Lamphier: Resilient Pamela Strand passes test of her mettle

Pamela Strand, president and CEO of zinc mining company Firestone Ventures in her office in Edmonton on Feb. 4, 2013.

Photograph by: John Lucas , Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - She bears a few more battle scars than she did when I first interviewed her a decade ago, but Pamela Strand hasn’t lost her passion for mineral exploration.

For 15 years, Strand served as CEO of Shear Diamonds (formerly Edmonton-based Shear Minerals), a company she founded in 1997.

But the deal that was supposed to transform the junior diamond and gold explorer into a viable mid-tier producer — the 2010 purchase of the mothballed Jericho Diamond Mine in Nunvaut — didn’t pan out as planned.

Blame Shear’s woes on lower-than-expected diamond grades, falling prices and a horrible market for junior resource stocks, which made it tough to raise capital.

“We haven’t seen a lot happening in the diamond sector for the last couple of years, and last year was probably the worst in a long time,” says Strand, who stepped aside as Shear’s CEO in 2011, and left the board last fall. “The whole diamond market just fell out from under us.”

Shear remains in limbo today. After failing to make required filings with securities regulators, the company’s shares were suspended from trading on the TSX Venture Exchange last November and haven’t budged since.

But like most veteran exploration geologists, Strand is a die-hard optimist. For her, the cup is always half full. So it was only a matter of time before she landed somewhere else. Turns out she didn’t have to wait long.

In late 2011, Strand was named a senior executive at Edmonton-based Firestone Ventures, where she was already a board member. Four months later, Strand was appointed CEO, succeeding Firestone’s founder and longtime chief Lori Walton, who remains on the board.

Although Firestone’s main focus — developing a zinc-lead-silver property in Guatemala — would seem to be a far cry from exploring for diamonds in Canada’s Far North, Strand is clearly warming up to the challenge.

“Lori Walton has laid an amazing foundation at Firestone and we’ve had a presence in western Guatemala (where the company’s 100 per cent-owned Torlon zinc-lead-silver property is located) since 2004,” she says.

“Zinc is a commodity that a lot of people don’t think about, but the forecast and the predicted supply-demand picture is very strong looking out to the end of 2014. Zinc is used in fertilizers and sun screen, and every car has about 40 pounds of zinc in it. So the strong market forecast and the lack of pure zinc plays puts us in an ideal situation.”

Firestone is still a tiny company, of course. Its stock last traded for just five cents apiece, giving the company a market value of less than $2 million. But Strand has high hopes for Torlon and sees brighter days ahead for Firestone.

A preliminary economic assessment of the project is due to be released within the next month or so — just in time for the annual Prospectors and Developers Association (PDA) conference in Toronto, a key showcase for junior explorers that are trying to attract investors.

Meanwhile, Firestone has formed a business alliance with Minero Mining International, a Hong Kong-based private company run mainly by South Africans with zinc mining expertise.

“They have a zinc deposit in South Sfrica so they’re very experienced on that side of things. And once we get our preliminary economic assessment, that will give the market some idea of the economic viability of the project,” she says.

“We believe we can get near-term revenue, so it’s something we can move forward on very quickly. In an ideal world, we’d be in production in about 24 months,” she adds.

“The Minero guys are looking at a fast track to market, and obviously they’re (well positioned) in Hong Kong. We know what’s happening around the entire world with Chinese investment (in resources) right now.”

Of course, the junior mineral exploration and development game is a high-risk one. The rewards may be great, but few companies ever make it across the finish line, or get acquired by a major producer.

Strand, the perennial optimist, is betting that Firestone has what it takes to make the grade. After 25 years in the junior exploration game, and after raising more than $25 million in capital to fund Shear’s activities, she has clearly earned her stripes.

But she knows that markets are fickle at the best of times. So she concedes that she’ll need a bit of luck to turn Firestone into a winner.

“The (stock) markets are not easy, especially now. Some people are saying that they’ve forever changed because of the lack of retail (investors). That’s the focus for me, to get this zinc project into cash flow. So I don’t know. I’m a forever optimist. I hope they haven’t changed forever. But our consumption and our need for metals and minerals is growing, and continues to so. That will never change.”