Interview with Cobus Loots, CEO of Pan African Resources (AIM: PAF).
We don’t tend to like investing in Gold producers as they rarely perform for shareholders. But we like this one, a lot. The CEO is brutally and refreshingly honest. He spends lot of time pointing out the difficulties in mining and operating in South Africa.
However, they make it work. They have a long track record of producing Gold and paying dividends. Last year they suspended the dividend payments as their debt borrowing for the new plant was the focus, however, they are planning to pay a dividend (subject to shareholder vote in November). The Audit Results are out today. The numbers are extremely encouraging and show a tremendous growth across the company. Cobus Loots talks about how they have done it and what the growth targets are in the short term. We were impressed about the way they think about capital allocation. Investing in their assets, they want to repay the debt on balance sheet, paying a dividend and how to deliver growth.
They still have a lot to do but we think this team is rigorous in its planning and methodical is how it delivers its projects.
- Overview of the Company
- Audit Report: Great News?
- Safety & Why It is Important to Pan African Resources
- Productivity & Production: What Numbers Are They Looking At? Can They Lower Their AISC?
- Paying a Dividend: Why Now?
- Mining in South Africa: Benefits and Risks
- Company Financials and Share Price: What’s The Outlook?
- Future Plans for The Company
Click here to watch the interview.
Matthew Gordon: I’m looking at your executive officer statement. We had a chance to quickly scan through this. Some great numbers on there, you must be very pleased.
Cobus Loots: We are quite pleased. And I think this was a great improvement on pretty much all fronts.
Matthew Gordon: Definitely. Give us a one-minute summary of the business for those new to the story to start with.
Cobus Loots: The company is Pan African Resources PLC. We’re a UK company, but with a South African base, with all of our operations currently in South Africa. We have two large gold mining complexes. The first being Barberton Mines. Barberton Mines has been going for almost 130 years. So, gold mining started in Barberton in 1886. We’ve made some major improvements in recent years at Barberton. So, we have the underground mine that we’ve been mining, and will continue to mine for quite some time. And then we also have a tailings plant that produces ultra-low-cost ounces. The other complex is Evander Gold mines. The largest operation that we have now as part of the Evandar is the Elikhulu plant. That also produces very low-cost and low-risk gold ounces. And then we have an underground operation that we are also in the process of developing further at the moment.
Matthew Gordon: Can we talk about some of the growth stories that I’ve been reading about, eg: Egoli and Royal Sheba. But let’s start with these numbers. You’ve produced some exceptional numbers there. What stands out for you?
Cobus Loots: What stands out is the fact that we improved our safety performance at the year past. That’s critical for us on a number of fronts. If we can’t produce safety, we cannot produce. I’m very happy to report that all of our safety statistics have come down in terms of incidents in the last year. That’s a result of principally the Elikhulu tailings plant, which inherently is just a lower risk operation, but then also a massive focus on safety schemes, safety initiatives across the group. The safety box is never ticked. We have to continue to work on safety, but it was a good performance. Operationally we exceeded our production guidance for the year past. That’s obviously quite a positive. Actually, from all operations we had an improved performance. On the cost side from an All In Sustaining Cost (AISC) perspective we reduced our costs quite substantially. I’d like to say we are the lowest cost producer in South Africa as a group, certainly amongst the lowest cost at the moment. But not only that, we also internationally very competitive. So, AISC came in at $980 an ounce. The international benchmark at the moment is just over $900. So, $980 versus $900. Not bad. And there is potential for us to bring down that cost further in the year to come. So overall, good performance. I’m also very pleased by the fact we are proposing a dividend for approval at the upcoming AGM. And that’s positive. We had to suspend the dividend last year as a result of obviously gold price. What was happening at Evander, the substantial capital we were incurring on the construction of Elikhulu. So, I’m quite happy that the dividend is back. We’ll be at a more modest level, but it’s still to 1% yield is not to be frowned at.
Matthew Gordon: Good news it seems to me, but not without a lot of hard work from your team. And I noticed the first thing you focused on there was safety, which again is unusual. People usually to stick that at the back of the presentation. Why is it such a big deal for you guys?
