Exclusive interview with Dave Harper

August 22, 2023

Dave Harper is the President, Chief Executive Officer and Director of Geodrill. With over 35 years of experience in the drilling industry, 30 of those years in management and 28 of those in West Africa, he is passionate about the future of drilling on the continent.

Dave’s goal to establish a leading international drilling company based in Ghana has been achieved and the company has expanded its operations into seven countries and two continents, namely: Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali in West Arica; Egypt in North Africa; and Peru and Chile in South America.

Integrating ESG principles into the company’s vision from day one, Geodrill has built a strong legacy of CSR projects in Africa.

Grigor Topev: Dave, thanks for taking the time for this interview. How did you start Geodrill? What was your first drill rig and project?

Dave Harper: Growing up in Melbourne, my parents had everything in place for me to excel academically. To their dismay, as a young rebellious teenager, I decided that a life of adventure was more fitting and headed to Coober Pedy (an opal mining town in South Australia) where I stumbled upon a job as a fuel pump attendant. The customer with the most impressive car and passengers, filling up from one holiday to the next, turned out to be a local legend and driller: Lenny Butts, and my inspiration to pursue drilling.

When the chance to join as a drilling offsider came up, with the condition being to pack up and be ready by the next day, I thought back to Lenny and just went for it. In stark contrast to the lifestyle Lenny the driller had portrayed, there I was traveling deeper into the outback, some five days in the back of a pickup truck with a dog, my backpack and AUD 50 to my name; no turning back.

Day One of my drilling career, no fault of my own, I hear ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY’, with barely time to take two steps, a big sheeve block hits the ground exactly where I was standing; it would have killed me for sure! HSE standards have clearly come a long way from when I started, and thankfully so. Moving on to a more professional drilling company in Kalgoorlie, I worked my way up and was part of their expansion to West Africa and was transferred to Ghana. Thanks to a mate, Chris Bonwick (Bonza) at Resolute Mining, I was given more opportunities to go my own way in Ghana, and in 1998, with a single rig – Geodrill was born.

GT: What was the industry like back then?

DH: It certainly favored the bold, brave and adventurous.

GT: Geodrill started in Ghana. Where is Geodrill operating or active?

DH: Geodrill principally operates in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt in Africa. Our subsidiary, Recon Drilling, is active in LATAM, operating in Chile and Peru at present.

GT: Let’s talk a little bit about the team at Geodrill. How many people work in the company? What’s their background?

DH: Currently 1500. Most joined with low skills and have worked their way up through training, promotion, etc. Our retention is high. We still have some of the original team that joined us 25 years ago.

GT: Are Geodrill’s employees local or expats? Tell us more about the training and HSE campaigns.

DH: Mostly local. We recognized early on that to be successful, we needed to develop skills that would lead to career opportunities (not just jobs) for our local workforce, which has proven very successful. Today only a small percentage of our workforce is expat.

GT: Operating on such a large scale and in so many countries, how did you manage the cons of fast expansion?

DH: A strong and committed team, the early establishment of a work culture that invests in people, and training from within at all levels has enabled us to operate flexibly and expand when and where in an agile manner.

GT: I’m sure you have many stories related to all the countries Geodrill operates in. Tell us some of them, please.

DH: All of the countries we have operated in have had their own challenges, magic moments, colorful characters, some struggles but lots of lessons. I’m sure anyone in the exploration field knows that war stories are part of the souvenirs we gain.

GT: Where are the major drilling hot spots at the moment?

DH: We are most certainly breaking strong ground in Egypt and it’s exciting to see how the mining industry is developing there. We’ve also been excited to see some stellar drill results for clients in Côte d’Ivoire, where we currently have 20 rigs or so; it continues to be a hot place to drill.

GT: What do you wish to change in the African market?

DH: Logistics and connections between the African countries have improved a lot, and yet, it will be great when road and rail connections are smoother, both for efficiency and safety.

GT: What personal quality do you think helped you the most in order to start and grow a successful drilling company?

DH: Tenacity, being able to take a risk, trust in the right people and knowing when to cut losses and move on as fast as possible.

GT: How did Geodrill change after going public? Tell us about the challenges and benefits. What would be your piece of advice for a company that is considering going public?

DH: At Geodrill we have always held the ethos of ‘Just doing the right thing’ to all stakeholders. Wherever we operate, we always strive to have a positive impact on the environment and the wellbeing of communities. We’ve been proud to support many grassroot organizations and individuals in need.

Going public meant we have to ensure this goodwill is understood and valued by shareholders as well, calling for increased screening of ESG spending and documentation. The upside of ensuring all ESG efforts are channeled formally is that we have been able to highlight internationally the excellent work and dedication of many organizations, which we have been supporting for a long time.

GT: Recently, there have been quite a few industry-changing mergers and acquisitions. Is the industry heading towards a market consolidation?

DH: Interesting to see Major Drilling re-entered the Australian market via McKay Drilling, a good outcome for buyer and seller. Busy times for DDH1 after going the private equity route and soon after acquiring Ranger and Strike then rolling it all into an IPO, then adding Swick. Four great drilling businesses there rolled into one, makes sense. Now merging with Perenti, creating a complete services provider from exploration drilling through to mining.

