On Ajax: Management shake-up takes out familiar face

Reporter Cam Fortems regularly takes a look at the proposed Ajax Mine

Cam Fortems / Kamloops Daily News
November 10, 2012 01:00 AM

Smart, straight-talking - if brusque at times - and never afraid to talk to reporters, project manager Jim Whittaker was the face and voice of Ajax mine.

While the Cominco's historic pit is there forever, Whittaker is gone.

KGHM-Ajax made no announcement of Whittaker's departure at the end of October. Instead, speaking with Ajax's PR man, Norm Thompson - for now the new Whittaker - I learned of the management change.

No explanation either.

Whittaker first hit the news in April last year, when he made a presentation to the board of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District outlining the project.

His speech appeared to take a suddenly awakened public largely by surprise. Whittaker's presentation lit the fuse of awareness, which burned slowly at first.

Within a few months, a public meeting would attract 400 people and the proposed mine would become the biggest local story of this young century.

Prior to Whittaker's first public speech, however, Ajax chugged along without much notice. But not from this newspaper.

A front-page headline in The Daily News on KGHM's financing of the project nearly one year earlier, in May 2010, called it, "Mine On Doorstep."

Activists, meanwhile, were slow to respond and treated the mine as if it snuck through the back door and dug a hole in the basement with no one looking.

Whittaker was the project manager who worked for partner Abacas Mineral Exploration, which developed the project.

Abacus is now a junior partner, at a 20 per cent stake. The Vancouver-based company is determining whether it will sell its stake or come up with its share of the $800-million cost of mine development.

Jim Excell, CEO of Abacus - in charge before KGHM exercised its rights to purchase 80 per cent - was never comfortable with reporters or the public. As of today, he remains one of three senior managers and is the chief financial officer.

In an interview this week, Thompson told me, for now, "I'll be the new public face."

Thompson came on board in April this year as community relations manager. Or as reporters call people in his job, head flak - as in flak jacket.

To give him credit, Thompson returns reporter calls promptly and is straightforward. But with a background in finance at the B.C. Lottery Corp., he lacks Whittaker's mining bona fides. I expect city residents will see him more as image-maker than someone with knowledge and persuasive power within KGHM International.

Whittaker got along with reporters, who appreciated his bluntness and depth of knowledge in mining.

More notably he pledged to City council in January this year that the company would not proceed with its project as planned unless all levels of government, including the City of Kamloops, approved.

Now that the corporate sands have shifted, it's left to speculation whether that surprising promise died when Whittaker left.

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