Interview with Ta M Li, Retired Vice President, Operations at Tetra Tech

Ta M Li

Please share your educational background and the feathers that you have on your hat!

Growing up in New York City, I took and passed the Specialized High School Exams and was admitted to Brooklyn Technical H.S., a STEM-oriented secondary school, which focused on the engineering fields. From here a technical society careers publication led me to pursue a career in mining engineering. Columbia University’s Henry Krumb School of Mines was the oldest school in North America and was my home for the next 4 years. During the summers I worked in the industry, first for the Sterling Hill U/G zinc mine in Ogdensburg, NJ, followed by the Robbins Pyrophyllite mine in North Carolina, and lastly as a Rock Mechanics Research Associate at Columbia.

While school was tough, I was highly active in extra-curricular activities and enjoyed many leadership roles including Student Council, Sophomore Class officer, Blue Key Service, Theta Tau, and others. In 1968, the year of radical student protests, I thought one outcome was the need a student-organized forum for dialog. As a result, I conceived and organized the first Ivy League Engineering Conference focus on Sustainability and Social Responsibilities for Engineers. Twenty representatives from each Ivy League School attended a three-day event. At graduation, the Columbia Alumni Association awarded me the Charles Kandal Medal primarily for this effort.

Kindly throw some light into Kennecott Copper Company@ Bingham Canyon Copper mine

Working for the Utah Copper Division of Kennecott proved to be an outstanding first opportunity. At that time, Bingham Canyon was the world’s largest open-pit copper mine which produced 14% of the U.S. Copper. Initial assignments were in the daily production roles in the drill and blast, and truck haulage departments. We also had ongoing training in the unit’s concentrator, smelting, and refining operations, which led to a better understanding of the mining production cycle. The safety culture was of major importance and followed throughout my professional career. Optimizing production was a continuing directive that addressed the need to lower costs for the extractive of low-grade ore which averaged only 0.8% copper in the pit. The mine also recovered molybdenum, gold, silver, and other minerals. The firm’s work simplification program added to reducing mining unit costs.

What contributions have you made in the publications and communications area in the field of mining?

My years in publications included stints with Engineering and Mining Journal (E/MJ), a McGraw Hill publication, and Mining Engineering (ME) magazine. Highlights of my work included writing feature articles on mining operations, technical innovations, commodity reviews, and global mining development perspectives. In May 1976, I coauthored a Special Issue on Offshore and Deep Ocean Mining, which was subsequently used by the U.S. House Interior Subcommittee on Mines as a source document for future policy. In 1978, I was invited by the U.S. Department of Commerce to head up a Mining and Exploration Symposium and Trade Mission with stops in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. During the seminars, my speech addressed “Priorities for Developing Countries in mineral development.”  A year later, as Editor in Chief of ME, the Ministry of Coal invited us to visit the Peoples Republic of China. Together with K.P. Wang, US Bureau of Mines we embarked on a month-long adventure stopping at coal, iron ore, copper, and phosphate mines in the China interior. As a remerging mining country, our trip revealed that mining operations tended to be more labor-intensive as a means of utilizing its large workforce. In later years, large-scale modern equipment became the norm as it joined the list of global producers. Special issues were developed for both trips appearing in ME. I received a US Dept of Commerce citation for excellence following the Trade Mission.

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Please tell us in detail how you moved to consult, what were the challenges and what were the advantages you had?

Culminating a successful stint in the publications area, a need to grow professionally in the minerals engineering and economics business led me into the consulting business. Golder Associates has procured a series of contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, focused on global mineral supply. Expanding interest in global mining commodities was a perfect fit for my desire to investigate present and future mining projects. Armed with extensive global contacts established from my publication days, I was immediately put to work on data collection and engineering cost estimation for global copper, bauxite, chromite, nickel, and platinum production. Over one hundred minerals deposit profiles and cost engineering reports were completed and delivered to the Bureau of Mines. Global site visits and investigations were further expanded by contact network, so much so that Golder challenged me to venture into the marketing and business development areas of the consulting business. Planning and executing a business development project integrated project teams to identify, strategize and capture mining projects from exploration planning, mine feasibility, development, operations, and reclamation and closure. Additional efforts also included equity and project financing which expanded my sphere to include banks and other financial organizations. Working in the consulting business required a lot of global travel with the consulting firms I joined, which always increased my contact network. With such a large network, I remember telling a colleague that I was always two contacts from answering any question regarding the mining business.

Ta M Li
Ta M Li

What is “Wheeling and Dealing”?

