On this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, Ken welcomes Sergio Castanho, former McKinsey consultant, and current CEO of M4E joins us to discuss how he led transformation at Aura Minerals. Sergio draws on his experience from McKinsey as well as previous mining companies.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara.
Ken Kanara: Hello, and welcome to Beyond Consulting brought to you by ECA Partners. The only podcast dedicated to helping our listeners understand the wide variety of options they have after a career in consulting. Put a different way, you can think of this show as addressing the question, “What can I do with my life after countless hours spent in PowerPoint and Excel?”
I’m Ken Kanara, host of Beyond Consulting and CEO of ECA Partners, a specialized project staffing, executive search firm focused on former management consultants and private equity. Each week, I get to host guests that have spent time in consulting and made some sort of pivot or career change. The goal is to put a story behind the role so our listeners can learn from our guests, both in terms of what they did right, and things they wish they would’ve done differently. Today we welcome Sergio Castanho to the studio. Sergio, Thanks so much for joining.
Sergio Castanho: Hi Ken. Pleasure to be here.
Ken Kanara: Thanks. It’s really a treat to have you on the show because we’ve known each other for quite a while now. I guess maybe we could just kind of start off Sergio, by you telling our listeners a little bit more about your background and maybe kind of how we got in touch.
Sergio Castanho: Absolutely. My pleasure. So I’m from the South. 5,000 miles south, actually from Brazil. That’s why my accent [is like this] and I’m a mechanical engineer by training.
I started my career as an engineer. At some point, I decided to change gears and took my MBA from INSEAD in France, and after INSEAD, I went to McKinsey where I worked for six years so that’s my consulting time. After McKinsey, I was there for six years, I left as an associate principal, and then after that, I took on a number of roles in mining.
So now I just started my company almost a year ago, M4-E, mining for energy where I’m trying to find lithium mine. We can talk more about that during the show, but that’s kind of my career in a nutshell. During my last executive position, a couple of years ago, we needed some very strategic with a lot of knowledge, and some work done, and Ken and ECA helped us find it, and it was like a perfect fit. It worked so well and that really set the gears for a very important project that we had to start up some new operation in Mexico.
Ken Kanara: Thanks, Sergio. So for our listeners, Sergio’s being extremely humble. He’s now an entrepreneur, but an extremely accomplished professional in the mining industry.
So, Sergio, we don’t get too many folks that have gone from consulting to mining, especially in the US, but could you tell us a little bit more about M4-E and what you’re focused on? And then we can move to Aura and your role there.
Sergio Castanho: Sure. It almost happened by chance. When I was living in McKinsey, I was doing a lot of what they now call the transformation. So there were a lot of those large transformation programs.
There was this mining company, Anglo American, and I think they’re the fourth largest in the world. They needed to turn around and transform two of their business units before they could sell them. So, as I left McKinsey, I joined one of those business units and it worked really well, and I ended up being CEO of that business. So that’s how I got into mining. I’ve been working on that for the last 12 years.
Now M4-E is a junior mining company. For folks not familiar, before a miner goes on and mine a mine, someone has to find it. The business of finding a mine or finding a mineral deposit is called junior mining, and that’s kind of consolidating the industry.
There are junior minors out there. I think Canada and Australia are the most prominent markets for that. People look for gold, copper, you name the matter. People look for those deposits. What is new now is the energy transition. There’s a new bunch of commodities that were not needed and popular and they’re growing exponentially.
For instance, for mining for energy. Take lithium, for instance, there’s not enough lithium to sustain all the energy transitions so no lithium, no batteries, no batteries, no electric cars, Teslas, etc. So, M4-E is a company that I founded and we are basically investing in finding lithium deposits mainly in Brazil.
Ken Kanara: Excellent. So if you think about a junior mining company vs. an operational mining company and I apologize for my lack of industry vernacular, but if you think about it, as a junior mining company, what are some of the challenges that you think you might encounter as you pursue the journey here?
