ESG Urgency Shifts Mining Mix > Sarah Johns, CFO, Xenith

The global race to decarbonise has supercharged growth for mining consultancy Xenith, and CFO Sarah Johns is focused on firming up the foundations for the expansion to come.

“We’re in the midst of a three-year plan which is highly transformative for Xenith,” says Johns, who brought with her more than 15 years’ mining sector experience when she joined the firm in June 2023. 

The Brisbane-based consultancy, which offers exploration, mine planning and operational advisory services to resources companies in Australia and around the world, has ramped up its environmental, social and governance (ESG) offering to match soaring demand from clients.

From helping miners to adapt site operations to meet net-zero targets and deliver mandatory sustainability reporting, to managing cultural heritage sensitivity processes, Xenith’s ESG services now drive more than a quarter of the firm’s revenue, up from virtually zero just a few years ago.

“Xenith is filling the gap for a lot of our clients who don’t have the in-house ESG capabilities themselves,” Johns says. “Our team is bringing in that on-the-ground knowledge.”

More growth afoot

To meet client demand, the almost 20-year-old firm has gone through its own rapid expansion, putting it on a path to meet its three-year aim to hit $50m in annual revenue, up from around $30m.

“Since I joined last year, we’ve added another 25 full time employees (bringing the team to about 100), which is substantial, and we’ve got the same growth horizon for the next 12 months,” Johns says. “We’ve also opened an office in Perth, adding to our established bases in Brisbane, Sydney and the Hunter Valley, and we’re targeting more geographic growth, including international expansion.”

Underscoring the transformation, Xenith made two recent acquisitions – cultural heritage and environmental planning consultancies Spinifex in 2021 and James Bailey & Associates in 2022 – followed by a major rebranding.

Sarah Johns, CFO | Xenith

A key priority for Johns – whose diverse responsibilities span finance, IT, legal, HR and marketing – is to bolster Xenith’s governance and internal process to support its growth.

“Xenith is on the maturity curve, so the biggest task is to get it into the best shape to scale into the future,” she says.

“For instance, we’re in the middle of scoping a replacement ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, which is going to be a hugely transformational, taking away a lot of the administrative burden for the consultancy team to enable them to be more productive. We’re also bedding down the rebrand and marketing, there’s some refinancing, and new employment contracts – there are just so many interesting projects for me to be involved in.”

Wide remit a drawcard

The wide scope of her remit and the firm’s focus on the sector’s ESG issues were among key aspects that attracted Johns to Xenith, having held roles with diverse responsibilities throughout her career.

Raised on a farm in the Mackay region of rural North Queensland, Johns started out in a local tax agency while completing her studies, before a stint in London working in the finance team of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. After returning to Brisbane, her bond with the mining sector started in earnest in 2008 when she joined copper and gold producer PanAust. She spent more than a decade with the miner, which was headquartered in Brisbane and had operations in Laos, Papua New Guinea and Chile.

“When I started, PanAust had a market cap of about $120 million. On the back of developing the copper gold mine in Laos, our market cap substantially grew, to over $2 billion at the peak.” 

During these formative career years, Johns was exposed to a gamut of valuable experiences, from navigating the GFC which saw copper prices and share markets collapse, to her involvement in mergers, acquisitions and equity raises, to travelling frequently to Laos to visit mining operations and contribute to programs in the local communities.

“I saw the really positive social benefits that mining can have on local communities,” she recalls. “We had programs to support the local agriculture sector by buying local produce for our camp kitchens; we organised a shipment of medical equipment from Australian hospitals; lots of different things like that. I saw throughout the decade the standard of living within the local community greatly improved.”

Her initial remit as PanAust’s financial accountant looking after reporting and compliance quickly expanded to include the operational insurance and risk management. Later, she spread her wings to become remuneration manager, looking after the performance management framework and bonus schemes. “Those years gave me a great understanding of the whole business process, rather than being pigeonholed in finance and accounting.” 

ESG in the CFO bag

PanAust was also one of the early miners to voluntarily produce a sustainability report, inducting Johns into the world of ESG measurement and management, which has subsequently become an increasingly integral part of many CFOs’ remits and key to her current employer Xenith’s service offering.

“Today’s CFOs and audit committees need to be across all of the ESG detail because it’s going to be part of the audit at the end of the day,” Johns says. 

“We have international ESG standards being formed, and we more or less know what portions are going to be auditable and need sign-off by the external audit partner. Having standard and capable means of data capture within your business and bringing it together is a critical pathway to accurate and auditable ESG reporting.”

Diversity in demand 

For as long as Johns has been working in the resources sector, she’s enjoyed its practical nature and the people, although concedes she’d like to see more women attracted to the workforce.

A recent analysis has found women make up just 18 percent of the 263,000 people working in the Australian sector, putting it second in the economy for the lowest female proportion of total employment. (Similarly, women make up an estimated 27 percent of ASX100 chief financial officers, underscoring the rarity of Johns’ role as a woman CFO in the mining sector.)  

Johns says it’s a concern particularly considering the talent shortage within the sector and urges more women to recognise the benefits of working in the industry.

“Employers within our industry are just going to have to be a little bit more flexible around their recruitment strategies to get the required talent, and that goes for males and females,” she says. 

“Organisations that have good leaders, who value hard work and support diversity, backed up by the right support mechanisms such as parental leave, flexible working arrangements and career development paths, they’re the ones that are going to have better performance.”