Accelerating price cycles & competing for capital: Viljoen’s first 12 months at Amplats

Natascha Viljoen, CEO, Anglo American Platinum

IT’S been just over a year since Natascha Viljoen walked through the doors at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) as its new CEO – a period described by industry colleague Bernard Swanepoel, a non-executive director of Amplats’ rival Impala Platinum, as one that “… has been truly horrible” for her.

Swanepoel was speaking back in March at his Joburg Indaba PGM (platinum group metal) industry day, an online conference, where he wanted to know from Viljoen how difficult it was to compete for capital in the Anglo American group. Anglo American, an 80% shareholder of Amplats, has its pick of high quality assets spread across the world.

Owing to the ever-improving ‘optics’ of the PGM basket price – which includes not just platinum and palladium, but high riding metals such as rhodium and now iridium – Amplats can offer up a pretty impressive business case. In any event, as the former head of processing at Anglo since 2014, Viljoen said she had a grasp of group mechanics.

“I had a perception,” she said in an interview with Miningmx of what it would be like to operate Amplats. “I didn’t come in entirely cold, but I can’t say I’ve got a complete understanding of the group as yet”.

The explosion of one of Amplats’ processing facilities in February, followed by the discovery of similarly threatening issues at the facility’s backup unit predated Viljoen, but it became her first major problem and contribute to ‘the horrible year’, along with the challenges of Covid-19. The processing facility blow-out resulted in several months downtime of refining capacity and a major lockup in the metal. According to Amplats’ most recent statements, the inventory will take 24 months to clear from January.

“It seems strange, but I have encountered this in many places where I have worked and that’s that we don’t know, in South African mining, how to look after our facilities properly. But rather than point the finger, I think it’s created an opportunity to look at the entire pipeline,” Viljoen said

In practical terms, this means Amplats has been able to look at how it fully exploits what’s happening in the PGM market today. Iridium, one of the 13 different metals that’s contained in the PGM suite, recently hit an all-time price high of $6,000 per ounce, mirroring similar price improvements for rhodium and nickel.

“Developing a nickel sulphate product is perhaps the most exciting of the things we’ve been looking at,” says Viljoen of evaluating the entire mine-to-metal pipeline. Nickel, in its pure sulphate form, is in high demand among automotive manufacturers as it’s a critical metal in the manufacture of electric car batteries.

In fact, the decarbonisation of the drive-train, as it’s termed in the sector, and the onset of the green hydrogen economy, is triggering incentive pricing for a whole range of the PGMs. Viljoen thinks it will contribute towards a faster-moving market for at least the next 10 years. “Markets in the future might evolve more quickly,” she said.