BY HELEN GRANGE
JOHANNESBURG – She wears her long, brown hair loose down her back and is famously fastidious about her lipstick and nails. She is also a self-made millionaire with a couple of KwaZulu-Natal coal mines and a reputation as a shrewd, no-nonsense businesswoman in one of the world’s toughest, male-dominated industries.
Russian-born, Australian-based Luda Roytblat is CEO of TransAsia Minerals SA, a company she built into a multi-billion dollar coal mining operation in South Africa that employs 160 people. Her business is thriving in an otherwise depressed mining industry here, where wildcat strikes have all but crippled many mining houses, especially in gold and platinum mining.
Roytblat, who is not well known outside of business circles, is an exception in an industry that has the lowest number of women on company boards in the world. She has made enemies along the way – mostly men who have underestimated her tenacity and knowledge, to their detriment.
“A lot of people have come to do business with me: bankers, consultants, big business people,” she said in a heavy Russian accent. “They are driven by the desire to make money. But because I am the only woman in the meeting, they think they can walk all over me, that I’ll just write a big check for R60 million ($5.8 million) or so. That is a big mistake.”
Roytblat started TransAsia Minerals SA in 2006 from her apartment in Sandton, north of Johannesburg, after arriving in South Africa eighteen months earlier. The company launched with a small start-up fund under TransAsia Minerals Ltd, an Indonesia-based company that is owned by the Aslanov family and finances and develops mines for coal, iron ore, nickel and copper in Indonesia, Niger, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Congo and Zambia.
Roytblat’s move to the country was purely prospective. “Africa has a wealth of mineral resources and South Africa is the perfect base for TransAsia Minerals because it has a rich heritage of mining and local expertise to draw from,” she said.
The blossoming business tycoon bought two coal mines near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal province and paid over R10.5 million ($1 million) for the licenses alone. Construction of the first site, in Dundee, is scheduled to begin in September, and six months after that construction will begin on the nearby Dunhauser site.
And Roytblat’s presence in the area is welcome: Around 77% of South Africa’s energy is generated from coal, though most of it is mined in other provinces. The labor and social benefits of investment in the KwaZulu-Natal province for the region’s communities will be significant, said Roytblat. In 2011, unemployment in the province was 33%, according to Statistics South Africa.
“These are among the highest unemployment areas in the country, largely due to coal mines closing in the late 1990’s. Our projects will source labor from these communities and help to uplift them,” Roytblat said.
Currently, TransAsia Minerals SA is exploring greenfield mines in the Northern and Western Cape provinces, as well as Limpopo, the country’s northernmost province. Should her plans to mine there come to fruition, these economically depressed areas will also benefit, she says.
But even with the backing of capital, it won’t be easy. “Getting the exploration licenses (for the Vryheid mines) has taken three years, because of red tape and bureaucracy, so you have to stay on the case. Then there are the bank feasibility studies. Greenfield mining is always a calculated risk,” she said.
Roytblat is good at assessing risk. A lawyer by profession, she joined TransAsia in 1999 as a project manager and was trained by the founder of TransAsia Ltd, Azam Aslanov, a wealthy industrialist who made headlines two years ago for paying Jennifer Lopez $1 million to sing at his son’s wedding.
“He would phone me at 6am and ask me a technical question,” she said. “He would patiently explain the skills and specific processes involved in getting minerals out of the ground to its final product and market. I also work closely with his sons, Amon Aslanov (chairman) and Furkat Aslanov, from who I continue to take knowledge and counsel on a daily basis.”
The experience positioned her well in the male-dominated industry, in which she encounters men who won’t even greet her because she is a woman.
“She has an in-depth knowledge of the mining industry, even of the finer technical details,” her PR manager Lassy Chiwayo said. “She knows geo-science, mining engineering and finance. People have mistaken her for a geologist, or a chartered accountant. And she’s like a walking archive of what mineral deposits are where, across the globe, especially in countries where TransAsia has interests.”
“I’ve seen her break very egoistic and powerful executives and CEOs of mining giants, and surprise old professionals who are sometimes rigid in their methods,” Chiwayo said.
Yet, diplomacy is essential to her winning formula. While Roytblat has been dismissed in some mining quarters as a “horrible woman” – in Roytblat’s words – with no time for business etiquette, she rose up South Africa’s social ladder to rub shoulders with the country’s busienss and political elite, including Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president.
“I have met President Zuma, but we don’t want help from any politician,” Roytblot said matter-of-factly. ‘Political channels are not sustainable.”
The evils of corruption, however, always loom.
Roytblat once received a call at 2am, a male voice telling her she’d be killed if she didn’t come up with “the money.” The same man who made the call also bought a BMW in Roytblat’s name. He is now set to go on trial, for fraud, extortion and intimidation.
She was also accused by the Scorpions, South Africa’s former anti-crime agency, of being a member of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence group.
It seems that absolute commitment accounts for this pint-sized mining tycoon’s resilience. Roytblat said she can manage on just a few hours of sleep. She tends to forget what time it is and calls members of her team at all hours. “We relax only when she’s traveling,” Chiwayo laughed.
Roytblat doesn’t have children, she said. “This is my life, and my team here in South Africa is my family. My business is my everything. I love it,” she added.
Helen Grange is a journalist based in South Africa.