Sergio Castanho: Yeah. The main risk is always the geological risk, right? So you have to choose the right area. So when you go there and do the geology work, you actually find a mine. But the interesting thing is that when you look and you talk to people and you see why companies fail, there are a bunch of other reasons.
They couldn’t attract the right people. They couldn’t get investors to invest in their projects. They didn’t plan properly, and they spent all the resources, all the money they had and they couldn’t bring the company to the next step. So in a bunch of ways, it’s like a startup. So the parallel with the startup is a very good one. I think those are really the main risk.
Ken Kanara: Yeah. In many ways, similar to a startup, you’re kind of racing against the clock, right? Because you have a finite amount of time and dollars to spend as it relates to the finding and discovery if you will, right?
Sergio Castanho: Exactly. That’s it. You’ve gotta do a little bit of everything in this phase.
Ken Kanara: That’s exciting and we obviously wish you luck. Prior to that, this is where we met, and this is probably where we can spend the bulk of our time. I think our listeners will really find this part interesting. So you led transformation as a Chief Transformation Officer for Aura. Could you tell us that story?
‘Cause I think it’s such a neat kind of success story in terms of when you came in, what you did, and what happened to the company over the years.
Sergio Castanho: Sure, absolutely. So Aura is a mid-tier mining company. It has now operations in four countries. It’s listed both on the Brazilian stock exchange and on the Toronto stock exchange. It must be close to a billion Canadian dollars market cap. I joined the company when the market cap was just south of 40 million Canadians.
It was like a huge transformation from 40 to a billion and the company had many issues and had all sorts of trouble and he had just gone to a change of control. The new controlling shareholder put a new CEO in place and this new CEO put his team together. It was the second C-level active hired by this new shareholder to run the entire transformation of the company.
So that was quite a journey, a lot of time, a lot of energy, some difficulties, and some interesting backs as well. As I mentioned before, you guys played a key role in that. I think the very first big challenge that we had there was to start the Mexican operation. Today it’s the main asset of Aura, the one that contributes the most to the IBIDA.
That was like an operation that we started from scratch. There was nothing there. From hiring a counter manager to putting together the team, managing the startup of the project, to ramping it up, until full production. I think there were around 600 people working on that operation all day.
That was really key and you guys helped us a lot. Putting some stuff that for consultants, it’s simple, right? But to put some structure in the mess and active days that we were living there, that was a blast and you guys brought us a super talented consultant, ex-McKinsey. That was really, really critical for the success of that project.
Ken Kanara: Let’s talk about that a little bit. I mean, you were overseeing various minds. Each of those minds had huge staffs. So you have to deal with everything, from hiring to managing those teams. You have to deal with local laws in the various geographies that you’re operating in.
In consulting, we get to manage two or three people that are most likely insecure overachievers. How do you make the jump to being able to oversee that type of operation?
Sergio Castanho: I think that’s a very good description. The insecure overachiever. I was there so many times. I think you take some superpowers from the consulting base. You take for granted the capacity of seeing the whole, the capacity of synthesizing ideas and structuring things. That helps a lot because, at the end of the day, you deal with complex problems and then the capacity of structuring them gives you an edge.
Over the years I’ve been working with many different professionals with strengths and weaknesses, but the strength of being able to do that, that’s a huge one. I think that’s the main one. You come up to a challenge like this, you know what are the things that need to happen, and then you go for it. I think that’s very important.
I think the fact that even though the staff is huge, we’re talking about 600, 700 people, you end up working directly with a relatively smaller group of people, right? In my case, I would be working with the country managers, and corporate people on finance, strategy, operations, and the technical side.
Maybe you’re restricted in your day-to-day. You’re restricted to a group of maybe 10 people that you’re really working on intensively, but obviously, you’ve gotta see what’s going on in the entire operation in the entire company. But it’s not that you’re working directly with 600 people, right? So that makes things a little bit easier.
Ken Kanara: Absolutely. I mean, 40 million to close to a billion in terms of evaluation. I mean, that’s quite a journey. I’m sure you encountered all sorts of challenges, hurdles, and bottlenecks on the way. Curious to hear from you, Sergio, what was the biggest challenge you encountered when you were kind of leading transformation at Aura?
