Minerals Leader Brad Mills Recognized with Distinguished Alumni Award
An exploration geologist with vast business expertise, Mills sees a role for natural resources in renewing communities.
In his early career as an exploration geologist, Brad Mills, ’77, MS ’79, had the opportunity to travel all over the world, “living and working in places one might spend a fortune to go on vacation,” he recalls. In the process, he acquired a deep understanding of natural resource economics and an appreciation for the role his business can play in strengthening communities. As an investor, he aims to demonstrate that profitability is not incompatible with responsibility and that natural resource development can be a vehicle for the common good.
On June 16, 2019, Mills was honored with Stanford Earth’s Distinguished Alumni Award for his achievements. The award was established to recognize highly significant, long-lasting contributions to the civil, government, business, or academic communities by members of the school’s alumni body.
“Brad Mills is an internationally recognized leader in mineral resources discovery and development,” said Stephan Graham, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, in presenting the award. “He is widely respected for his scientific expertise and business acumen, as well as for raising the bar on environmental and social responsibility.
“Brad is also a great friend to Stanford Earth, regularly lending his expertise to faculty and students working on problems in economic geology and contributing valuable counsel as a member of our Advisory Board,” continued Graham, who is also the Welton Joseph and Maud L’Anphere Crook Professor. “We are grateful for his service and I can think of no more fitting recipient of this award.”
Underground at Ming Mine, Newfoundland, Canada. Photo courtesy of Brad Mills.
“An interesting time to be at Stanford”
Brad Mills may have focused his entire career on Earth processes and resources, but it was Mars that initially lured him to the study of geology. Like many teenagers in the early 1970s, he was intrigued by the first-ever images of the Red Planet’s surface. He took a geology course to satisfy his curiosity and knew immediately that he had found his passion, but he had just taken the only such course offered by Brown University, where he was enrolled.
Arriving at Stanford as a sophomore transfer, Mills met Professor Gordon Brown, a new faculty member whose lab consisted of a handful of graduate students and a postdoc. He joined the group as an undergraduate advisee.
“Brad fit right into my research group,” says Brown, who is the Dorrell William Kirby Professor of Geological Sciences, Emeritus. “He was very good at field work and very serious about learning as much as he could about the field of geology.”
Excited by rapid advances in mineralogy, Mills decided to stay at Stanford for a coterminal master’s degree focused on economic geology. He was one of a number of Stanford researchers at that time studying granitic gem-bearing pegmatites, says Brown, who recalls that Mills successfully collected samples from the Harding Pegmatite Mine in Taos County, New Mexico, with an unusual degree of independence. “He produced an excellent master’s thesis on the geology and mineralogy of the Harding Pegmatite, with a focus on the beryls that were a major source of the strategic chemical element beryllium.”
“It was an interesting time to be at Stanford,” remembers Mills, who said scientists were then in the process of developing a new understanding of the relationship between plate tectonics and mineral deposition. “The field had moved from prospectors with picks, banging on rocks, to a science of modeling the Earth processes that produced these deposits and how you might go about finding them.”
Humans and natural resources
Upon graduating, Mills went into minerals exploration, “traveling to remote places, climbing mountains, living in tents.” But he got to see Southeast Alaska, Chilean Patagonia, Southeast Asia, and more, seeing it as “a grand adventure.”
He eventually transitioned into mine site geology, starting with Round Mountain in Nevada, where gold deposits connected to a major geothermal system first interested prospectors around the turn of the century. Reinterpretation of the geology through a modern scientific lens led to the discovery of one of the largest gold deposits ever discovered in the U.S. during Mills’s tenure there.
Witnessing the contribution of science and technology to the growth of the local community made a strong impression on the young explorer, helping to shape his interest in what he calls the “pump priming impact” of natural resource development, a concept that has become a theme in his career and now drives many of his investment decisions. The experience also launched his business career. “As the chief geologist, I was bombarded by due diligence requests and I had to explain the deposit to senior people in other organizations,” he says. “It sparked a real interest in the economics and the business itself.”
Business development and executive roles followed at companies such as Echo Bay Mines, Norilsk Nickel, Magma Copper, and BHP Billiton. He served as CEO of Lonmin PLC, the world's third largest platinum mining group at the time, with 30,000 employees and 300,000 dependents in post-apartheid South Africa.
“That was probably one of the most challenging jobs I've had, because it involved so many different dimensions that were not purely economic,” Mills explains. “There were really massive and interesting social problems associated with the communities that had built up around these mines. This is where I learned a core truth about natural resources,” he says. “They're not good or bad for economic development. They're absolutely agnostic. The economic outcomes are a function of the humans involved and how they share.”
He offers the example of the California Gold Rush as the “pump-priming activity” that effectively built San Francisco, Stanford University, Silicon Valley, and the State of California. There was a similar gold rush in Johannesburg not long afterward, says Mills. “That fueled the city of London, but also built Soweto, apartheid, and incredible inequality between the haves and have nots in South Africa.”
The recognition that “how people use the incredible value that comes from natural resource endowments makes a huge difference in the long term societal outcomes” is what increasingly drives him now, he says.
“I started my private equity business so I could invest in projects that I found interesting around the world and employ everything we’ve learned over the last 30 years about responsibility in mining,” explains Mills. “How do we do it well? How do we fix broken projects where people and communities are suffering? How do we turn them around to make them operate profitably and do it in a responsible way?”
A community comes back
Mills cites the Cerro Bayo gold and silver mine in Chilean Patagonia as an example. The mine had been the principal employer in the region until it closed during the financial crisis of 2008, laying off more than 1000 people and causing the community to fall into steep decline. He and his team brought the mine back online in 2012, operating on a more sustainable economic model with 400 employees and making social and environmental responsibility a priority.
“The renaissance in the community was extraordinary in terms of people coming home and starting businesses,” says Mills, describing a new hotel, restaurants, and ferry service as examples. Most important, he says, “The community used the ‘pump-priming’ opportunity to build a fantastic tourist destination on the shore of an incredible local lake, taking advantage of local winemaking and great natural scenery.
"It was really satisfying to visit a few years later and see the whole town coming back to life in what hopefully will be a long term, sustainable way.”