Australia's mining boom 'not over yet'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 4:52am

Former Chinese commodities trader Jerry Ren Xiaofeng, who is quietly building a mining empire in the Australian Outback, scoffs at talk the resources boom is over. For him, it has just moved north.

As some mining firms clock up billions of dollars in losses, Ren has secured millions of hectares of exploration rights in Australia's most remote regions that could soon make him a billionaire, helped by his connections in the world's biggest consumer of minerals, China.

Ren, now an Australian resident, has an estimated net worth of US$900 million.

"There's still plenty of money and opportunity in Australia if you know where to look," said Ren, the son of a steel mill engineer.

Ren's privately held Australian Oil & Gas holds a 75 per cent stake in exploration rights covering more than 2.8 million hectares, 25 per cent of the Australian state of Northern Territory.

Under-exploited by heavy hitters such as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto as Australia's last boom took shape further south in established iron ore and coal fields, Ren has had a near-free run to stake his claims in the state.

His licence holdings stretch from the oil-rich seas off Darwin, south through the Tanami Desert, one of the last unexplored parts of Australia, to the isolated Outback town of Alice Springs. And his established mining operations in the state are already reaping handsome rewards.

One of his companies this month will start exporting ilmenite to China for manufacturing lightweight alloy for aircraft parts and paint pigments. Two others are getting ready to mine iron ore. Another already supplies aluminium foil containers.

"Make no mistake, China's economy is still growing and they are still in the market for Australian minerals. This talk of the end is foolish," said Ren, who regularly leads delegations to China to drum up new investment opportunities.

Ren was born in Benxi, Liaoning province, where he attended university. He later worked for the state-owned China Metallurgical Import and Export Corp and learned about minerals. Ren left the company in 1989, just as China opened its economy to outsiders.

Before leaving China, Ren traded "specialty" metals such as tungsten, molybdenum and ilmenite.

After several years in Europe and the United States, where he worked as a steel consultant, he settled in 2006 in the Northern Territory, convinced of its mining potential.

Like Australia's 20th century mining legend, the late Lang Hancock, Ren quickly pegged hundreds of thousand of hectares of Outback land for exploration. But Ren hardly fits the gruff, weathered image of an Outback prospector. He is an urbane, fit-looking 50-year-old comfortable in a suit and the upper class suburbs of Sydney.

Two years ago he paid A$11.5 million (HK$80 million) for a four-storey Sydney mansion and sends his sons to a private academy in Switzerland.