The Unknown Giant of Canadian Mining – Thayer Lindsley – by Fred Bodsworth (Part 1 of 2)

A shy, elderly and virtually anonymous man named Thayer Lindsley personally controls a fabulous international kingdom of gold, silver, copper, zinc and iron. With a genius for geology and finance he has made millions but he has never got around to buying a car.

Maclean’s Magazine – August 15, 1951

The financial pages of Canadian newspapers in the past few months have heralded the discovery of new high-grade ore at Giant Yellowknife, Canada’s lusty gold-producing youngster of the Northwest Territories; they have announced that United Keno, the Yukon’s big silver-lead-zinc producer, chalked up a two-and-a-half-million-dollar profit in 1950; that Falconbridge Nickel of Sudbury and its expanding overseas refinery in Norway will spend millions of dollars to boost output for defense; the “big two” of Canadian mining exploration, Ventures Ltd. and Frobisher Ltd. are pushing the search for titanium in Quebec, uranium in northern Saskatchewan, iron in British Columbia.

Mining editors have headlined a proposed thirty-three-million-dollar project to develop a fabulous copper-cobalt property in Uganda; they have announced that an American firm will reopen ancient silver mines in Greece; that Latin America’s biggest gold mine, the La Luz of Nicaragua, has acquired substantial interests in a Californian tungsten mine, and in promising mining properties of the Philippines, Costa Rica, Honduras and the state of Nevada.

There have been reports too of an exciting iron discovery in the western Sahara, of a Venezuelan move to expropriate the Guyana gold mine, and of mounting production from Southern Rhodesia’s Connemara gold mine.

It is almost inconceivable, yet every one of these enterprises is directed and financially controlled by one person, a reclusive mystery man whose genius for evading the limelight is exceeded only by his genius for geology and mining finance. He is Thayer Lindsley, undisputed No. 1 figure in Canadian mining, who carved out Canada’s biggest mineral empire and then went on to create another international empire just as great.

The twenty-one Lindsley-controlled companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange are worth one hundred and sixty million dollars. Last year the mines under his management produced forty million dollars worth of ore. Most mine executives claim Lindsley has contributed more to Canadian mining than any man now living. Yet the modest self-effacing Lindsley is said to be more delighted by the fact that he has kept his name out of all current biographies and Who’s Who. While lesser mine-makers have been acclaimed, Lindsley has carefully and deliberately kept himself an anonymity concealed behind the names of some of the world’s most famous mines.

No daily newspaper in the world has a picture of him, or a file on his life. The Canadian Press files haven’t a word on Lindsley. The one surviving Canadian who graduated from Harvard with Lindsley in 1903 recently replied to a telephone query: “Lindsley? Sorry, I don’t remember him. Never heard of the man.”

Though sixty-nine this month, Lindsley has more energy in his rangy, frail-looking, six-foot frame than most men half his age. His prodigious capacity for work embarrasses his younger executives. The only time he relaxes is on a plane commuting between his Toronto and New York offices or traveling to one of his mining properties.

Lindsley is a multi-millionaire whose genius for seeing dollar signs in innocent-looking rocks has gained him executive posts on a list of companies so long it looks like a mining directory. His personal stake in one company, at present market valued, comes to about seven million dollars. Yet he lives far more simply than many of his own employees.

He neither smokes nor drinks. He has never owned a car. His favorite foods are apples and whole-wheat bread. His dress is simple and unassuming. In Toronto, he lives in a modest suburban home in Forest Hill. In New York, he has an apartment on Park Avenue. He has never had more than one servant. He is so absorbed in the problem of mining and geology that he often forgets to carry enough money on trips. Friends have had to lend him a few dollars to tip the railway porter, buy a breakfast and get a taxi.

Mining is his whole life. He is president of ten mining companies, including the widely known Falconbridge Nickel and Giant Yellowknife Gold mines. He is president of South America’s biggest gold mine, La Luz. He sits on the boards of fifteen others as well as on the board of Crown Trust Co.

Mining statistics show that the chances of developing an ore showing into a paying mine are about one in a hundred. One mine in a lifetime is enough for any one man to expect. But Lindsley has created eleven mines which have battled their way from unproven moose pasture to dividend-payer.