Cobus Loots: If you analyse it coldly, the world is changing. If you can’t produce gold safely, it makes it very difficult to produce. Our people are our primary asset. That’s an addition to our ore bodies and all of our other infrastructure. So, we need to take care of our people from a health and safety perspective. Safety first, health also very important. So, without our people, well, we can’t achieve what we’ve achieved in the last year.
Matthew Gordon: Good. Nice to hear. Let’s talk about productivity. You’ve increased your forecast, so you’re going to be producing at what level by the end of next year?
Cobus Loots: We’re guiding 185,000 ounces for FY20, which as going to you said, is quite a be a big improvement on the 172,000 that we did last year. So that’s off the back of a number of projects. So, 1. Elikhulu will produce now for a full year. We commissioned Elikhulu in September 2018. So, we really only had the benefit of nine months of production from Elikhulu. You obviously ramping up also. So now you’re looking at a full year of production from Elikhulu which includes the enhanced or increased capacity via the ETRP. It’s a tailings block. So, we’re saying 65,000 ounces from Elikhulu. We’re saying 20,000 ounces from what we call the Evander Pillar project at the Evander underground, and then 100,000 ounces from Barberton. So, that makes up of our increased production guidance of 185,000 ounces.
Matthew Gordon: That puts you firmly in the mid-tier producer range. And if you look at what gold price is doing in the last couple of months, you’ll start to see the benefit of that in terms of margins, because of the amount that you’re producing. I make that point for investors, because there’s an assumption because gold is up that the junior explorers and developers will benefit. And they don’t. It’s the producers who will benefit far more quickly because of sales. You talk about the lower AISC, which I thought was interesting. You are striving to drive towards that $900 mark. You’ve clearly made some headway into that. What do you attribute that to and how are you going to continue driving the AISC lower?
Cobus Loots: The first contributor to the reduction of AISC has most definitely been our tailings business. We commissioned Elikhulu in the last year. It’s quite a large plant. It processes 1.2Mt of tailings p/m. And that’s where we get our 65,000 ounces of gold for the next year. The great thing with Elikhulu is it produces at an exceptionally low AISC. We should be at $650, if not lower. We then have the Barberton tailings retreatment plant (BTRP) that does also 20,000 ounces. So overall, we have 85,000 ounces that are what we like to call ultra-low-cost production. This provides a stable base load, for our portfolio, and allows us to survive pretty much in any gold price environment. And it brings down the groups AISC quite significantly. Those are the tailings businesses. There’s quite a lot of optimization happening underground at Barberton. We’re simplifying the infrastructure. We’re doing a lot more development which allows us further access to high-grade ore bodies. We’re looking at the marginal side of the business to see if we cut some ounces and reduce costs? There are a number of initiatives also ongoing to further reduce the AISC for the group.
Matthew Gordon: But that does tend to suggest that the Barberton costs are quite high.
Cobus Loots: If you look at our results presentation, Barberton underground actually has put different shafts with different cost structures. The flagship underground business is Fairview. Fairview has been going for many years. It’s an incredibly high-grade ore body. It’s on average more than 10g/t, but we get pockets of +100/gt. The principal ore body that we mine at Fairview is the MRC. It has a life currently of 20 years. And we’ve been doing a number of improvements to infrastructure to ensure that we can continue to mine successfully, safely and profitably in years to come. So, Fairview by itself is still a fairly low-cost producer. Then we have a more marginal ounces at Sheba and at Consort. So those are the answers that we have to focus on and reduce that all in sustaining costs.
Matthew Gordon: With regards to Sheba, what’s the chances of that making some kind of contribution this year?
Cobus Loots: Sheba has certainly contributed in the year past, but the focus is increasing that contribution. It’s a project that we’ve been speaking about for some time. We want to get the first gold out of Royal Sheba in the year to come. Sheba should do better this year.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s talk about dividends. But you’ve announced that you’re going to pay a dividend, it’s got to be voted for. I’m assuming the shareholders will accept. What made you do that?
