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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Making a billion - with nickel

Big money can be made in the commodities business, and Rodney Smith looks at a story of a particularly earnings windfall, as told in the book 'The Big Score' by Jacquie McNish.

Nickel prices are expected by some commodity experts to rise possibly 60% this year as the Russians hold supplies back from the market.

Nickel is the ingredient that makes steel stainless. It's vital to all manufacturers who make things of metal.

But any action by the Russians that boosts the price of nickel will bring windfall earnings to others as well.

Like Canada's huge Inco nickel producer. Inco boss Mike Sopko recently published excellent quarterly profits. A far cry from conditions just a couple of years ago when Mike Sopko seemed to have sunk Inco in his efforts to get his hands on a massive deposit of nickel and other metals at Voisey's Bay in Canada's Labrador province.

Business adventures

The story of that huge corporate battle, an almost uniquely Canadian event, one small-time mining promoter against industry giant, is told in great detail and with enormous enthusiasm by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jacquie McNish in her book, The Big Score.

This is a far cry from the usual business book.

This is an adventure story, an extraordinary tale about unusually driven people; a complex subject for anyone not familiar with the specialised world of mining and mineral exploration.

There's no doubt about which side Ms McNish is on - the tough old mining men at the top of Inco.

She is not swayed by the charms of the man she sees as the villain of the piece, Robert Friedland.

Larger-than-life Mr Friedland is the sort of larger-than life person who would probably have made a fortune whatever business he chose.

Yet, a 1970s hippie with a promising line in Indian mysticism, he seems unlikely material for a mining promoter.

This story is also about the curious world of the Canadian mine promoter, the entrepreneurs who dream of finding huge mineral wealth.

The gamblers

They are not necessarily geologists or miners, they are entrepreneurs who marry the groundworkers, the prospectors, with money. They are financial middle-men with imagination.

They are gamblers, driven by the prospect of huge wealth.

One who hawked a Californian platinum play around the London mining analysts in the mid-1980s had been a bank manager in Scotland.

He had gone to Canada on holiday and been bitten by the bug.

Another was David Walsh, whose Bre-X allegedly discovered gold in Indonesia - it was pumped up to a stock market valuation of $4bn before blowing up into the biggest gold scam of all time.

Legends of fortunes won and lost are created around people like these.

Mining Voisey's Bay

Robert Friedland was better known for mining disasters than mining successes when he chanced on Voiseys Bay.

Deeply unpopular in the mining industry, his Galactic Minerals' Summitville Mine in Colorado even caused one of the United States' worst environmental disasters when it leaked cyanide into Colorado Rocky Mountain rivers in the late 1980s.

Voisey's Bay is different; an unusual mineral structure, a sort of lens of huge richness formed as a bubble of mineral soup within the surrounding magma after some mighty eruption in the earth's core many millions of years ago.

The Big Score is the tale of how Friedland and Sopco fought over this discovery. And how both won, but in different ways.

It's that rare thing, a business book that is also an excellent read.

The Big Score - Robert Friedland and the Voisey's Bay Hustle, by Jacquie McNish, published by Doubleday Canada.

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