On the mining map are the monuments to his mine-making genius: Falconbridge Nicekl of Sudbury; Sherritt Gordon, northern Manitoba’s big producer of copper and silver; Giant Yellowknife; Beattie gold mine, Quebec; Coniaurum gold mine in the Porcupine area of Ontario; United Keno, Yukon; New Calumet, a zinc and lead producer on Calumet Island, Ottawa River, Canadian Malartic gold mine, Quebec; Matachewan Conslidated, a northern Ontario gold mine; La Luz gold, Nicaragua; and Connemara gold mine in Southern Rhodsia. (Sherritt Gordon and Beattie are now outside the Lindsley orbit of control.)

All but Sherritt Gordon and United Keno (where he had associates) were one-man shows in which Lindsley called the tune and paid the piper. There are half a dozen other Canadian mining men who have won more acclaim for creating three or four mines while Lindsley was pulling eleven into his lap.

These are merely Lindsley’s more spectacular winners. There are forty to fiffy other companies under his aegis. These include Metal Hydrides, whose plant at Massachusetts produced the first commercial quantities of uranium that helped flatten Hiroshima, and Black Donald Graphite of eastern Ontario, Canada’s only source of badly needed graphite for several years during the war. A score or more are infant companies carrying out exploration and development all over the world. Many are doomed to remain profitless holes n the rock. A few are almost certain to prosper as newborn Giant Yellowknife of tomorrow.

The corporate daddy of Lindsley’s globe-girding mining empire is Ventures Ltd., of Toronto. Canada’s most aggressive mine exploration and holding company which controls about twenty mining firms, and holds smaller interests in another twenty.

Among these twenty-odd subsidiaries are eight which are in their turn holding companies like the parent Ventures, and, through these, Ventures has control of still another score or so of companies. As one mining engineer puts it “A owns B and B owns C and C owns D and therefore A owns the whole business.

Lindsley’s biggest holding company, next to Ventures, is Frobisher Ltd., established during the World War II. Another is La Luz, which operates it’s own mine in Nicaragua as well.

They Don’t Know Who Owns What

All of these companies are intricately tied together, with Lindsley and his subordinates occupying the key positions in all of them. The same man may be president of two or three of them, vice-president of two or three others, and so on. When Ventures or Frobisher acquires a promising-looking mining property a new company is formed to develop it, but a controlling percentage of the stock is always retained in one of the Lindsley holding companies. By 1945 Lindsley had so many affiliated companies under him that he ran out of names and simply called a new exploration company “Mines Inc.”

Lindsley holds personal control over this vast maze simply by controlling one firm, Ventures. He has been president since it was organized in 1927. He owns thirty-five percent of the stock. Additional holdings by relatives and friends, which he controls by proxy, are said to bring it up to fifty percent. At the present market value of Ventures stock a thirty-five percent interest makes Lindsley a millionaire seven times over.

Tracing the ownership of some of Lindsley’s smaller companies is as involved as following back the interlocking branches of Princess Elizabeth’s family tree to determine how much of Henry VIII’s blood she has in her veins. Some of Ventures’ own executives have said that the setup is so complicated they sometimes don’t know themselves who owns what.

Guayana Mines, a Lindsley-controlled gold producer in Venezuela, illustrates this complex piecemeal ownership. Lindsley holds interests in Guayana through the three reported channels and perhaps through a couple of others that haven’t been reported.

First there is the Ventures channel. Lindsley controls half of Ventures which owns nine percent of Guayana. Then there is the La Luz channel. Ventures owns about three quarters of La Luz which owns twelve percent of Guayana. Third, there is the Frobisher channel. Ventures owns fifty-five percent of FRobisher which holds thirty percent of Guayana’s stock. All this brings Lindsley’s own personal interest in Guayana to about seventeen percent.

Actually his control is much firmer than this suggests, for although eighty-three percent of Guayana stock is theoretically controlled by outsiders, Lindsley, by controlling the three holding companies, can line up their combined voting power of fifty-one per cent behind all his decisions.