While I was moving along in the consulting business, many of our clients thought they could use a well-connected engineer to further advance their corporate development functions. In this sector, “wheeler dealing” became a way of life in making things happen for the company. Making deals involved a host of activities including venture financings (equity and project), property buying, joint ventures, and potential mergers and their associated synergies. My entry point was joining Minex C.A. of Venezuela, which had a prime property in the Km-88 region of Guyana Province. With minimal capital, we designed, constructed a small C-I-L gold plant, and initiated limited production. By some crafty “wheeling and dealing,” we sold the concession in 9 months for C$60 million in cash and stock considerations. Moving on from here, I led our team in a 60-day RTO (Reverse Takeover) exercise creating Anglo-Andean Explorations (AAN), listed on the then Vancouver Stock Exchange. Three flagship properties were vetted into this new company funded initially by my Minex partners. Again, armed with an extensive contact network with Canadian finance companies, I was able to negotiate an initial credit facility of C$10 million for initial working capital. With the fulfillment of my goals in this area, I looked to return to the U.S. and focus on engineering consulting, but this time with a larger engineering entity.

How did you contribute to Washington Group International?

Initially, I rejoined Behre Dolbear, the oldest continuous consulting entity in the U.S. Getting to work immediately, I was successful in winning several high profile projects including due diligence assignments for Las Cristinas Gold (Venezuela), Bajo de la Alumbrera Gold (Argentina) and resource audits for Fort Knox (Alaska). Surprisingly, we also captured the Lega Dembi (Ethiopia) project feasibility study. These quick wins did not go unnoticed by Washington Group International, who came knocking and convinced me to join their group. The workplace environment was larger and contained a great diversity of talent to support the business development efforts. Here I found success in the contract mining field. Armed with multidisciplinary capture teams, we were successful in winning deals for contract mining in Nevada, Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia, adding over $300 million to the company backlog. Washington Group recognized our proposal teams by awarding us five consecutive corporate excellence awards between 2003-07. Also, the firms marketing efforts at trade shows were recognized by the organizers with the presentation of two “best large exhibitor” awards to Washington Group during the Canadian Institute of Mining shows in Edmonton and Toronto.

What was your role at Tetra Tech Inc.?

In 2011, Tetra Tech (TT) recruited me to head up their mining practices in Golden, CO. The engineering and environmental firm was known for its focus on all things to do with water, i.e., treatment, surface & underground management, and tailings. To better focus on their expertise in the mining sector, TT consolidated activities in Colorado. Starting in 2011, Golden sales climbed to almost $20 million –up 125% from the previous year. The firm’s expertise in the front-end work for the mining development cycle expanded into the EPCM area. With growing momentum for the firm in mining, I returned exclusively to the business development areas of the firm.

Can you talk about the role of professional societies in your professional career?

Joining professional groups has been integral to my career advancement. Besides the business contacts, they have been a source for continued education, innovation, and forums for industry trends and leadership development. In my career I was fortunate enough to join and advance to the president and/or chair of four major organizations. These were the Northwest Mining (now American Exploration and Mining Society), Colorado Mining Associations, Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, and the Denver Gold Group. The latter included being a founder and director. The Gold Group organizes the world’s largest precious metals forums meeting annually in Denver and Zurich. These societies became the training grounds for skills including management organization, strategic planning, technical presentations, marketing/sales planning, company politics, and corporate policymaking. In each professional instance, I left the organization in better shape than when I started. Again, the industry contact network simplified getting things done in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Where do you see yourself going forward in the metals and mining sector, and what is your advice to young budding miners, who want to make it big in the mining industry?

At near retirement age, I have significantly reduced my professional activities and continue in company advisory roles. The need for marketing and business development skills keeps me going as the number of experienced baby-boom professionals continue to decline, leaving a gap for personnel. Mining services companies have long been focused on project execution and not on the front-end business development role.

However, with many new graduates entering the mining business, it’s time to let this generation of specialists develop their own ideas and priorities for company growth and strategy. To our newer graduates, I would recommend getting your basic training with a degree of patience for your earlier years. In a field where there are not a lot of people entering the business of mining, you will find yourself in positions of increasing responsibility, when compared to other technical fields. Expand your education focus to those areas that will impact the makeup of your industry. Subjects include health and safety planning, Environmental Social Governance (ESG) management, energy applications through battery-powered equipment, autonomous truck haulage, mill automation, and workforce diversity execution. It is important to also supplement participation in professional societies and trade shows. Technology exchanges and short courses will facilitate your professional growth as well as hone your management and leadership skills.

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