Sergio Castanho: That’s a good question. I don’t know, there are so many, but I think in the very beginning we were facing make or break every time. We were short in cash and we really needed things to work out. I like to talk about this Mexican project because that was really the cornerstone of it all.
The rest of Aura was kind of breaking even. We had a loan and the loan was enough for part of the project and the project had to start to operate and generate cash to self-complete itself. So the focus was on making sure that that operation started up and sold products and generated revenue. That was like the driving thing behind it all and at the same time set the basis for what we wanted to do out of the other operations.
In the same time that we had all the challenges there, we also had kind of the blessing of having an operation starting from scratch. We could test there a bunch of things that we wanted to do in the other operations, like the type of people that we were hiring. We were looking much more for talent than for experience.
Ee ended up having a younger team in the max operation. We wanted to have some systems in place like PMOs and dashboards and visual management. Things that you take for granted in other industries. They’re not like mining, not necessarily as sophisticated, so we put all those elements in that operation so that was kind of the big bet
As it worked out super well, then we had the cash from that operation. The project was a success, and then we had the model to roll out to the other operation. That was really kind of the start of it all.
Ken Kanara: One of the things that I’ve always admired about you, Sergio is seeing the silver lining of a situation.
I don’t know if any of our listeners caught that, but Sergio just said the best part of the Mexican project was that they were blessed with starting from scratch. I think any other experienced miner would’ve probably viewed that more as a challenge than an opportunity. I think that says a lot about why you’ve been so successful.
Excellent. I would love to just dive in a little to Anglo American because you served in a CEO role there for a business unit if I’m not mistaken, and transitioned from McKinsey to Anglo. I would love to hear about how you got your start in mining and maybe some of the things you learned or observed and what you did for Anglo American.
Sergio Castanho: Sure, absolutely. That was also an interesting project. The background of the business that was happening there, there was like another big company, and that’s all public information. The Xstrata, the Swiss mining company of Glencore, I think years later, ended up merging with Glencore. So Xstrata tried to buy Anglo American.
They made like a tentative hostile take over and Anglo didn’t want the takeover so the way they defended themselves is they said, “Look, I understand what you guys are gonna do. You’re gonna come here. You’re gonna cut some layers of the organization. You’re gonna streamline the business. So you know what? We’re gonna do that ourselves.”
There was this plan of streamlining Anglo American. Anglo American had 10 business units. Two of those business units were in Brazil, Phosphates and Niobium. They said, “Okay, we’re gonna sell those smaller business units, like smaller for Anglo standards.” The phosphate business was worth probably like 1.5 billion and the Niobium business was worth another billion dollars. So they said we’re gonna streamline and sell those business units, so we will end up at the end of this process with only five business units.
So I entered Anglo to help streamline those two businesses that at the end of the day would be sold. There were like smaller business units in a big company so there were kind of neglected. There were a lot of opportunities there. I think that was like a very typical transition from consulting to industry. You end up taking either a strategy position or a transformation. This case was like the transformation thing.
We really analyzed the entire company, brainstormed, and came up with a high-level plan of what to do, and what would be big the projects to tackle. Then there was a lot of focus on execution, weekly meetings, steers, and all of that to make sure that those projects moved.
At the same time, we were preparing the strategic plan on how to expand those businesses. What is the market that they are in? How do you expand and grow those businesses? Long story short, after a year of doing that, the businesses were performing way better.
In Phosphates, I think we multiplied by three. In Niobium, we multiplied by almost two. At the end of the process, other things happened to Xstrata. The hostile takeover cover was not on the table anymore. Those businesses were looking way better. At the end of the process, Anglo looked at the business and said, “You know what? I think now we’re gonna keep them.”
Then they offered me to lead one of them. So I led the Niobium business for another three years as the CEO and then later on it merged with another business unit. That’s when ended up leaving and starting another company.
