Canadian mining company Falconbridge Inc. had a big problem in the early 1980s. Its operations in war-torn Zimbabwe were in chaos. Rebels opposing leader Robert Mugabe were firing at Falconbridge’s Blanket gold mine security force with rocket-propelled grenades. Workers there were also getting hungry, with food provisions running low due to blockades. Thirteen-thousand kilometres away in Toronto, Falconbridge’s chief executive didn’t mess around. Bill James flew 24 hours to Zimbabwe and went straight to the dictator’s office.
“Bill wasn't a wallflower. He'd barge into anyone's office,” said Bill McNamara, a longtime friend of Mr. James and a lawyer with Torys LLP.
Mr. James’s demands, delivered in his signature loud, gravelly baritone, were simple: He wanted food for his employees and assault rifles for their protection.
“Mugabe’s looking like someone’s hit him on the head with a two-by-four,” Mr. McNamara said. “[Thinking,] ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ”
But here’s the thing. Mr. Mugabe knew that without that mine in operation, Zimbabwe would suffer economically. The next morning, five truckloads of maize showed up at the mine, along with a dozen AK-47s.
Mr. James, who died last month at the age of 89, had a no-nonsense manner that rubbed some people the wrong way, but was deadly effective. He was known for turning around a number of large mining companies in the 1980s and ’90s, notably Falconbridge, which was in a deep financial hole when he took it over. Mr. James set a new bar for efficiency in mining that would be emulated in the decades ahead by the likes of Hunter Harrison in the American railroad industry. He was also renowned for his deep empathy and ability to connect with everyone, from some of the most formidable political leaders of the 20th century to the most junior miner in his operation.
William (Bill) James was born in Ottawa on Feb. 5, 1929, son of Lenore (née McEvoy) and William Fleming James, a geologist and owner of James, Buffam & Cooper, one of Canada’s pre-eminent mining consulting businesses. Junior caught the mining bug early. He started working underground in a gold mine near Timmins, Ont., in 1947, while he was still in high school.
“A lot of shovel work,” he told The Globe and Mail about his time in the mine.
He earned a bachelor of arts, then a master’s from the University of Toronto. In 1957, he completed a PhD in geology at McGill University in Montreal.
“He was always a practical down-to-earth type,” said retired geologist Brian Hester, a fellow student at U of T in the early 1950s.
“In my mind he always had his jacket off and sleeves rolled up.”
After graduating, Mr. James took a job as crew chief at a uranium mine in Elliot Lake in Northern Ontario. Far from resting on his academic laurels, he earned more underground overtime than anyone else.
“He wasn’t just a miner in an ivory tower. He was a miner’s miner,” Mr. McNamara said.
In 1961, he joined his father’s consultancy business, and worked with some of the big mining companies of the day, including Falconbridge, Teck and Placer.
Michael Power, who worked alongside Mr. James at the consultancy, recalls his intense work ethic while the two raced to get a feasibility report on a mine done on time.
“We stayed in the office the entire weekend. We didn’t sleep. We had some cheese in the fridge and we got the report done,” Mr. Power said.
“He had unbelievable stamina.”
In 1973, Alfred Powis, CEO of Noranda Inc., one of the biggest Canadian metals companies of the day, hired Mr. James to run a subsidiary. By the next year, he moved up to executive vice-president with charge over the company’s mine portfolio. Extremely hands on, he had a remarkable ability to see both the big picture and the fine details.
“The key thing when you were dealing with Bill James, as I used to tell the people there at Noranda, you tell the truth,” Mr. Power said.
“There’s a tendency in organizations to BS a little bit. You don’t quite know the answer but you pretend to. You do that with Bill, he’ll know.”
In 1982, Mr. James joined Falconbridge Ltd. as CEO at a time when the great nickel company was in deep trouble. Falconbridge was losing $2-million a week, amid moribund commodity prices and a crushing debt load. Mr. James went to work cutting corporate fat. Executive washrooms, the two private jets, the helicopter, the fleet of Jaguars – he got rid of all of them. Facing down union bosses, he laid off 40 per cent of the Sudbury workforce. The Toronto head office was cut in half. Not surprisingly, the layoffs garnered resentment from some quarters. According to Sudbury native Stan Sudol, owner and editor of RepublicOfMining.com, a joke making rounds at the time was, “Bill James dies and goes to hell, but the devil kicked him out, because he kept shutting down his furnaces.”
But eventually it was Mr. James who had the last laugh – by 1984, Falconbridge was back in the black.
