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Robert Gannicott had an adventurous and brilliant mining career

By on August 27, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

Robert Gannicott, seen in March, 2010, spent a great deal of time prospecting in Greenland and the Northwest Territories, eventually establishing Canada’s largest diamond producer with a friend. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Robert Gannicott, seen in March, 2010, spent a great deal of time prospecting in Greenland and the Northwest Territories, eventually establishing Canada’s largest diamond producer with a friend.
(JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Bob Gannicott left England for Yellowknife nearly penniless when he was 19 because of a thwarted romance. He had been studying mining engineering at the University of Nottingham, but dropped out to work at the Giant Mine in Yellowknife. From that start Mr. Gannicott, who died this month at the age of 69, went on to become a prospector and mining promoter and, with the discovery of diamonds in Canada, he became one of the richest men in Yellowknife.

Robert Gannicott was born on June 11, 1947, in Sandford, a quiet country village in Somerset, in England’s West Country. His mother, Ida, was a school teacher and his father, Ivor, was an engineer who was in submarines in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Back then England had “11-plus” exams, which were used to determine children’s abilities so they could be streamed toward either academics or more practical training. Bob Gannicott passed on the bright side, winning a scholarship to a local grammar school, which led to university.

When he was 15, he met Geraldine Davies on the school bus and the two became inseparable. They took up the hobby of caving – exploring underground caverns. One of the best places to do that was in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, near where they lived.

“Caving was one of the reasons he felt comfortable about working in mines, and why he started studying mining engineering at the University of Nottingham,” said Geraldine (who now goes by the surname Peacock).

When Bob and Geraldine announced they wanted to marry, their parents forbade it.

“We should have just gone ahead with it, but you felt you couldn’t do that back then,” Ms. Peacock said. Mr. Gannicott left for Yellowknife and the couple didn’t get back together for more than 30 years, after they had both married and divorced other people.

Young Bob Gannicott landed in Montreal in 1967 and was so broke that he jumped a freight train to get himself to Edmonton. In Winnipeg, the railroad police nabbed him, but upon learning where he was headed, they gave him a train ticket to Edmonton in exchange for his watch. The mine paid for the rest of the trip from Edmonton to Yellowknife. Once he received his paycheque he sent money to get his watch out of hock.

He worked underground first, at the Giant Mine, then above ground as a prospector, staking claims in the wilderness for Precambrian Mining Services. The sites where he would search for minerals were so remote that on longer trips he would arrange for an aircraft to drop in supplies. Like an explorer from another era or a Hudson’s Bay factor from the 19th century, he grew to cherish the isolation of the wilderness and fell in love with the Arctic.

After several years in Yellowknife, however, he decided he needed more formal education, so he enrolled at Carleton University in Ottawa and earned a degree in geology. After graduating he went to work for the mining giant Cominco, then owned by Canadian Pacific. He worked in Belgium for a while and at the Black Angel Mine in Greenland. The site was on a deep fjord and the mine was on one side and the ore was taken by a cable car to the mill on the other side.

Mr. Gannicott eventually decided to work for himself, and started prospecting in Greenland. He founded the company Platinova, which was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“His nickname was Mr. Greenland,” said Gren Thomas, a former business associate and friend of 50 years who now lives in West Vancouver. “He spent about 10 to 12 years exploring in Greenland. They discovered a zinc deposit at Citronen Fjord. It’s at 85 degrees north, probably the most northerly mineral deposit in the world.”

“Bob had a terrific imagination and a sense of adventure. He once convinced a charter airline to land a Boeing 727 on the ice in Greenland,” said Mr. Thomas, an immigrant from Wales who started work in the coal mines there but went on to become a successful mining entrepreneur.

While Bob Gannicott was prospecting in Greenland, Mr. Thomas and others were looking for diamonds in Canada. The two friends eventually got together and through a series of ventures ended up creating Diavik, and then Dominion Diamond Corp., in 1992. That company eventually became Canada’s largest independent diamond producer.

“Canada is now the third-largest diamond producing country in the world [by value], after Botswana and Russia,” Mr. Thomas said. Diamonds made both men, and others, very rich.

Bob Gannicott engineered the purchase of Harry Winston, the high-end New York jewellery store. The diamond trade gave the economy of the Northwest Territories much-needed diversification.

“He later took advantage of a rare opportunity with the acquisition of the Ekati Diamond Mines and sale of Harry Winston, returning the company to its roots as a pure-play Canadian diamond miner,” said Dominion Diamond Corp. in a statement issued after Mr. Gannicott’s death.

Once he became wealthy, Mr. Gannicott split his time evenly between Yellowknife and his native England.

“He took up gentlemanly pursuits like fishing and shooting,” said Mr. Thomas. “Bob loved food and adventure. We once had breakfast in New York, then took the Concorde [the supersonic jet that could cross the Atlantic in three hours] and had dinner in Paris.”

Mr. Gannicott also resumed the relationship he had left behind when he moved to Canada in 1967. It was around 1999 when the two reconnected, both of them divorced by that point.

“We had been in contact. But he sent me a ticket to Venice and told me to meet him there. He was such a romantic,” Ms. Peacock said. “By this time I had Parkinson’s Disease – early-onset like Michael J. Fox – but Bob didn’t care.”

He gave Ms. Peacock a ring featuring a four-carat pure white diamond from the Diavik Mine, surrounded by other stones.

“He said it represented our troubled lives together,” she said.

In her own way, Ms. Peacock was as accomplished as her partner. She had led a number of British charities, eventually running the largest charitable organization in Britain. She was named a Commander of the British Empire in 2000.

The couple tried to divide their time between Yellowknife and a house they had restored in Wells, in Somerset. Two and half years ago, when he was flying to Britain, he felt seriously ill. When he got off the plane, a doctor diagnosed him with an aggressive form of leukemia. He could never fly again.

Mr. Gannicott remained on the board of Dominion Diamond Corp. until earlier this year, but he gradually gave up control as his disease progressed. Where he once took care of Geraldine, she now took care of him.

“There were over 200 people at Bob’s funeral. He wasn’t just a boring old businessman; he had a vision and he inspired people. He cared about two things in life: me and the Northwest Territories.”

In his will, Bob Gannicott left “a substantial amount of money” to the Robert Gannicott Foundation to “help develop the indigenous people of the Northwest Territories.”

Robert Gannicott died in a private clinic in London, England, on Aug. 3. He is survived by his companion, Geraldine Peacock.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .


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