MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown

TONY Ottaviano is relishing his relatively new role as managing director of lithium developer Liontown Resources, his first time running a company.
MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown MNN Awards: Ottaviano enjoying being himself at Liontown

Tony Ottaviano

Ottaviano, a mechanical engineer with an MBA, is no stranger to the mining sector, having worked for Rio Tinto and Wesfarmers, and more recently, BHP, where he was global performance and improvement officer in the company's iron ore division.

His options were to either stay at BHP and compete for a small number of senior roles or jump ship to run a smaller company.

Liontown founder, chairman and major shareholder Tim Goyder cold-called Ottaviano in early 2021 to offer him a job and the rest is history.

He joined Liontown in May 2021, right when the company was on the cusp of the biggest year in its history.

Ottaviano told MNN that he'd learned a lot in the past year in the move from global major to developer.

"I think if someone said to me, what are the two takeaways Tony from you making the transition, the first one is I can be myself, because within the big corporates, they try and box you into a stereotype, what they think is good leadership, right?

"And frankly, I'm not sure they've got the wisdom to understand what good leadership is. So that's the first thing - I can be myself.

"Secondly, because you don't have all that infrastructure around you like a big company, you've got to learn to prioritise, and you've got to learn to make decisions, that 80/20 to get you where you need to be.

"And if I didn't take that philosophy, there is no way we could have delivered what we have in 12 months - DFS, then the native title agreement, then equity raise, then three offtakes, a massive amount of funding, and then finally FID."

Only two weeks ago, Liontown formally pushed the button on the A$545 million Kathleen Valley lithium project after securing $300 million in funding from Ford Motor Company and signing an offtake agreement, its third behind deals with LG Energy Solution and Tesla.

Ottaviano is enjoying the freedom to make decisions.

"I often say, you can be brushing your teeth in the morning and I can implement the idea in the afternoon, so that's refreshing," he said.

He's also enjoying the interaction with analysts and shareholders.

"I think seeing the recognition from shareholders, when they give you recognition for the effort you've put in, I think that's the best form of recognition," he said.

"And I know they're a tough, tough bunch because, you know, if the tide turns, then they'll be your biggest critics, so they're like employees - you've got to listen, you got to respect and you've got to be able to deliver on your promises."

Liontown is one of the few developers in the ASX 200 and is up more than 20% year-on-year. Its shares have halved since early April, in line with broader falls across the market.

The company raised $450 million in December to start early works at Kathleen Valley, with the Ford debt facility to fund the balance of the project.

First production is expected in 2024, with Kathleen Valley set to be one of the world's largest spodumene producers.

Ottaviano said he's having a lot of fun building a company.

"All that stuff I've learned in the past about what is good and what isn't good, and we've got a clean sheet, and we're slowing building this thing up," he said.

He sees documentation as critically important but jokes it doesn't make him much fun at parties.

"But the thing about it is the information that touches thousands of people, the worst form of disrespect is to give them sloppy documentation," he said.

"Documentation that doesn't make sense, documentation that's hard to find, documentation that's outdated.

"If they're going to execute a job and they've got to do it well, they've got to own that documentation, so it's important the way you disseminate information in an organisation … it's a big deal."

Ottaviano mentored many young leaders at BHP which saw him formulate a set of rules of how one should approach their career and leadership.

One of the rules is to play to your strengths.

"Don't try and be someone you're not," Ottaviano said.

Another of the most important rules is to build a network of people outside family and your own organisation who you can talk you.

"You've got to find someone outside that understands what you're going through," Ottaviano said.

"I've got a couple of those people that I speak to routinely and say, ‘hear me out, how am I thinking about this?' And because they've been in a similar position working for other organisations, they give me that perspective."

Ottaviano is a first-generation Australian, the son of two Italian migrants who met in Perth in the 1960s.

He is married with three daughters - two of who are young adults and the other who is nearing the end of high school.

He's close with his daughters and jokes that he's very familiar with topics like fake tan and teeth whitening.

"Look with three daughters, and my wife, I'm all over that stuff," he laughed.

Ottaviano recently took a week off and went to Tasmania, with the poor reception on Mount Wellington forcing him to switch off.

"If I've got to take holidays, I've got to take three weeks," he said.

"One week is to just wean yourself off, and then by halfway through the second week I'm in cruise control.

"These people that can take a long weekend and switch off - I can't do it."

While the first year at Liontown has been intense, Ottaviano is high-energy and extremely passionate about what he does.

"I'm pretty hard at it all the time," he said.

"To me, it's around, if I don't believe it, you'll know about it. But if I do support it, I will throw everything at it - everything."

Tony Ottaviano is a nominee for Emerging Leader of the Year in the 2022 MNN Awards.

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