Live & Learn: Robert Quartermain

The Silver Standard CEO on his roots in geology, getting started without owning a suit, and his philosophy of business.

Robert Quartermain • Born March 24, 1955, in St. Stephen, N.B. • CEO of Silver Standard • Former Air cadet • geologist • avid skier and gardener

St. Stephen is the chocolate capital of Canada, or at least the chocolate capital of New Brunswick. The Ganongs are from there. It’s great growing up there and going to school. Every morning you determine whether it’s peppermint day or chocolate-dip day, because of the smell coming from the factory, which was only two blocks away from the school.

When I was in Grade 10, I joined the Air Cadets, 527 Simonds Squadron, based in Saint John, and I eventually became the head cadet. In the year I was running the squadron, we probably started with a couple hundred cadets, and we probably finished with 150, but we also became the top squadron in Canada. It was a great environment that gave me a lot of training that certainly helped me in my business career.

I had always been attracted to airplanes, and I ultimately got my pilot’s licence while I was with the cadets. I actually learned to fly before I could drive. My girlfriend at the time used to take me to the airport so I could go flying.

I still fly, but commercially, business class.

I like my fiddleheads, lobster and beer, so I get back to New Brunswick at least once or twice a year.

The first job that locked me into geology was in 1976 with the Geological Survey of Canada. I was a small-town boy and had never really travelled much outside New Brunswick. I had been to Montreal once or twice. But I was given this chance to do some mapping in the Northwest Territories, north and east of Baker Lake.

When we’d go up in April or May there would be a bit of snow on the ground, and it was cool, but once July hit, it was pretty warm. You could be down to a long-sleeve shirt and pants. The only thing that was really cold was that we would either have to do a sponge bath or jump in the lake to get clean. There might be 100 feet of water, but then the ice was still melting, so you’d jump in very quickly and try to clean up. When you’re forced into doing it every week, you learn to get pretty efficient at it.

In the early ’80s, I could carry my total assets in two packsacks. At that point in time, I was still living very much in the bush. I didn’t own a suit — I had a blazer and pants — I had never read a balance sheet, never met a lawyer or an accountant. I had just opened a brokerage account.

When I was asked to take on Silver Standard, it really only had one employee, a corporate secretary, and I replaced the president. At the time, I was 29 and he was 67. It was just after a bit of a downturn in the market, so the company had a market cap of close to $3 million and a debt of $250,000, which it owed to Teck. But it had good property assets and shareholders.

I had an entrepreneurial grandfather who was always looking at different businesses and the challenges they presented, so when the opportunity was presented to me — and the choice was to stay in North Bay and be a geologist for Teck or move to Vancouver and try my hand at running a small company; –40 or 0 from a degree point of view — I thought I’d never been to Vancouver, and I’d like to try my hand at running a company.

There continue to be great resources and discoveries to be found in Canada. But there are a lot of regulations put in place, because people often aren’t as straight up as they should be. In my experience, if you found a prospector who said he would do something and you shook on it, it would get done.

I have learned the importance of not thinking of others as wrong. We are all who we are; we shouldn’t try to change people, but support them in making their choices. As a leader, I try to have discussions with people and then let them make the choice.

My business philosophy is based on honesty and transparency. It’s necessary to be fairly open with the people that I work with on a daily basis. The other thing is to be opportunistic. You grow a business by seeing opportunities when others don’t, or when they just see frustration.

We’re always a little contrarian. We got into the silver business when no one else was in silver. When the owners of the Pirquitas mine had the [Argentine] currency crisis affect them and things were not looking good, they wanted to get out and we wanted to get in, because the project long term looked good to us. It was a matter of just waiting things out.