MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery

A breakout year for Alkane Resources has seen the company firm up the future of its Tomingley gold operation, divest its Dubbo project and make a potentially tier one discovery.
MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery MNN Awards: Earner and his team 'pumped' about Boda discovery

Alkane Resources managing director Nic Earner

With the demerger of Australian Strategic Materials (ASM) now complete, Alkane is now a pure-play gold company.

While Alkane had been a low-key, but profitable, gold producer via its Tomingley operation in New South Wales, it has been the Boda discovery, also in NSW, that captured the market's attention.

Shares in Alkane have trebled since the company announced the discovery of porphyry gold-copper mineralisation at the Northern Molong project.

The first diamond hole hit 502m at 0.48 grams per tonne gold and 0.2% copper from 211m, including 313m at 0.62gpt gold and 0.17% copper, including 12m at 3.28gpt gold and 0.67% copper.

However, as Alkane managing director Nic Earner told MNN, it was far from an overnight success story.

"People don't tend to look at a company until something happens so for many people, Alkane were off the radar and so it looked sort of like ‘oh, these guys have arrived here, drilled a hole and it's fantastic'," he said.

"It's just not true for us in that region. We picked up the majority of those tenements in '97 off CRA and then [technical director] Ian [Chalmers] also consolidated a number of other tenements.

"We've effectively been drilling there for at least 15 years in that region, including many drill holes in that particular Boda corridor."

The first diamond hole was drilled to follow up a reverse circulation hit of 311m at 0.28 grams per tonne gold, completed in 2016.

The company had a break in drilling after that, since a wind farm was being built on a small portion of its tenements. During that time Chalmers and senior geologist Dave Meates completed a technical review ahead of the diamond drilling.

"We thought we had a low probability of success because when you're porphyry-hunting, you do," Earner said.

That first hole sparked excitement, even in North America when Alkane was in Colorado the week after the announcement for the Precious Metals Summit.

Alkane's shares jumped 65% in the first week, pushing the company's market value through $300 million.

"I thought we might move 5c," Earner said.

"More and more, people are excited by exploration. I think because the pipeline is a bit empty. They're particularly excited about what might be tier one exploration.

"Because it could be and has the potential to be a $10-15 billion NPV thing, I get that.

"For it to be a tier one asset, it either needs to be a really high-grade pipe going to the centre of the earth, or it needs multiple intrusives up and down the corridor, Cadia-esque or Northparkes-esque. It's more like Cadia than Northparkes."

The best hole was hole seven, released on March 23 which was about the bottom of the COVID-19 sell-off (and incidentally the same day fellow Explorer of the Year nominee Chalice Gold Mines announced its Julimar discovery).

Hole seven returned 1167m at 0.55gpt gold and 0.25% copper from 75m, including 96.8m at 3.97gpt gold and 1.52% copper.

"Hole seven came out this year and that is ball-tearing. A kilometre, it's mind-blowing how long that is," Earner said.

"It's a bloody amazing hole. But there have been some bloody amazing holes drilled this year."

A 30,000m drilling program is underway at Boda now, with further results due late August/early September, though Earner said the company wouldn't be releasing results hole-by-hole as it was difficult to provide context.

"It looks like with a few more holes you could know that there was enough to start some sort of mine there," he said.

"What we hope by Christmas is we could sort of draw that floor of ‘well it's at least this'."

A maiden resource by the end of the year is unlikely, but potentially by the end of the March after the program is complete.

Earner has been surprised by the nearology rush sparked by the discovery, and says the company has received technical enquiries from larger companies, but not "of the type that gets people excited".

"For those sort of companies, six drill holes, would you light up your M&A team? No. Would you put a watching brief on it and get your technical guys to call our technical guys? Of course."

Alkane is very encouraged by the early results at Boda.

"Clearly we're pumped. We've got high hopes for it," Earner said.

At the same time, Alkane has also been having exploration success at Tomingley.

