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John Zigarlick’s Northern legacy

It’s fitting that when Erik Madsen last saw Nuna Logistics cofounder and CEO John Zigarlick, two weeks before his death, Zigarlick was doing what he loved best — planning for a future ice road.

It’s fitting that when Erik Madsen last saw Nuna Logistics cofounder and CEO John Zigarlick, two weeks before his death, Zigarlick was doing what he loved best — planning for a future ice road.

“He was talking about ‘next time I see you, I’m going to get some maps because I want to show you where we might best build an ice road going into your Baffin Island project,’” says Madsen,

Baffinland Iron Mines’ vice-president of sustainable development, health, safety and the environment.

“We were going to get together in the New Year and do that,” Madsen continues, recalling the conversation about Baffinland’s Mary River iron project over dinner in Yellowknife late last year. “Then I got a call during Christmas, it was quite the shock.”

Zigarlick died in his home in Edmonton of natural causes on Dec. 16, 2011, at the age of 74. But he leaves an indelible mark on Canada’s Far North — an area he loved and was passionate about developing.

Zigarlick was the pioneer who, as president and CEO of Echo Bay Mines in the 1980s, started the world’s longest winter road, now known as the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road joint venture, to supply the Lupin gold mine, in Nunavut.

As head of Echo Bay in the 1980s, Zigarlick demonstrated that in times of high commodities prices, remote Arctic mines could be highly profitable — with a bit of planning, determination, and elbow grease. A details man and the ultimate big picture thinker, Zigarlick crafted a plan to develop the high-grade Lupin gold mine, 400 km north of Yellowknife, N.W.T., that tested the limits of what was possible in the North. And a decade later, Zigarlick was one of the first to partner with Inuit organizations ahead of the creation of Nunavut as a cofounder of Nuna Logistics, a majority Inuit-owned operating company that has built and maintained the Tibbitt to Contwoyto ice road since 1997.

Madsen, a former director of the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road joint venture worked closely with Zigarlick for 15 years and made the 9-10 hour trip up or down the highway many times with a man he calls his mentor and a second father.

While Nuna has an experienced team that manages the yearly ice road, which is built 80% on frozen water, and carries up to 11,000 truck loads during its eight- to ten-week operating season, Madsen says it remained Zigarlick’s pet project.

“John would still call two, three times a day because he’d have a new idea,” Madsen says. “He was always thinking ahead about how to make things better.”

That instinct is what made Zigarlick so successful in Canada’s often unforgiving Far North.

The Lupin mine

Except for 11 years spent in the Canadian Armed Forces, Zigarlick’s life was shaped by the mining industry.

Born in Winnipeg, Man., he grew up in Uranium City, Sask., where his father, John Zigarlick Sr. worked as a mine manager at a uranium mine. Zigarlick Jr. worked for two years at a uranium mine before joining the armed services, spending much of his time overseas as a military police officer.

But he returned to mining and Canada in the late 1960s, working for one of Echo Bay’s contractors. In 1971, he was hired by Echo Bay as manager of purchasing and personnel. And by 1977, with a degree in business administration from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and having worked in a variety of roles in the company, he was appointed president and CEO.

At that point, the company’s single asset, the Port Radium silver mine, on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, was running out of ore. Zigarlick’s plan was to replace the mine with Lupin, a high-grade gold deposit that had been discovered by Inco in the 1960s. But pulling off his plan required not only some innovative thinking in terms of Arctic logistics, but also all of Zigarlick’s considerable persuasive powers. It was not an easy sell for Echo Bay’s parent company at the time, U.S. conglomerate International Utilities (IU), a company that also owned pineapple plantations in Hawaii, says Kirk McLellan, who joined Echo Bay in 1978.

“John had to convince (IU) to invest in a gold mine up in the High Arctic of Canada, where there was really no precedent set for that type of operation,” says McLellan, now a purchasing manager for

Kinross Gold (K-T, KGC-N), which bought Echo Bay in 2002. Zigarlick’s ability to sell IU on the idea of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a fly-in northern operation impressed the young McLellan.

“That was the start with me for John’s leadership skills and entrepreneurial insights,” he says. “John saw things that other people didn’t.”