Cobus Loots: It’s a modest dividend versus what we’ve paid in the past. It’s still in effect a yield versus having your money in a bank and in some jurisdictions earning a negative interest rate. I think that makes it attractive. If you consider the way that we think about capital allocation. 1. the first is investing in our assets. We have to continue invest in our assets, otherwise we will not be able to continue to generate returns. 2. is balance sheet, because of the project Elikhulu that we constructed in the last year, our balance sheet is highly geared, certainly more than what we’d like to see. So, in the next year, we’d like to repay quite a lot of the debt we have sitting on the balance sheet. 3. it is providing a cash return to our shareholders in the form of dividends. 4. once we’ve taken care of those we also look at growth.
Matthew Gordon: Mining is tough. Mining in South Africa is really tough. But your track record of bringing projects online is good. We talked previously about doing business in South Africa and what it was like. And you said, ‘yeah, it is tough, but we deal with it. We’re used to it’. Tell people about that conversation because I thought it was fascinating.
Cobus Loots: Well, I’ve concluded that gold is so precious because it’s so difficult to mine regardless of where you are actually doing your mining. South Africa has a fairly negative perception internationally and some of it is justified and some of it potentially is not. We have a long history of mining, certainly gold. More than 50% of all the gold that’s been mined in the world has come from our country. We have great infrastructure. We have access to power. We have access to technical skills. We have a good constitution. We have a good legal system, etc. But then you’re faced with the con’s also. You have unemployment. The economy is not doing great. There’s uncertainty in terms of mining legislation. We have power challenges, electricity issues. So, that sort of makes for an interesting mix. But as you point out, we’ve been able to mine successfully in South Africa for many years. We’ve been able to bring great projects online in South Africa in recent years which demonstrates that we have the ability to operate. One thing that’s certainly come to the fore in the last year is that Africa generally is a difficult place to do business. You look at regulatory issues in Tanzania. You look at terrorism in West Africa. You have to accept that mining in Africa does come with challenges and you have to equip yourselves and skill yourself to be able to deal with us and be successful and operate successfully and sustainably.
Matthew Gordon: You bring up points which most CEOs try to avoid discussing, which I appreciate. It’s also on page 7 of the presentation whene you talk about the underlying risks and how you’re dealing with them. It’s quite attractive when a company is refreshingly honest about the issues that they are dealing with. What it is hard to argue against is your track record of continually delivering the answers. What’s also important is driving that share price up. You have had your share price affected negatively. So what are you doing about it?
Cobus Loots: Well, if a share price does badly and we continue to sort of fret and worry about the share price, that it doesn’t really get us anywhere. So now we have a saying that ‘we focus on those things we can control and then the share price will take care of itself’, as it has done to some extent. I don’t want to speculate about the future, but now we’ve repositioned ourselves as a low-cost producer, even in a global sense. We have a long life. We have great projects where we can further increase production with fairly benign investments. I think we’re well positioned. We are safe producer. We are investing into our communities. We’re making a difference where we operate. All of that makes for a good mix. And if we deliver pretty much what we said we will do, the share price should take care of itself.
Matthew Gordon: As a producer, you’re benefiting from a higher gold price. Certainly, next year’s numbers will should, if it continues, benefit from a higher gold price because your margins are quite good. They’re definitely improving. I want to see them continue to improve. And I’m sure you do too. Let’s see what that looks like in the next the next few months. The one thing which I look for when I’m analysing a company is an understanding its financial health. You have debt at the moment. Which project are you using that for at the moment?
Cobus Loots: Well, that was the $130M Elikhulu project this last year. The project-based testament to what you can get done in South Africa. So, to put $130MIL into the ground in 12 months is not insignificant. This plant can cheat 1.2Mt of material a month. We currently produce for 65,000 ounces at an ultra-low AISC in the year ahead. So that’s to demonstrate that you can get things done in South Africa.
Matthew Gordon: And have you got more plans to raise any more money for capital expansion programs or are you done?
Cobus Loots: We are funded as far as the existing projects are concerned. So, there’s no need for us to go to market. I think the shareholders want to see us deliver on what we said we would do. 2019 was a first or second step in doing that and 2020 should be more of the same.
Matthew Gordon: So, margins are improving. Cash flow is starting to improve, are you starting see the benefit of it now?