As ruthless as Mr. James could be, he also displayed a deeply human side. In 1984, when a rock burst trapped four miners underground in a mine near the town of Falconbridge, Ont., he raced to the scene. Against the advice of safety personnel, he went underground himself and through a small opening held the hand of a lone survivor, 22-year-old apprentice mine mechanic Wayne St. Michel, who was trapped under a giant rock. For more than a day, Mr. James stayed with the man.
“‘It’s going great, Wayne, it’s going great,” he told him over and over.
“‘We’re coming for you.’”
After 27 hours, Mr. St. Michel was freed, but, cruelly, he died shortly after in the hospital.
“The only time when I was a kid that I ever saw him cry,” said son John James of his father after the death of Mr. St. Michel.
“He was a really tough guy, but he really cared.”
Mr. James also proved himself to be a savvy dealmaker at Falconbridge. In 1985, the company paid $1.3-billion to acquire the coveted Kidd Creek copper, silver and zinc mine near Timmins, Ont. In doing so, he trumped his former boss at Noranda, Mr. Powis, who was desperate to buy the property. Kidd Creek, which helped diversify nickel-heavy Falconbridge into other metals, would go on to become an extremely profitable asset.
Losing Kidd Creek only emboldened Mr. Powis to go after Falconbridge itself. But Mr. James was in no mood to sell the company on the cheap, especially considering that by 1988, profit and revenue were at record highs. Eventually a three-way fight for Falconbridge ensued with Sweden’s Trelleborg AB and U.S.-based Amax Inc. also bidding. In the end, a joint offer by Noranda and Trelleborg AB succeeded, but the pair paid a steep premium, acquiring Falconbridge for $37 a share.
In 1990, Mr. James took on another big challenge. Like Falconbridge, uranium producer Denison Corp. was heavily indebted when he joined as CEO. On one particularly bleak Friday afternoon, Mr. James got a call that Denison was to be served notice later that day on a loan that was coming due. That would have put Denison on the brink of bankruptcy. At that point, Mr. James ordered everyone out of the Toronto office, turned off the lights, locked up, and slipped out the back door. A hapless lawyer from McCarthy’s showed up shortly after with the notice, banged on the door, but nobody came out. Over the weekend, Mr. James was able to line up alternative financing and Denison stayed afloat.
“He never quit,” John James said. “He always would find another way to make it work.”
By the time he left Denison in 1996, Mr. James was in his mid-60s but he’d hadn’t slowed down much. In the summer, one of his favourite leisure activities was to strap himself into his 9-metre Zodiac boat and take off around Lake Superior, often with his partner Jalynn H. Bennett in tow.
“He had two 400-horsepower engines on the back of the thing,” Mr. Power said.
“He used to say it was the second fastest Zodiac in the world. The fastest was owned by the CIA for catching drug smugglers off the coast of Cuba.”
He’d met Ms. Bennett, a fellow CIBC board member, a few years after getting divorced from his first wife, Joanna, to whom he was married for 32 years. Naturally, Ms. Bennett and Mr. James got into a couple of scrapes. On one of their Zodiac trips down the St. Lawrence, a CIBC bank manager in a small Quebec town refused to let Mr. James withdraw $10,000 in cash as there was some uncertainty regarding his identity. Mr. James asked the manager if she had the CIBC annual report on hand. When she brought it to him, he pointed out that the two souls standing in front of her, in their orange survival suits, were in fact the same CIBC board members whose pictures were in the report. Mr. James got his money, and an apology.
In 1996, Bill James signed up for one last business caper, this time at Inmet Mining Corp. Inmet’s prized asset was its 50-per-cent stake in the promising Antamina zinc-copper project in Peru. But Antamina proved to be elusive. Unable to raise about $1.3-billion to develop it, a reluctant Mr. James was forced to sell Antamina at the urging of an activist investor. In 2000, at the age of 70, Mr. James stepped down as CEO of Inmet and walked away from corporate life for good.
He stayed active in retirement. In winter, he skied most weekends at his cottage in Georgian Bay. In 2002, Mr. James, like his father, was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. In his later years, he moved into the family farm in Halton Hills, west of Toronto.
After Ms. Bennett died in 2015, Mr. James developed breathing problems from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He died on Sept. 4 in Oakville, Ont., from heart failure. He leaves his sons Paul, Bill, George, John; daughters, Mary Witham and Anne Rogers; stepdaughter, Alexandra Bennett; stepsons, Braden Bennett and Sam Bennett and 17 grandchildren.
John James believes his father might have lived another 10 years, had he just slowed down a bit. But that wasn’t his style. Bill James’s attitude toward his own life was much like his approach to boating in a Zodiac.
“You’re going to go full tilt til the thing breaks, and then that’s it, you sink it.”