Ken Kanara: Sergio, one of my biggest observations with you as well as other guests that I’ve had on that have had a lot of success is their ability to affect change and execute. The folks that I talk to that have been truly, truly successful, really focus on the execution piece. It seems to me, at least that in consulting, all we talk about is strategy.
Strategy is very sexy, right? But to actually affect change and execute is to me like the holy grail after consulting. Have you observed a similar situation after consulting in terms of what you’ve seen?
Sergio Castanho: Absolutely, Ken. I love the question. That’s it. Even when I look back to my consulting days, the projects that you remember, the projects that you like, and the projects that you were proud of having done are the projects that were changed and actually occurred, right?
For some projects, you work long hours, you do all of that very nice PowerPoint act that when you use, it’s okay, you do our job, but those are not the projects that you’re gonna remember fondly.
I totally agree with you. The holy grail is making sure that transformation happens.
I think it’s a very unique set of circumstances that need to be present. You need to obviously organize the organization to move and you need a story. The interesting thing about it is if you take those two examples that I just mentioned, and in the case of Aural, it was the transformation of the maximum pressure was like do or die. Everybody had that in mind.
I remember we had graphs of cash burn and all the management knew about it. Somehow we managed to gear the entire organization toward that story. Obviously, the geology guy is doing something, the mining engineer guy is doing another thing, the quality guy, HR…
Everybody’s involved in their own way, but everybody understands that big want and that big change that needs to happen. What needs to be accomplished has to be simple. The case of Anglo is similar. The company is for sale. Someone is gonna buy it. Someone’s gonna take it because someone wants either Niobium or Phosphates. The best thing we can do is have this operation running so smoothly that whoever takes it over will want to keep the team and keep it exactly as it is. So it’s like the big thing where Android is selling us because we’re small and we are not well run. No, we are gonna show that this is worth it. I think this is kind of a topic of those large situations, right?
Somehow, because of the way you organize and the circumstances, you manage to get the entire organization around this big goal and this big want, I think it’s when the magic happens.
Ken Kanara: So let’s break that down for a second ‘cause that’s interesting. You kind of explained change as it becoming the mission across the organization. Sergio, you’re obviously very kind of empathetic and people-focused. What else from your perspective is critical if you’re driving major change initiatives, either within a business unit or at an entire company, like Aura?
Sergio Castanho: Now look, I’ve been doing a lot of those transformations. I did that I think since the McKinsey days, so I think one thing is very important. You have the big story and that’s one important element, but then you really need the mechanics, right?
I remember back in my McKinsey days, we do that in a white goods manufacture. We did that in many councils. We did that in Italy, India, Brazil, and Mexico, name it. You need specific governance. You need to break it down to specific projects. They cannot be too granular otherwise you get tranced in details. They cannot be too broad so you have to find that fine line.
I like the magic number of 15 projects. I think that’s what an organization can handle. What are the 15 projects that you’ve gotta take care of? You’ll take each one of them, you put a target, you put a goal, a financial goal, KPI, milestones, and put governance on it.
You meet every two weeks, four weeks, whatever it is, and put space on it, make sure that those projects are happening. At the same time, you are bringing the right people in. You need to change some people, bring some fresh blood in, and I think you have to have fun. When you have this sense of team, you gotta have that.
We did a lot of that in both at Anglo, and the maximum operation was like going out, having beer, and having a good time. In a way, very similar to the environment you have in business school.
The “play hard, work hard” type of mentality. If you get that going, then I think you’re off to success.
Ken Kanara: I like how you broke that down. 15 projects, targets, goals, KPIs, and governance, and having fun. I think one of the things that I’ve observed that’s very different if you think about a classic PMO and in a corporate setting vs. the situations that you just described, is everything’s very real.
This isn’t green, yellow, red for the sake of green, yellow, red on a PowerPoint slide. It is very real and the meetings aren’t just there to fill people’s calendars. They’re there to drive change. I think that’s one of the things that, to me at least makes things very different pre and post-consulting from what I’ve seen so thanks for sharing that.
