Interview with Chris Corbett

Chris Corbett is a Principal at RCF who is responsible for leading one of the firm’s deal teams. Before joining RCF, Chris’ early career was predominately field based as an engineer in country Australia, learning from hands on experience alongside operators.

I’ve always enjoyed solving problems but it was a BHP Science Award and a trip to BHP’s Newman iron ore operations that set me on the engineering path.  I finished school and enrolled in a combined Engineering and Commerce degree, commerce-based on advice from my parents, at the University of Western Australia (UWA). I graduated five years later with first-class honors in Mechanical Engineering and a purposely broad commerce degree with a major in general management and a minor in strategic management.

As a graduate engineer you can either go into a graduate program with a major company, join a consultant and crunch some numbers, or you get your hands dirty on site. It was the latter that appealed to me because I wanted a solid practical foundation as a complement to my tertiary qualifications. I had completed some vacation work with Byrnecut, one of Australia’s largest underground mining contractors, and was offered a role once I graduated.  It wasn’t long before I was on a plane to Mount Isa, Queensland to work as a project engineer on the M62 shaft project, a 715m deep internal shaft sink and associated haulage system fit out that started almost 1km underground.

I really enjoyed working in a small team delivering a key project on the critical path and was fortunate to be surrounded by some very experienced operators. I learned a great deal from them as a result (both technically and commercially) and was fortunate to be given a lot of responsibility early on.

Chris gained further experience both technically and academically whilst working as a mining engineer, before looking to change lanes from engineering to mining finance.

Toward the end of the project I was tasked with writing a technical paper on the delivery of the project and presented it to Byrnecut’s majority owner, Thyssen Schachtbau, in Germany which was great experience and a lot of fun. Not long after, I relocated from Mount Isa back to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia in a maintenance support and commercial analyst role.  At the time we were looking at improving some of the reporting systems so plenty of analytical work.  While in Kalgoorlie, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Mining at the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) to add formal technical qualifications to the mining engineering knowledge I’d gained on site.

My work with Byrnecut took me as far as Portugal on a due diligence trip for a client led by a mining engineer turned investment banker. In hindsight, it was a pivotal moment for me since the more I listening to this guy speak, the more I realised that by staying in a focused engineering capacity I wasn’t likely to be exposed to the funding related decisions around a mining business. I felt like I was missing out on part of what I wanted to be doing.

I resigned from Byrnecut soon after and spent a few months working for an engineering consultant in Perth but I was more interested in breaking into a finance-orientated role.  I remember spending most lunch breaks arranging and taking meetings with finance professionals seeking advice and contacts and this ultimately resulted in a job offer from Wesfarmers Business Development as a Financial Analyst (and more study – I completed a Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance and Investment). I was fortunate to work with some very commercially astute people who were also great teachers. We evaluated at many different types of businesses in a range of sectors including agriculture, mining, retail and energy. It was a great opportunity and gave me a solid grounding in business generally whilst developing my understanding of detailed commercial practices through being involved in competitive tender processes, providing financial analysis to support business cases, negotiating term sheets and solving commercial issues.

An opportunity with RCF came up during Chris’ time back in Perth. Chris provided some insight into the dynamics of his team and the benefits RCF brings to the portfolio companies it invests in.

I bumped into James McClements (RCF Managing Partner) around seven years ago at a leadership course and was later offered a role. The focus was specifically mining (compared to the broader focus at Wesfarmers) and I felt like I was back in my element then two years ago I started leading one of the investment teams. When it comes to leadership everyone has a different style, my style is collegiate and practical which comes from experience working on site and at Wesfarmers. We employ very intelligent and motivated people and I trust my guys to deliver on the aspects of a deal under their watch, with me it’s a team effort.

When it comes to what RCF brings to portfolio companies, I believe one of the biggest benefits is our patience and the longevity of the funds. We buy into business strategies and support management teams to successfully deliver. People might say ‘everyone says that’, but we’ve got the track record that differentiates ourselves from other players in the market. Mining is a cyclical environment, a lot of investors simply walk away when markets turn or sit on their hands. We not only see these markets as an opportunity to make new investments but also to support existing portfolio companies to take advantage of the conditions.  Portfolio companies also get access to our experienced team of technical professionals around the world which can have great financial and operational benefits.

I see RCF as having the flexibility to adapt quickly as market conditions change. If we see a quality asset for a commodity with interesting market dynamics we can take the long term view and support its development. Often public markets can’t, so we bridge the gap acting as a catalyst to execute on deals and create long term value. This flexibility and patience leads to the development of some different and complex projects that might not otherwise be able to secure all the necessary pieces of the funding puzzle. With Wolf (Wolf Minerals), I’m watching the first new metals mine in the last 45 years being built in the UK, which is a direct result of this approach.