Bill James – the people person
The average age in the Canadian mining industry is almost 50. Some of the half-centurians, especially the lucky few with long service and a good pension, are thinking about early retirement. But there’s a guy in this business a generation older than us, who has just announced his retirement. Bill James retired as chairman of the board at Toronto-based Inmet Mining Corp. on Feb. 5, his 76th birthday.
On hearing this news, I planned to interview him for a Personality Profile in the magazine. He phoned back to decline the offer–he had promised himself he wouldn’t do any “exit interviews”–and then filled me in on what he was doing, asked about my health, and chatted.
My first major interview when I started on this magazine in 1986 was with James, who was then president, CEO and chairman of Falconbridge Ltd. (They don’t let you wear all those hats anymore.) I was a field geologist trying to retool as a journalist because companies like Falconbridge were not hiring geologists like me. He was loud, pushy, scary, amusing. He parked his shoes on his desk, lay back in his chair, and shouted into the speaker phone at Rick Briggs, then president of the Mine-Mill union. I thought he was a show-off. I was wrong. A reread of the interview (CMJ May 1986) shows that he was thoroughly honest, and right on most counts.
James’s public history was formally documented in the citation when he was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 2002, but the great thing about him is his connection with people.
When I reminded him about my first interview with him, he recounted one night when he and Briggs visited the bar in the Mine-Mill union hall in Sudbury. They took a table and started drinking. James kept inviting union members to join them for a drink, and that went on all night. At the end of the evening, James refused to pay the huge bar bill, explaining that the company had never charged Briggs for the drinks he’d had at their social events. Briggs must have picked up the tab that night.
Not every CEO drinks with the boys, and counts them as his friends. James is exceptional. I think he refused to be interviewed this time because he is not exiting. Moving on is something he has done on a fairly regular basis. He was calling from his two-storey condominium on Toronto’s waterfront. The view is gorgeous, but I don’t think he’s just sitting around. He was heading out for an afternoon of skiing.
We could all borrow a page from the Book of James. Take charge, live large, treat people with dignity, and have fun.