Building infrastructure in Arctic conditions was tough, says Walter Sopher, a northerner and experienced contractor who was hired initially to build the airstrip at the operation. Sopher remembers travelling across a frozen lake on a skidoo during his first trip to the site in March 1980, to scout out a potential gravel source at -40°C.

“I thought: man oh man, Holy Jesus, what are we getting into,” Sopher says. “It was cold and miserable.”

Gold and silver prices spiked at US$850 per oz. and US$50 per oz., respectively, in 1980, and forward sales of silver in the late 1970s brought $29 million into Echo Bay’s coffers. Supported by the precious metals boom, Zigarlick decided to fly in all the construction materials to Lupin, 400 km north of Yellowknife — a feat that had never been tried at an Arctic operation.

The company bought C130 Hercules and Convair 640 aircraft, which worked round the clock, seven days a week for more than a year to ship in a total of 32,000 tonnes of cargo.

Despite the large scale, complex logistics and high costs associated with such a massive undertaking, the mine was completed on time and on budget in 1982.

That was also the year Lupin got its first winter road. Although ice roads were not a new concept, no one had ever built one as long as the nearly 600-km-long Lupin ice road, which required a considerable financial investment for use over just two to three months.

“In those days, it was about $5 million a year to open and operate the winter road — and that was big money back in the ’80s,” McLellan notes.

But, again, Zigarlick managed to get IU and Echo Bay shareholders — the company had gone public to help fund construction of Lupin — on board and saved millions of dollars a year on transportation costs.

The road was initially built by Echo Bay and Robinson Trucking, with other contractors having a go before Nuna took it over.

While Lupin went on care and maintenance in the late 1990s due to low gold prices, the ice road had already become a central support for the first diamond operations in the Northwest Territories, Ekati and Diavik.

Nuna Logistics

With acquisitions of properties in the United States and elsewhere in the 1980s and ’90s, Echo Bay transformed from a small silver miner worth $7 million in 1979 to a company with several mines and a market capitalization of $2 billion in 1995. But in 1993, Zigarlick retired from Echo Bay — only to turn around and start two new ventures, Nuna Logistics and Pilot Shipping.

“John wasn’t somebody that was going to sit retired,” Mervyn Hempenstall, president and CEO of Nuna Logistics, recalls with a laugh. “He liked to work, so that was as much a hobby as it was a means to an end,” he says adding that at that stage, Zigarlick didn’t need the money.

Again, Zigarlick’s focus was on the North. The idea behind Nuna was to develop a majority Inuit-owned company with expertise in northern mining and development.

Zigarlick approached Fred Hunt, CEO of Nunasi Corp. and Charlie Lyall, at the time the president of Kitikmeot C
orp., to join forces.

“There was huge potential (in the north),” says Lyall, a former RCMP special constable who had worked in Echo Bay’s human resources department and in the company’s hangar in Yellowknife in the 1980s. “The land claim had just been settled and we knew about the potential of mineral development in the region.”

Moreover, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which formed the basis for creating Nunavut, called for Inuit-owned businesses to get a good shot at some of the expected development contracts, he adds. “I considered John to be the expert on northern development and mine development so I couldn’t think of a better partner.”

For Zigarlick, who from the start had always insisted that Inuit have a chance at the jobs created in their own territory, the partnership was a natural one.

“John had a great deal of respect for Inuit,” Lyall says. “He’d gone on a couple of snowmobile trips with friends and he couldn’t believe how they could navigate with seemingly no navigational aid. He was always very impressed and awed by that.”

Inuit-owned companies Kitikmeot Corp. and Nunasi Corp. each own 25.5% of Nuna, with 49% owned by Nuna Management Group. The company now employs more than 600 people and this year won the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s Skookum Jim award for aboriginal achievement.

Nuna’s services and northern expertise have been integral to many northern operations. It was involved with the Diavik diamond mine from the start, setting up the first camp there. And since 1997, the company has been handling the building and operation of the 568-km-long Tibbitt to Contwoyto ice road joint venture between the operators of the Ekati, Diavik and Snap Lake diamond mines.

Ice road redux

Zigarlick had many achievements, but the ice road was his proudest.

“From the day he helped develop that to basically the day he passed away, John never let go of the road,” Hempenstall says.

