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Mining ace with a taste for heights

Submitted by on Wednesday, 21 January 2009No Comment
Mining ace with a taste for heights

Dr Tim Williams is Ernst & Young ’s director for global metals and mining in the UK. DAVID GEMMELL caught up with him during a recent visit to London.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: Firstly I advise Ernst & Young on mining worldwide – I am their industry specialist. Then secondly I provide information to clients and staff on really obscure minerals and specific mining operations – which I can do, as I am a geologist and have been on the other side, having worked in most areas of mining. Thirdly I market Ernst & Young to potential clients.

Q: Have you had any fall-out from the failure of the financial analysts to predict the world wide credit crunch?

A: You’ve raised a very good point there – there is no doubt that now economic analysts in general, and mining analysts in particular, are widely distrusted. People don’t set any store by metal price forecasts – the classic one being gold; because nobody forecast the tremendous crash in base metal prices that happened towards the latter part of 2008. I think the best comments on the whole situation were aptly summed up by Queen Elizabeth who said, ‘Why did no-one see this coming?’ We still haven’t answered that question.

Q: I see you are Dr Williams; what do you have a doctorate in?

A: I did my PhD research in spatial statistics in the mining industry; also known as geo-statistics. It is an obscure branch of mathematics which is used to predict the grade of ore reserves. Interestingly the biggest lesson I learnt from doing my doctorate is how little we know (laughs).

Q: Does it have any use in predicting the forthcoming lottery numbers?

A: Not if the lottery organisers have anything to do with it (laughs).

Q: Having worked in Africa, how do you deal with going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark during the winter months in London?

A: It certainly is different to working in Africa. Maybe the long days and short nights in summer, are some compensation. But you quickly get used to it and working in London is a very interesting experience, because there is a tremendously powerful work ethic. You may be surprised, but British people work harder than people of any other European country.

Q: What time does your typical day start?

A: I normally wake up at half past five so as to listen to the wonderful Today Programme on BBC – it’s the British answer to John Robbie (laughs). I’m out of the flat by about seven; then I jump on my bicycle and cycle to work. I live in East London on the Thames at a place called Limehouse, the snob value of which is minus 100, and I pedal along past Wapping, through the Docklands and over Tower Bridge to work.

Q: How dangerous is cycling in London?

A: Well the rule is that if a car hits a cyclist, it is the car’s fault, period – which seems to help to make them more careful. In my experience the traffic is very well behaved. Actually the biggest danger is other cyclists. British cyclists did amazingly well at Beijing and it’s quite clear why, as every other cyclist seems hell bent on winning a gold medal at the next Olympics (laughs).

Q: Once you get to work what do you do?

A: I get there at about half-past seven and then I go into the gym which is below the Ernst & Young offices. I do a circuit of about 16 different exercises – which takes about 25 minutes of pretty intense effort. Thereafter I do about ten minutes on the treadmill and some stretching exercises.

Q: Apart from your cycling and gym, do you do any other sport?

A: Skiing is probably the most physically demanding sport I do. Because you only do it once or twice a year, you have to prepare for it. It is an intensely physical sport; very, very hard work and you do have to be in good shape or you will hurt yourself. I learnt when I was in the British army where it was your duty to learn to downhill ski (laughs).

Q: How long were you in the British Army?

A: About 5 years – I ended up as a captain in the Royal Engineers – it was an interesting and very useful experience.

Q: As a bachelor how carefully do you watch your diet?

A: Quite carefully. I weigh 84 kgs – I suppose even just knowing your weight says quite a lot about you. I’m about 5 kgs overweight, but I don’t think that is a bad thing in case you get sick. When I was living in Johannesburg I got tick bite fever and I lost 10kgs in a matter of weeks. My diet tends to be very low in carbohydrates; I don’t eat bread, sugar or milk; I don’t keep any of them in the house, which becomes embarrassing when you have people to stay and you have to rush out and buy them.

Q: What would your death row meal be?

A: Well I have no intention of getting on to death row – but maybe that meal of a mushroom that Alice of Wonderland ate, which made her the size of a house, or the one that made her the size of a mouse (laughs)? Or maybe the one that H G Wells ate that made him invisible – could be useful on death row – but those aside, it would be a Dijon steak and chips, at Bellini’s in Illovo in Johannesburg.

Q: Have you had any major medical problems that may have influenced your behaviour?

A: Not illness per se, but eight years ago in South Africa I had a horrific crash in a glider in which my fiancée, the gorgeous Juliet Evans was tragically killed and I ended up in hospital in a coma for ten days. I owe my life to the superb medical help I got from the most unbelievably dedicated people and to my amazingly supportive friends and wonderful sister, Angela. Something I will never get over. However, I now have enough Titanium holding me together to start a small mine and I never fail to create a stir at airport security, when I set off the buzzers while almost naked.

Q: Have you continued with your gliding?

A: Yes, I still do a fair amount of gliding. I own a third share in an ASG29E – paradoxically the E means that it has an engine (laughs). It is a pure out and out glider, but sometimes of an evening if you are a long, long way from home and you have run out of ideas and height at the same time, you can switch on the engine and get back. When you consider that at any one time we can be hundreds of kilometres from where we started – it is very useful.

Q: Considering the English weather, do you get much time to go gliding?

A: Not a lot last year. In gliding you rely on thermals and need long sunny days, which we didn’t have a lot of.

Q: In the seventies you were on the iconic British television programme, ‘University Challenge’, tell me a bit about that.

A: Oh yes – that was a long time ago, blimey. Yes I was at Imperial College in London and Bamber Gascoigne was the quizmaster. We won all of our matches except the last one – we lost in the final to Jesus College, Oxford. It was a team game and you didn’t know what they were going to ask you. You needed four people with different disciplines – we didn’t have a medic which made it difficult, because they were forever asking obscure medical questions and unless you knew your anatomy, you had no chance (laughs).

Q: If you could choose to be stranded anywhere in the world – where would you choose?

A: My favourite spot is Eritrea in North East Africa. It is a fantastic country – it is very beautiful with magnificent topography – massive mountains going down to the Red Sea. And the Eritreans are wonderful – they have such a sense of purpose, they are honest, hard working and a very intelligent people.

Q: What do you do for holidays?

A: Well last year I managed to miss my holiday thanks to Lufthansa, who without notice cancelled my flight to Frankfurt to connect to Asmara, Eritrea (laughs). But I like to spend as much time in South Africa as I can. I still have my flat in Illovo, I have a lot of friends there and I have a lot of faith in the country’s future. Actually having said all of that, working in the financial arena in London, you run into so many South Africans it is absurd; you might as well be in Johannesburg North!

Q: Who in the whole of history would you like to sit next to on a long flight?

A: Apart from my late fiancée, who I really would at the very least like to have said a proper goodbye to, this is not going back very far, but Bill Clinton. What an astounding intellect – his grasp of the world was extraordinary. Everybody is really angry with him for blowing it, so to speak, with his aide. There were important matters of state to which he could have applied himself much more, but instead of which he had to fight those ridiculous hearings; which were vindictive to an absolutely bizarre extent.

Q: Tell me something about you that no-one else knows?

A: I dump Tabasco sauce on just about everything. I haven’t got round to putting it on cornflakes yet – but I’m working on it (laughs).

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