The people, science and technology behind discovery

Nick Sheard
Taking a team approach to life and mine-finding

Talk to Nick Sheard about his life for any length of time and the word "team" is likely to crop up repeatedly. The former head of exploration for Inco believes that a group approach to minefinding has a much better shot at success than the lone wolf mindset that attracts many geoscientists to the field.

But then, Sheard is a natural team player. When he spoke to Earth Explorer, he was fresh from a victory of sorts at the world senior curling championships in New Zealand and, despite getting "smashed up" regularly, is a proud member of a South Australian rugby team called the Crippled Crows. Sheard is 59.

"There are some spectacularly good geoscientists out there that are arrogant loners, and sometimes they find things," says Sheard, who now serves as executive chairman of Carpentaria Exploration, a Queensland-based exploration company. "But realistically, it's the team that does it."

And not a team that builds a hierarchy, but one in which every member feels free to contribute ideas and direction. Fostering that culture at Inco took some doing when Sheard arrived in Canada in 2003 to take over as vice-president of exploration after serving as global exploration manager for MIM Holdings (now Xstrata) in Australia.

 "They preferred a more structured approach where if the manager says something, it gets done," says Sheard,  "whereas in Australia you'd tell him to get stuffed if you didn't agree with him and then have a discussion about it. For an exploration company to work, you've got to have everyone chucking in their two bobs worth on new ideas and concepts."

But Canada did teach him something he wouldn't have learned otherwise: how to curl. He happened to settle in a house just up the road from the local curling club in Oakville, Ont. and, intrigued by the game, soon signed up with his wife Diane. Now he's an Aussie curling celebrity.

"I had seen it on TV in the Winter Olympics and I thought it was a great looking game," says Sheard, who decided to play after some coaxing (and coaching) from Ted Bassett, former vice-president of capital projects and engineering for Inco and a current teammate of Sheard's on the Australian Senior Men's team. "We were hopeless but we had great fun."

Not that hopeless, it would seem. When Sheard returned to Australia in 2007 after Inco was taken over by Brazil's CVRD (now Vale), he was chosen for the team that just won two out of five games at the 2009 World Senior Curling championships to place fourth in the round robin ahead of Hungary and England (Canada placed first and went on to win the gold).

Sheard's delivery is classic Australian – bold, irreverent and humorous – but he is Welsh by heritage. He fell in love with Australia while visiting the country as a recent high school graduate and decided to pursue geophysics after landing short-term work in Kalgoorlie as an IP fieldy with McPhar Geophysics.

 "I couldn't believe it – it was warm and there was lots of beer, good-looking women, and good pay so I thought to myself: why should I go back to the UK, that cold, misty, miserable place?"

Sheard went on to complete an Honours degree in Geology and Geophysics at Flinders University in Adelaide, then was hired by the Australian government to explore in Papua New Guinea.

He considers one of his greatest achievements the development of MIMDAS, MIM Exploration's proprietary distributed acquisition system that was a precursor to Titan, Quantec's deep earth imaging technology.   

"We (the MIM geophysical team in 1994) felt that the current crop of geophysical equipment produced results that weren't reliable or accurately interpretable," he recalls. "We wanted a quantum change to produce quality data and reliable interpretations and no one would do it, so we built our own. That gave us a huge edge."

He is also proud of the discoveries made by the Inco Exploration team during his tenure there.

At the Reid Brook dyke within the Voisey's Bay project in Labrador, for instance, the team revisited previous data, reinterpreted the results, drilled, and discovered a flat lying mineralized system. Subsequent efforts including innovative downhole geophysics (EM and seismic) and rigorous geological work further defined the Reid Brook system. The nickel-copper-cobalt resource now stands at about 11.5 million tonnes.

Under Sheard's leadership, the team also discovered new sources of nickel feed within and near the Thompson mine in Manitoba.  Sheard believes there is a lot of potential for extending Thompson's reserves and making further discoveries along the Thompson belt.

But when CVRD swallowed Inco, Sheard moved back to Australia and launched Carpentaria Exploration. Carpentaria focuses on gold and copper exploration in New South Wales and Queensland, an area less picked over than the western regions of the country. The junior is also investigating a promising iron ore target.

"I've gone from Inco where I had 150 to 200 people to manage, down to a company of five, and from a budget of $80-90 million down to a budget of $1 million."

But he's happy to give up the relentless worldwide travel in order to focus on domestic exploration and, besides, there's more time for bonspiels.