There were many reasons for Zigarlick’s fascination with the ice road, which held fast for more than three decades.

Part of the draw was the uncertainty surrounding the road, McLellan says.

“The road basically was a new endeavour every year,” he says. “It was built 80% on ice, 20% on land and it was always about maximizing the efficiency of the road and doing it in a very safe environment, but never knowing what you were going to get year over year,” he explains. “There was always that wild sort of Northern aspect to it that I think anybody that had ever been associated with it felt.”

Madsen points out that the road is the lifeline to the diamond mines and to the North — and that the economic stakes are high if something goes wrong with the operation.

The sheer beauty of the north was another lure for Zigarlick, an amateur photographer who would often stop to snap a photo of a wolf on the road or a particularly striking sunset. And top of mind for him was always ensuring the safety of the operation for the crew, many of whom he knew well because they returned year after year.

The ice road has grown from handling 500-600 truck loads a year when it was serving Lupin alone to a record 11,000 in 2007, serving the diamond mines at their peak.

That evolution has required a team effort, including the work of many consultants over the years, such as EBA Engineering, whose planning and engineering work has fine tuned the operation.

“The road is a dramatically different one today than it was back when it was just servicing Lupin,” Hempenstall says, explaining that the engineering, technical support, and safety of the road have all been improved dramatically. “Of course, a lot of those things had to happen for the road to be able to handle the volume.”

Last February, Zigarlick completed a book about the ice road called On Good Ice with journalist Bill Braden. About 2,500 hardcover copies were printed, and an updated softcover version is under way. The road had its 30-year anniversary this winter, and this season, it was dedicated to Zigarlick, a father of three, grandfather of six, and great-grandfather of five.

Zigarlick will be remembered not just for his innovative thinking and ability to execute big ideas, but also for his way with people and talent for getting the best from employees.

At Lupin, which produced roughly 3.3 million oz. of gold over two decades, Zigarlick always had his ear to the ground.

“When he would go to the mine site… at lunch, he wouldn’t sit with the management, he’d go sit with the miners at their table,” McLellan says, adding Zigarlick always joked that management would only told him what he wanted to hear. “He wanted to hear it from the guys who were living there every day, working there — it was their job, it was their life.”

Zigarlick was also known for his generosity, with friends, family, employees and strangers alike. He volunteered in the kitchen of an Edmonton community services centre for the homeless for 25 years, and also donated to many causes. When a tornado struck Edmonton in 1987 and destroyed the trailer homes of some Echo Bay employees, Zigarlick helped them get back on their feet.

While he loved to work, he was also very health conscious and fit, and enjoyed fishing, boating and golf. After he retired from Echo Bay, he bought a 100-ft. yacht, and appropriately named it the Reward.

While Zigarlick was generous with his expansive knowledge of northern mining and development, and mentored many of the people now carrying out the same work, his colleagues and friends say Zigarlick was one of a kind.

“There’s nobody in the north country today that will ever replace John Zigarlick and I do not see anybody in the future,” Sopher says. “He made things happen.”

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2 Comments » for John Zigarlick’s Northern legacy
  1. Pat Mulcahy says:

    This definitely sounds like the John Zigarlick I had the good fortune to meet at the Banff School of Advanced Management in February of 1978.

    Always a dynamic contributor in class, he excelled in the project he chose as a case study – and it involved Echo Bay Mine at Port Radium.

    In 1970,when working with the Govt of the NWT I had been forced down by weather and we spent 4 days at Echo Bay [a dry camp] until the weather lifted. When I told John about the incident he took it upon himself to have the Mine send him a sample of their high grade silver ore and gave it to me as a memento. I have it still.

    A fine man. I was searching the Net for mention of him and his extremely successful career was no surprise to me.

    RIP, John.


  2. Robert Smith says:

    I knew the Zigarlick family from Gunnar Mines in the Uranium City area where I worked as a mine mechanic. I never met John until I worked at Lupin. I was there for 15 years.
    I gave John a set of coffee mugs with mining scenes on them as he was a mining man and so was his brother Lawrence and his Dad old John.

    I was shocked to hear of his passing as I always thought he would be in the North making mines for many years.

    Robert Smith

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