at a now defunct Vancouver restaurant called Cafe de Medici. There, they hatched a plan to create a new gold miner that was to be called Wheaton River Minerals Inc.

The company bought a ragtag collection of unloved mines using unconventional financing and rolled them together to create a mid-sized producer, seemingly overnight.

The rest is the stuff of junior mining legend as Wheaton rode rebounding gold prices and a series of gutsy acquisitions to merge with Goldcorp, a company founded by another vaunted resource entrepreneur, Rob McEwen.

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