Successful mergers and acquisitions should benefit of all stakeholders. For Geodrill, all our growth has been organic.

GT: I saw you at PDAC 2023, where you announced the results of another great quarter for Geodrill. Can you tell us a bit about the current position of the company, its projects, fleet, etc.?

DH: Most proudly, I can say that Geodrill is in a very strong position. We’ve added to the fleet, now tipping 80 rigs worldwide, some of these rigs are even built at the Geodrill workshop.

Results-wise, we generated the best ever first quarter (the second highest ever quarterly revenue in the company’s history) of USD 37.6 million, representing a 12% increase compared to USD 33.4 million for Q1-2022. We recorded EBITDA of USD 10.5 million, or 28% of revenue.

Dave Harper at a drill site
Dave Harper at a drill site

GT: Could you please share a bit more about the drill rigs, built at the Geodrill workshop?

DH: At our Anwiankwanta base (in Ghana) we have the largest support facility of any drilling company in the world. Thirty-five acres (141 640 m2), it’s absolutely massive. For years we’ve been manufacturing our own drilling consumables, drill rods, etc. And support equipment and vehicles like crawler-mounted rod carriers, auxiliary compressors, boosters, etc.

So, a few years ago we knocked up some grade control rigs and they turned out better than our suppliers were selling us. Then, during COVID-19 like everyone we faced supply constraint issues, so we decided to build a multi-purpose RC/DD rig. Again, it was better than our supplier could sell us.

We’ve since built about six and have another four going through at the moment. We only build for our internal use, no intentions of selling them outside.

GT: What’s next for Geodrill?

DH: For the near future, we are concentrating on ensuring that all projects and countries of operation continue steadily and strongly and see expansion occurring one project at a time. Thankfully, there is no shortage of upcoming exploration projects worldwide and we look forward to the busy years ahead.

GT: There seem to be some challenges ahead of the industry related to inflation. How do you think should the industry address them? Will there be a slowdown?

DH: Smart operating is key to any business in an inflationary environment, clients don’t like rising costs being passed on, so there is no space for less than optimal utilization of all resources. I’m not so sure about a slowdown – certainly, if you look at the diversity of minerals we drill, including battery minerals, there doesn’t appear to be any slowing down of activity.

GT: Geodrill seems to invest not only in rigs but also in the people and the communities. Please tell us more about the company’s recent initiatives.

DH: We certainly pride ourselves as going above and beyond to make a difference. Aside from continuing our support to organizations helping children, education, health and environment, Geodrill continues to broaden its impact by promoting arts, social awareness, history and sports.

A recent example was backing the making of a documentary film on the life and legacy of Battling Siki, the first African boxing world champion produced by Ashley Morrison ‘Return To Your Corner’. A remarkable story which brings light to part of African sports history, the film was screened by Geodrill at Indaba 2023 with former boxing world champions Azumah Nelson (Ghana) and Brian Mitchell (South Africa) in attendance. From this launch, the film has been picked up to screen around the world at upcoming festivals.

GT: What is your day-to-day work as the CEO of Geodrill? Do you visit the drill sites often?

DH: Yes, I still get around the rigs. It’s the part of the job I enjoy most, i.e. catching up with drill crews, customers, industry colleagues, etc.

GT: Dave, you’ve been travelling to a lot of industry events, it seems. What is the role of industry events in this post-pandemic world? Has it changed?

DH: I didn’t mind COVID-19 so much. We all got good at running our businesses over Zoom and other virtual platforms without having to travel. But it’s good to be back now doing face-to-face meetings.

GT: What do you do when you are not in charge of Geodrill? Any other passions apart from drilling?

DH: Listening to my daughter, Tanaya Harper’s music is a favorite pastime. Whenever possible to see her perform in Australia, this brings me a great deal of joy. Tanaya is an indie-rock singer and songwriter and it’s a beautiful thing to see her talent come to life, as well as hear of her adventures performing as part of a popular band, Ghost Care.

GT: Where do you see the industry in five years?

DH: Accelerating, along with the need for battery minerals and other resources. I also see a more diverse workforce, especially more women in drilling. At Geodrill, we have made concrete efforts to encourage women into technical drilling roles.

GT: Finally, Dave, everyone and their mums has been talking about AI. What’s your take and what do you think could be its advantages for drillers, geologists, and exploration in general?

DH: All part of progress, I guess. I remember 50 years ago seeing for the first time an ATM machine and bank employees protesting saying how it would take away their jobs. Then email came and replaced the post office. Google replaced the library. Cell phones vs pay phoneя, etc. And on it goes.

From an industry perspective, a bit late to the party but great to see industry stuff going on now, such as hole surveying and steering, e-drill logs, cloud-based transferring of data from the field.

Also, with reference to drill sample analysis, great to see this getting technologically competitive. Those traditional analytical names will need to step up, or step aside. I’ve no sympathy for them, frankly. Every time there’s an up-cycle these guys have always been the slowest to the game only adding capacity when approaching the end of cycle.

Back to your question on AI, whilst we need to embrace it, it should also have limitations. You’ll never catch me on a pilotless flight or a driverless car. My kids think I’m a dinosaur. I guess that much is true.

For more information visit: www.geodrill-gh.com