Cobus Loots: Well certainly at the current gold price we are definitely seeing the benefit. That’s another positive around being based in South Africa. We have generally a Rand cost base, which is our local currency, which means that inflation is higher than what you’ll find in U.S. dollar terms. Wage inflation is higher than what you see in dollar terms. Electricity inflation is higher than what you’d see in dollar terms. So that’s sort of generally then puts a squeeze on margins. Where there’s a benefit is when you find a local currency, the Rand, blow out a little bit more to the dollar. What it’s done in the last months. So, then you see the margins actually go up quite a bit more than what you would find in dollar terms for your African producer. You can look to hedge. But what I’m saying is that the negative on cost inflation is offset when you find a large depreciation in Rand, which is what we have seen in the last month. So, $15,000 gold price is good for us, 700,000 Rand per kilo gold price, which is what we look at is even better for us at the moment.
Matthew Gordon: And then there’s just one other aspect – you’ve covered off safety and you’ve covered off the CSG component, but there have been some disturbances in-country. One of your sheets talks about arrest rates. Why declare that one? What’s that got to do with your ability to mine?
Cobus Loots: Well, illegal mining is a serious issue, and not only in South Africa and the rest of Africa. But you do find the guys being in South Africa quite militant, aggressive, armed. It’s meant that we’ve had to up our game a little, to professionalize further. We’ve spent a lot of money on security in the last year, more so than in years past. And that’s to protect our assets and to make sure we can continue to mine safely and sustainably into the future. So, yes, it’s endemic in South Africa. The fact that you have really high rates of unemployment. That’s going to create discontent. It’s going to create sort of people that have nothing to lose. And hence are desperate and that’s understandable. And so, we do what we can. If you look at our operations, contractors and employees combined, we employ 3,500 people. So, rule of thumb each of the workers and contractors look after up to 10 other dependents. So, 35,000 people that’s depended on our business. So, that is a big responsibility for us and it’s also a big responsibility for government to make sure that we can continue to operate. And we have been seeing the support from government, both nationally and locally, in terms of making sure that we can continue to operate.
Matthew Gordon: It is not just restricted to Africa either. We’ve been speaking to some companies in South America also struggling with illegal workers and all the issues that brings. You’ve got to be sensitive, but you also need to be able to continue to mine. If I may finish off with what you’ve done with your current assets, you’re sweating those assets and working them hard. And that’s reflected in the numbers we see. We look forward to seeing some guidance as to what that is looking like during the course of the next 12 months, obviously. And the final question is always, so any plans for any acquisitions?
Cobus Loots: We continue to look at acquisitions. It’s always a good thing because it teaches you. I always say in looking at other people’s businesses, you learn quite a bit about your own assets and what you can do differently. So, to some extent we’ll be busy with Royal Sheba, as a product of us looking at assets elsewhere. So, it’s not a priority for us. If we only sweat our own assets and we develop as we’ve set out in our plans for the year ahead, you should see a nice appreciation in the value of the business. So, an acquisition is not an imperative for us. So, we’ll continue to look, but we are certainly by no means desperate. And we’ve always said if you can develop your own portfolio, that really is first prize. Elikhulu being case and point. Egoli potentially also part of Evander, being a second example of what we will look at in the year ahead.
Matthew Gordon: And I’m guessing, given you’ve got experience in underground mining and tailings, if you were looking, you’d be looking for some similar kind of setup that would be optimal for you.
Corbus Loots: I think generally it’s difficult for us to justify going out of Africa. Southern Africa in a way makes more sense because it’s close, it easier to manage. Well, I wouldn’t want to limit the company by only that. So, you know, does it make sense a risk adjusted return basis. That’s what we would look at.
Matthew Gordon: Cobus, thanks very much. I know you’ve got a really busy day today with these numbers out and you’ll be speaking to lots of people. Thanks for making the time for us. Appreciate that. Please stay in touch, because I think you’ve built, or you are you continuing to deliver on your track record. Refreshingly honest.
Cobus Loots: Great. Thanks for having me.
Company website: https://www.panafricanresources.com
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