Multiply this Guayana chain of interlocking controls by the fifty-odd other companies under the Ventures roof, most of which are owned and controlled by a pattern of stock distribution just as complicated as that involving Guayana, and you have a picture of the labyrinth of intermeshing corporations which has mystery-man Lindsley firmly ensconced in its driving seat.

“Mr. Lindsley holds the strings for all of them,” says one Ventures executive, “and he pulls like the dickens.”

Lindsley looks his sixty-nine years but doesn’t act them. He works eight hours a day at his office and spends another six or eight working at home at night. In the bush his stiltlike legs still carry him across a block of boulder-strewn mining claims as swiftly as they did forty years ago when, as a very green but very ambitious prospector, he came up from New York to have a look at Ontario’s boisterous new Porcupine camp and decided immediately that Canadian mining was the thing for him. The years were to prove that it was a momentous decision for the future of Canada’s mining.

In a profession dominated by bush-hardened men who know all the four-letter words Lindsley stands out as a strange anomaly. He had his share of bush schooling, but through it all he has retained the suave courtly manner of an Anglican rector. His voice is subdued and low dominated by the long soft A’s and the New England accent of his Boston parents. His dress is neat but plain almost to the point of austerity. His suits are dark, very simply tailored; his ties are usually unpatterned and one-coloured, the colour usually as dark as the suits he wears them with.

He is very tall and thin with sunken cheeks and long hands that look as if they should belong to a concert pianist. He has a small white mustache neatly trimmed and thin white hair. His brow, always high, is higher than ever now because of his receding hair line.

He is a hard-working simple-living, deep-thinking introvert who sleeps little, talks little, eats little, drinks less and doesn’t play at all. He never attends any social gatherings that he can graciously decline. He is not a prohibitionist. At a gathering where drinks are being poured Lindsley accepts a glass of whatever happens to be going, then spends all evening sipping from it. With the same mathematical exactness that enables him to work out baffling problems of geological structure he gauges his sipping so that he reaches the bottom of his first and only glass just as it is time to leave.

He is “girlishly shy,” as one friend puts it. At the occasional fuction planned in his honour by financial institutions Lindsley appears, gets it over with, and makes his exit as quickly as possible. Once a bank held a luncheon in Toronto to mark the repayment of a loan in connection with one of his mining developments. Lindsley turned up on schedule, stood around chatting for half an hour or so, sipping ill at ease from a glass of Scotch, obviously uncomfortable. When the time arrived for the luncheon to begin Lindsley had disappeared. He had courteously informed his host that an unexpected business development made it essential for him to leave, and the luncheon went on with the guest-of-honour chair empty.

Lindsley’s dread of publicity has the intensity of a phobia. In spite of a business schedule so tight that sometimes his company secretaries must wait three or four days to see him, he dropped everything and spent half a day trying to persuade the editors of Maclean’s that he “isn’t worth a story.” With genuine humility he minimized his own contribution and lauded that of his mine executives. “I have had good assistants, that’s all,” he said. “Finding a mine is nothing. You have to have men who can make them. Their willingness to tackle difficult job after job has been the key to ninety-nine percent of Ventures’ success.”

But his company heads insist that Lindsley’s genius for directing exploration and financing, and nothing else, has made the mines.

Lindsley has no other hobbies or interests. “His work is studying his own mines,” an acquaintance says. “His recreation is studying someone else’s.”

A mining engineer, once associated with Lindsley but now on his own, told me: “When you go to Lindsley’s for an evening you know darn well that you’re going to wind up on your hands and knees on the living room floor with the furniture pushed back and geological maps spread all over the place. I doubt if there is a mine in the world whose maps and records he hasn’t studied.

He can reel off by memory the details of geology and ore for mines on every continent. He has an amazing memory for this sort of thing. If a problem comes up on one of his own properties, like losing the ore vein because of a displacement or fault in the rock, he will think for a few seconds, then say: ‘Such-and-such mine in Australia had a situation like this twenty years ago. They solved it by doing so-and-so.’ Then he’ll call in his engineers and tell them where they’ll probably find the continuation of the ore. He’s right nine times out of ten.”

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