A hit of 102m at 4.07gpt gold was the top drill hole reported in Australia last week, according to opaxe.

Alkane has also been more active on the corporate front in recent years. In late 2018, it acquired a stake in Calidus Resources, and followed that last year with a similar investment in Genesis Minerals.

The company also participated in Genesis and Calidus' capital raisings in recent weeks.

"You've only got to watch the success of Silver Lake-Doray, Mark [Zeptner] with Ramelius, you can see if you can de-risk your business by having multiple sources of income so you can schedule capital, ride through development periods, survive a problem, that lack of risk and that greater business certainty is rewarded in the value per share," Earner said.

"What we tried to do by investing in Calidus and Genesis - remember two years ago you couldn't fund anything for love nor money, and both of those projects were close to development and we wanted to take a meaningful enough stake in those that we could manage our own investment risk, but not so big we were trying to take someone over.

"But at the same time, when they hit financing, there is a clear discussion to be had. That doesn't mean the discussion will happen, nor does it mean that if one happens, anyone can agree on anything. We're in the room and we bought the ticket we can afford.

"We think we're invested in two of the best development projects in Australia. Both of them will have financing decisions over the next year and we'll just talk to them as part of that."

Earner joined Alkane in 2013 as chief operating officer, reporting to Chalmers, who was then MD.

Earner says the two, who didn't know each other prior to working together, have a wonderful relationship.

"Anyone who knows Ian personally knows it's very easy to have a good relationship," he said.

"We do have a very close relationship and when Ian decided to become the most actively retired person I've ever met in 2017, it was clear the board were comfortable with the idea of me becoming managing director."

Chalmers became technical director.

"It was clear that Ian's passion for exploration was completely undiminished but his passion for administration, permitting, PR - he was prepared to do it, but he just didn't need that in his life anymore," Earner said.

"I thought I was the luckiest guy alive to have my friend Ian as the technical director still, driving all the technical and many of the operational aspects of it.

"Put me in his fanboy club, but if you think about it, he's been exploring for 50 years. Who else has a friend who's a 50-year explorer who you have an excellent working relationship with on their board who I can just ring up and say ‘hey mate, what do you think about this?'"

Earner was born in Brisbane and grew up near Ballina in northern New South Wales.

"Really easy place to live - I was there before the Hemsworths," he joked.

In year 10, Earner did work experience with an accounting office and with a criminal lawyer, but felt both professions were too office-based.

"My elder sister had gone into engineering and I just thought ‘yeah, that's a really good balance'," he said.

"Did the general first year, and at the end of first year, I picked chemical because I thought it was one of the most general. I thought mining was too specific and I couldn't work out electrical.

"Chemical at the time had 50% women going into it as well so it sort of felt more progressive."

Earner worked in Mount Isa, the Hunter Valley and at Olympic Dam

"When I was working for Rio in the Hunter Valley in 1998, Straits were looking for someone to run their gold and antimony project they'd just kicked off," he said.

Earner worked for Milan Jerkovic, who he also describes as a mentor for his determination and persistence.

"It became obvious to run that well, I needed to be in Perth so we moved very late 2010. It's a wonderful place to be," he said.

Earner still lives in Perth with his wife of three years. They have five teenagers between them.

He jokes that work doesn't stress him out.

"Stressful is a three-way teenager argument."

Earner is a little embarrassed about being nominated for New and/or Emerging Leader of the Year.

"When you lead an organisation, you're just the person put in charge," he said.

"Sure, you try and set a particular direction, but you're not even necessarily doing that much of the thinking.

"It's embarrassing in the sense that things that focus on the leader, I think it implies a greater weight than actually exists.

"Yes, you are ultimately accountable and yes, you are ultimately accountable for setting the strategic direction of the company, but in no way are you the person that's delivered."

Alkane Resources is a nominee for Explorer of the Year for the Boda discovery, while Nic Earner is a nominee for New and/or Emerging Leader of the Year.