It wasn’t that he didn’t see the potential.
On the contrary, as a man with 35 years in the tantalum business, and much Africa experience to bring to bear too, he was only too aware of the quality of the Tantalite Valley mine.
But with the asset also came certain entrenched practices that Johnson wanted to change by applying his no-nonsense approach.
“I’m an executioner,” he says. “I get a plan and I execute it.”
Chairman Giles Clarke was unequivocal. “He told me: ‘We need someone to come in here and really drive this project,’” recalls Johnson.
And so that’s what happened.
Johnson was appointed in January of this year, and set to work. He now lives at the Tantalite Valley mine, getting around the local dirt tracks on his Harley Davidson, and is slowly but surely fashioning an operation in his own image.
The first thing he had to fix was the shift patterns of the workforce. This presented a challenge because the Namibian workforce is heavily unionized. But on the other side of the coin, Johnson also realized that unemployment in the southern part of the country, where Tantalite Valley is located, is very high.
There was leverage to be had, if deftly applied.
And Johnson’s approach was simple.
He negotiated changes to the inefficient shift patterns that were affecting productivity, while firmly establishing the local Kennedy subsidiary in everybody’s minds as the largest employer in the district. So far so good.
Local team in charge
In addition, though, he also set about eliminating the historic South African influence at the mine. He is now, he says, the only non-Namibian on the mine, and this plays well, both in terms of generating good will and in terms of the efficiency.
“We’re on two shifts now,” he says. “It’s going well. I’ve already broached the idea of going multi-shift, which would be to take the mine to 24 hours.”
That’s all to the good from the point of view of on-ground operations. But from the investor perspective there needs to be more.
Here too, Johnson’s impact was almost immediate. Within a month or so of his appointment a customer had been secured for the company’s tantalum product, and not just a trader - subject to the whims and vagaries of spot-pricing - but a proper end-user.
It remains to be seen what precise financial impact this deal will have, since it’s all subject to confidentiality and it won’t show up fully in Kennedy’s accounts for a little while yet.
But two shipments have now been made, with more to come before year end, and in greater quantity too as plant upgrades continue. A second customer has also been showing real interest and, as Johnson builds scale and a track record, this may be a sign of things to come.
Certainly, the fundamentals remain in place. As Johnson says: “Nothing electronic would turn in the world if it wasn’t for tantalum.” It is, he says, “a very, very important product.”
And Kennedy may have more of it to offer to the market soon, too. There’s the ongoing ramp-up, of course. But more than that, there’s also exploration in and around the mine. This has shown significant prospectivity both for tantalum and for lithium, and work on proving up this potential should provide plenty of interesting newsflow in the weeks and months ahead.