I would love to get your general advice for our listeners. If they are currently in consulting, thinking about maybe a career in either transformation or mining. Any advice that you would have for them?
Sergio Castanho: Each one is different so I think if you are to stay in consulting and that’s your thing, and I have so many friends that made it to senior partner, etc. If you’re gonna stay in consulting for longer, you should really think about maybe taking one year of an executive position.
I know at McKinsey they have that third year out that they do for business analyst before a business go. But I think even at more senior levels, having an experience of working at a client or a company that could be a client of consulting, that’s huge. Because when you are in consulting, we get trained, we hear “Don’t be arrogant.”
But it’s different when you experience it. The big difference is that you have time, you have one project. You’re taking care of one issue, and the executives that are there, even the ones that are super smart, have entire agenda to take care of.
There are all sorts of things going on in the company. It’s sometimes difficult for us and they’re saying, “Why don’t they just do this, it’s so obvious.” Because there’s a bunch of other things. There’s a little bit of politics in the company to take care of, particularly when you’re going up and you were a C-level, etc.
You can’t just go there and do stuff. You have to align first. You have to do all of that, etc. So I think if you’re a consultant, I would say definitely try to have some executive experience, and if you’re thinking about transitioning, and if you’re feeling it’s the right moment, do it. Because I think it’s so powerful when you go out and you take the skills from your consulting days, and then you learn the new skills of being an executive. The combination is so powerful so I would say by all means.
Ken Kanara: That’s great advice, especially your point around getting a different perspective, because once you’re in that different role of an executive, you definitely have an appreciation for the fact that this project is maybe one of 15 things, just to use your project example, that matter for this particular executive. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It’s just that there might be other fires that are burning a little bit hotter at the moment.
So great advice, Sergio. Lastly, we’re always trying to build up our library of books and it’s okay if you don’t have a suggestion, but we always ask every guest if there are any books that they would recommend to our listeners that have maybe made an impact on their life.
Sergio Castanho: Oh, thank you. That’s an interesting question.
Probably some of your guests already suggested this, but I recently read No Rules Rules, the story of Netflix, the culture change, and the reinvention of them over and over and over. I love that book. I think it’s such a good read. It basically explains how they went from being a subscription company sending DVDs on their mailbox to becoming streaming.
I think even the name Netflix, they already knew they would be streaming at some point to being the largest Hollywood producer. So imagine the type of culture that they need to be able to go to all this change. As the book title says, No Rules Rules, so there’s a lot of leaving it to the individuals’ common sense, etc. I know Netflix has been through some trouble lately, and we touched a little on culture in this conversation here, but the type of culture that they manage to create there is something really fabulous.
Ken Kanara: I’m glad you suggested the book because no one has suggested it yet. I’m personally a big fan of it. I love how they equate the company to a sports team as opposed to a family.
I think it’s just a much more kind of honest betrayal. I think a great way to think about it is you can work hard and play hard too in that context.
Sergio Castanho: Totally agree. There’s still competition, right?
Ken Kanara: Yeah, exactly.
Well, Sergio, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. It’s been great learning from you as well, and I’m sure our listeners would agree.
If anybody wanted to learn a little bit more about M4-E, is there a website or somewhere where they could go or maybe your LinkedIn or anything like that?
Sergio Castanho: I would say just my LinkedIn at this moment. It’s on my to-do list to put a website together, but I’ve been dealing with funding the company, and now we’re fully funded, and getting everything ready and I didn’t do the website yet.
We have a CFO now. We have a technical advisor. We have a project manager. Now we’re structured to the point that I think we will get a website, but I would say my LinkedIn for now.
Ken Kanara: Well, you’re focused on what matters most, right? So that makes a lot of sense. Well, very good.
For those of you that are interested in hearing future episodes, make sure you subscribe either on Spotify or Apple. If you want to hear past episodes, you can always go to beyondconsulting.info. Lastly, if you wanna get in touch with me, you can check out www.eca-partners.com. And until next week we look forward to talking to everyone.
Thanks so much.
Connect with Sergio on LinkedIn.