Fran Burgess, General Manager Processing Mount Isa Mines' Zinc Assets leads a group of more than 330 minerals processing engineers, metallurgists, maintenance, operations and support staff across the Zinc Lead Concentrator, Lead Smelter, Zinc Filter Plant and Sedgman Plant.  

Her leadership style is one that encourages teamwork, inspires people to achieve their best, while prioritising safe working practices above all.

Fran has a resume that would make your head spin, and her story is one of ambition, achievement and a determination to break down barriers.

You wouldn't know it, chatting to Fran, and she's happy to have us believe her achievements are nothing more than 'run-of-the-mill'; the results of the hard work and determination of the teams she has led. But the fact remains, Fran is a trailblazer. She paved the way for the hundreds of girls and women who came after her, and played a key role in reshaping what was once the very homogenous face of mining in Australia.

Since venturing into a minerals processing plant as a ten-year-old, Fran knew her future was in mining. What ordinarily wouldn't appeal to young women - the structures, noise and metallurgical processes - fascinated Fran.  

TrailBlazer

Not deterred when her father told her the plant didn't employ women, Fran was the first woman in Australia to graduate from university with a metallurgy degree.

Fran went on to smash every obstacle of the time to pieces, and her career is peppered with 'firsts'; the first woman to work in a processing plant, the first female Mill Superintendent, and by 2003 Australia's first female General Manager of an underground metalliferous mine.

"I remember when I started my first job in the plant, I needed to wear white overalls and a red helmet, rather than the usual khaki uniform worn by the men. I don't think it was malicious marginalisation, I think they just didn't know how to approach having a woman in the workplace so they dressed me like a visitor, probably to make sure the men were less inclined to swear around me," Fran laughs.

There were other firsts to come that couldn't be defined by gender. Fran and her team commissioned the world's first OK100 tank cell flotation unit, undertaking scale up studies from the OK60 litre pilot cell to the OK100 cubic metre cell using flotation hydrodynamics studies including bubble size, superficial gas velocity, air hold up and residence time with a variable cone adjustment at Broken Hill's Pasminco South Concentrator.

The successful operation of the cell enabled the design team for the Pasminco Century Mine to have live data for their design, which included over 80 tank cells. During her time at Century Mine, the world's first OK250 tank cell was commissioned.

Steely focus on Safety

But it's not her past achievements that define her. Fran is driven by her strong values for safety and family, a desire for lifelong learning, and wanting to bring out the best in the people she works with.

Fran's steely focus on safety stems from her upbringing in the lead-zinc mining town of Broken Hill where over 900 people have been killed in mining accidents.

"I remember as a child getting up each morning to kiss Dad goodbye before he left for work, just in case something happened to him. I remember feeling scared that he might not make it home. Consequently safety is intrinsically part of my DNA, and if I can make that part of everyone's DNA then I can ensure our people go home safely each and every day."

"I want it to be ingrained in our thinking – how can I do this safely so I can go home and be with my family?"

Another of Fran's priorities is to bring out the best in others, by focusing on their strengths, understanding the importance of learning along the way, and giving recognition when it's due.

"When employees are at work I want them to achieve as much as they possibly can, enjoy their job, have a great attitude, and enjoy the comradery of working with others."

"I care about people. I want them to be the best they can be. The best resource we have is not the orebody or the equipment, it is the people."

Fran's pursuit of knowledge and continuous education has been central to her career, which has seen her complete a Bachelor of Science Technology in Minerals Processing, a Bachelor of Applied Economics, a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Management and a Master of Business Administration.

This expertise has enabled Fran to work in many different roles including Metallurgy Manager, Process Control Superintendent, Research Manager, and HSEC Manager while also working with a number of different minerals. While predominantly lead-zinc processing, she has also worked with nickel, tin, copper-zinc, copper-gold, pyrrhotite, scheelite, and cobalt.

"One of the interesting projects I worked on was floating scheelite, a calcium tungstun mineral from the Napoleon Valley near Broken Hill. Interestingly you can't see this mineral, we needed to blacken the windows in the laboratory and use a fluorescent light to see the sheelite floating."

In the family

Mining is in Fran's genes. Her grandfather was a prospector who owned his own direct smelt mine near Broken Hill,  her father worked underground for 41 years, her uncle and brother worked at the Broken Hill mine and today, Fran's son is a fifth-generation Australian miner, currently living and working as a Mining Engineer in Columbia.

Fran has worked at mines all over Australia, including Broken Hill, Pasminco Elura mine, Century Pasminco Mine, Rosebery Mine, Oz Minerals/MMG, Avery Nickel Mine, Golden Grove Mine, and more recently Perilya, as well as in the Dominican Republic. She has also completed due diligence and visits to China, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Laos, Finland, USA and Canada, but now calls Mount Isa home.

Fran's ambition has at times been at odds with her strong value for family and she's juggled family responsibilities with her career. She's learned firsthand that mining operations with their long hours and remote locations can be difficult for mothers.

"I've worked many different rosters over the years. I've lived in a different town to my child during the week, and only travelled home on weekends. When I worked at Century Pasminco I was away from my child for five weeks, and home for one week."

"Women have access to education, have the drive and ambition just like men, but the real challenge is when women have children. That's the real rate determining step for most women. However, with parental leave available for both men and women, along with options to work from home, the possibilities are expanding."

"I believe that women can achieve anything they want to achieve. The opportunity is there, it's about women taking up the baton to choose careers they want and see value in. For me, increasing female intake in the engineering and science ranks is successful if students are targeted and encouraged at school in years nine and ten. The Queensland Resources Council have undertaken such programs in the past and in 2009, 25 per cent of the graduating class for mining engineering at the University of Queensland were women."

Fran's genuine passion for her field, her strong values, and her driving sense of purpose have enabled her to reach career heights in a traditionally male-dominated industry.  

With a humble, softly spoken disposition that belies her massive achievements, Fran's string of 'firsts' seal her place as one of the key players opening doors for women into the Australian mining industry for posterity.