MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry

THE ethos of many Silicon Valley companies is “move fast and break things”, but for Salt Lake Potash’s Tony Swiericzuk it might be “move fast and build things”.
MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry MNN Awards: Swiericzuk's 'confusing career' leads to new Australian industry

Tony Swiericzuk

Haydn Black

Reporter

It's a lesson Swiericzuk really embraced in his decade with the upstart iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group, helping billionaire Andrew Forrest develop three mines in Western Australia's Pilbara region in less than a decade - cracking open the established BHP-Rio duopoly.
 
Since 2018 he's been using his FMG experience to help establish a new sulphate of potash industry in Australia.
 
On joining SO4, Swiericzuk outlined an ambitious plan to have first production within about 24 months, and while he expects to "just miss" that deadline by a matter of weeks, SO4 should be the first SOP producer in the nation with its flagship Lake Way project - and that could be just the start.
 
The Queensland born and bred mining engineer never imagined getting into the fertiliser business when he graduated university 26 years ago, with his first decision to head underground for a few years. 
 
"I wanted to clear the cobwebs out, get my hands dirty, and get on the tools," he told MNN.
 
"From then onwards I've had a pretty confusing career. I say that with a smile on my face, but I have always walked into a different commodity, or different industry, every time I have changed jobs."
 
Over the years, Swiericzuk has moved between mines, ports and steelworks, leaning something new at each step, but perhaps the most important decision he made was in accepting a role with FMG, which in 2009 had been an iron ore producer for little more than a year, and was still regarded as a little-known challenger of the Pilbara's big guns.
 
"It was an exciting ride, but boy-oh-boy, that first two-and-a-half years in Port Hedland was a ride. Andrew (Forrest) quickly threw me out to Christmas Creek and said I had 12 months to grow the mine from almost nothing," he recalled.
 
"I jokingly tell people I failed, because it took about 15 months to get the mine up and running, but that was at an incredible speed. I was building plants, setting up train loops, and we stepped up to the 60Mtpa run rate. It was an incredible journey." 
 
Having developed so quickly, the next three years were about taming costs, from above $60/t to around $10/t. 
 
His next move was sideways, into FMG's business development unit in 2017.
 
"I was asked to have a crack at it, which was quite left field, because I had been in hi-vis and construction my whole life," he said.
 
Swiericzuk spent the next year travelling the world, examining projects across commodities such as lithium, nickel-cobalt, copper, and graphite.
 
By early 2018 there was a changing of the guard at FMG, and Swiericzuk decided that after a decade it was an idea time to move on.
 
"I had never been in a job for anywhere near that long. I'd been coached and counselled by some of my mentors that it was an ideal time to be stepping aside, otherwise you'd be stamped as an iron ore guy forever," he said.
 
After a few months of  ‘gardening leave' he was approached by SO4 chairman Ian Middlemas about taking his lessons at FMG and applying them to potash, and he quickly became enamoured with both the challenges involved and the end result: helping feeding the world at a time of declining arable land.
 
"This is basically using sun and salt to feed people. It's a lovely theme," Swiericzuk said.
 
He'd gained some understanding of potash while at FMG, largely through Forrest's interest in agriculture, so in late 2018, he signed on at SO4 and gradually assembled a team of some 40 ex-FMG people who shared his vision of replicating FMG's success.
 
He hopes SO4, and its rivals in the emerging Australian potash space, can build a new, globally-known and highly-investable industry producing premium fertiliser to feed the world.
 
Swiericzuk says the learning curve has been steep, involving everything from different styles of offtake and marketing agreements to the actual production processes, and there has been a lack of local content expertise to cope with.
 
He's travelled to some 60 different operations globally to lean about best practise, bringing back experiences that need to be adapted to Australian conditions, such as working on salt lakes, which require low-pressure machinery that is not typical in Australia - all while under a rapid project execution schedule.
 
So far the lessons of the FMG days are holding up, and the company's decision to use conservative numbers in its feasibility studies means the project started out as robust, and is actually over-delivering in terms of key inputs such as grades and flow-rates.
 
"It is better being on that side of the fence than lying on the other side," Swiericzuk said.
 
The company's learnings for its A$264 million Lake Way project, refining techniques with trial and error and building its knowledge base, should be replicated over its follow-up projects, it hopes to build more quickly and cheaply.
 
"We built three iron ore mines in eight years and got to 170Mtpa, and I intend to build three potassium lake operations here over five years, and get north of 1Mtpa of SOP into the market - if the market can take it," he said.
 
The project remains on schedule for first sales in early 2021, and should ramp up to 245,000tpa over an expected 20-year life. 
 
Tony Swiericzuk is a nominee for New and/or Emerging Leader of the Year in the2020 MNN Awards. 

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