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VANCOUVER — Last fall, Vancouver mining financier Ross Beaty took off on one of his great escapes – a camping trip with his wife along a remote trail on Vancouver Island. To take pressure off his six-decade-old knees, he decided to travel lightly and live off the land, collecting berries, catching fish and taking nourishment from nature.
Trisha Beaty watched as her husband came back empty handed from his days of hunting and gathering. “It was a complete disaster. I caught no food, and found almost no berries,” he recalls. “Fortunately, my wife brought enough food for both of us, because she knew what would happen.” This surrender to realism suggests a man comfortable with ambiguity, who accepts that the world rarely delivers perfection, and who can, at times, show a blithe disregard for consistency.
After all, Mr. Beaty is one of the world’s most successful people at digging minerals out of the ground, and yet he is also a full-throated nature conservationist. He is a free marketer who advocates interfering with the freedom to mine the oil sands; and a gold and silver advocate who really doesn’t see the world’s financial system falling apart.
“I am a chameleon,” Mr. Beaty says happily over lunch at Diva restaurant on Vancouver’s Howe Street. “I have ultragreen environmental instincts but I don’t want government meddling with my abilities as an entrepreneur. I don’t want them getting in my face and telling me what to do. It is a contradiction and I just have to live with it.”
And yet there is one contradiction he cannot so easily accept. To the investment world, he is a remarkable creator of shareholder value who, over the past 20 years of building and selling mining companies, has taken $1-billion from shareholders and turned it, by his estimate, into about $5-billion of value.
But he is frustrated by the market’s indifference to his next new thing, renewable energy. It has meant a bumpy ride for his Vancouver-based energy company, Alterra Power Corp., which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange at about 30 cents, half its level of a year ago and a fifth of its value three years ago.
Alterra has found it hard going in a market that values dividend yields over visionary ventures – even when the visionaries have formidable track records. It has invested heavily in geothermal energy but also in wind and river-run hydro properties. Yet its growth story is overshadowed by nationalist indignation in, of all places, Iceland, where it bought a local geothermal-energy company, leading to a showdown with Icelandic musical icon Bjork.
Alterra sold part of its Iceland holdings to local institutions and the issue has slid off the news agenda, for now. Alterra will yet soar, Mr. Beaty maintains, and he is willing to wait for that eventuality. “It is not a great market in renewable energy but, in a few years, it will come back. We want to be ready with a big springboard.”
Today, there are no berries or roots being served at Diva, just a few steps from the offices of his motherlode company, Pan American Silver Corp. But we are foraging in delicacies such as grilled Caesar and mushroom tortellini, part of the rotating prix fixe menu that Mr. Beaty orders every time he strolls into Diva for lunch.
If Alterra’s market performance is painful, Mr. Beaty remains comfortable with his broad shareholdings in commodities that include copper, nickel, gold, silver, uranium, and a diversified mineral player, Teck Resources Inc. As a mine maker, he is most identified with silver, and somewhat with gold, two metals similar in their investment appeal. Each market is, in his mind, “a bit of a wild animal.” That animal behaviour is snarly these days, as stocks are being hammered and gold and silver prices are taking a beating.
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