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North American Palladium (NYSEMKT:PAL)

Q3 2012 Operating Results Call

October 15, 2012 5:00 pm ET

Executives

Camilla Bartosiewicz - Director of Investor Relations & Corporate Communications

André Jean Douchane - Chairman, Interim Chief Executive Officer and Member of Technical, Environmental, Health and Safety Committee

Gregory R. Struble - Former Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President

Jeffrey A. Swinoga - Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance

Analysts

Andrew Mikitchook - GMP Securities L.P., Research Division

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

Edward Otto - Cormark Securities Inc., Research Division

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Operator

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to North American Palladium Development Update Conference Call and Webcast being held on Monday, October 15, 2012, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time. I would now like to turn the call over to Camilla, Director, Investor Relations and Corporate Communications. Please go ahead, Camilla.

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Thank you, Marilynn. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today on October 15, 2012, for our conference call, pertaining to North American Palladium's development update. About 30 minutes ago, the company issued a news release, disclosing its preliminary production numbers for the third quarter, as well as the development update on the Lac des Iles Mines expansion. This call is being held for the benefit of analysts and institutional investors who wish to engage in a more technical discussion regarding the development update. We'll keep the prepared remarks pretty short, and then go right into the Q&A session.

Joining me today is André Douchane, the Company's Chairman and Interim CEO; Greg Struble, COO; and Jeff Swinoga, CFO. Before we start, please be advised that comments made on today's call may contain forward-looking information. This information, by its nature, is subject to risks and uncertainties, and as such actual results may differ materially from the views and expectations expressed today. For further information on these forward-looking statements, please consult the company's relevant public filings. And now, I'll turn the call over to André.

André Jean Douchane

Thank you, Camilla. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for taking the time to join us on such short notice. As Greg will describe to you shortly, we continue to make steady progress at LDI and have accomplished many significant milestones to date. 2012, as you know, has been a critical development year for us. And where we are today is at a very advanced stage of our development, a stage at which we believe has considerably reduced the execution risk of the project. Though 2013 and 2014 will continue to be transition years for the company, as we ramp up our production through the shaft, we remain very well positioned to realize our vision of becoming a mid-tier producer by 2015.

Our long-term strategy remains unchanged, and though there may have been some changes over the past 2 years to get where we are, the goal of producing approximately 250,000 ounces per year at significantly reduced cash costs in the year 2015 has not changed. And that is an important point to make, and remains a key investment rationale for North American Palladium.

With respect to our development schedule, we recently completed a comprehensive review of the project's timeline with our contractors, and based on our current protection rates of advancement, we are now in a better position to provide more clarity on how long it will take before the shaft is fully operational next year. As planned, we will start shaft commissioning at year end. Once the production device is installed in Q1, we should be skipping -- or some time in early, the third quarter, and ramp up to the 3,500 tonne per day rate by the end of Q3 in 2013. Until the shaft is ready to use, of course, the pot [ph] money in the Offset Zone which we're feeling now will continue via the ramp access. This timeline is conservative in our view and has significant contingencies built in. We're very comfortable at this point that this can be met. Nonetheless, we will be very diligent in evaluating opportunities to optimize the development plans in order to have the shaft fully operational as early as possible in 2003 -- 2013.

Looking ahead at the company's future prospects, I want to reiterate that our future looks bright. In the past few years, we began to lay the groundwork to achieve our vision of becoming a mid-tier precious metal producer, and where we are today, the realization of that vision is well within sight. LDI has a world-class palladium asset. We have tremendous exploration upside. The outlook for palladium continues to be supported by solid supply-and-demand fundamentals, and as we saw in the press recently, the metal's becoming even more rare.

We have a clear strategy to increase our production and lower our cash costs for the first phase of our mine expansion as it nears completion. During my recent travel at the site, I was further encouraged by the talent of the highly motivated team that we have to help us accomplish our objectives, so I'll now turn this over to Greg for a short development update.

Gregory R. Struble

Thanks, André. I'll just cover 4 things pretty quickly here. An update on our recent progress, the shaft schedule itself, the outstanding work and CapEx. The surface construction of the mine is essentially complete. We recently accomplished a number of very important milestones, which include the successful commissioning of the service lease, the auxillary lease, and all the related power systems, including the main electrical substation. Mining of the Offset Zone stope has -- first Offset Zone stope has commenced, and we are very encouraged by the initial results we're seeing at the mill. The shaft sinking is in progress, and I'm pleased to say that stope development remains on schedule as well. The stope development is equally critical to the project, and it will be the long-term platform required to provide consistent ore feed for the new shaft, as we begin to open up the deeper areas of the mine,thus enabling us to achieve our production rate of about 250,000 ounces of palladium by 2015.

As André mentioned earlier, we feel very comfortable with the shaft development timeline discussed today. While conducting our recent review of the shaft development schedule, we looked at the daily advance rate of the shaft work, and we started to see that the productivity of our contractors is falling below the original projections of the initial development schedule; the projections that, until recently, we believe will be achievable. As I'm sure you know, the mining industry is facing a serious storage of experienced labor, with a substantial turnover for all our contractors, and has impacted almost all development projects around the world.

For example, if we lose a couple of key guys from our contracted group, by the time they get replaced, safety trained and brought up the speed, that affects the overall project and the rate of advance. Though we've had some assurance from our contractors that there may be opportunities to make up some of the slippage in the schedule, we have decided to be more conservative in our forecasts. This review of development, along with the growth that we're seeing in our resource, both laterally and in the upper part of the mine, has allowed us to substantially improve our forecasting abilities and to hone our development priorities. From our perspective, the slower ramp up to full skipping ability from the shaft is not a major setback [indiscernible] to our long-term production plan. The shaft is certainly a critical path item to the expansion, as is [indiscernible] development, which remains on schedule. We still maintain our target of ramping up to 5,500 tonnes per day by 2015, at which rate, our production should reach over 250,000 ounces at significantly reduced cash cost.

Finally, I just want to reiterate that we were really pleased with the overall progress of our expansion and commend the efforts of our internal project group, as well as all our contractors, in their efforts to minimize any further delays. As always, we will be diligent in looking for opportunities to optimize our development plans in order to have the shaft fully operational as early as possible in 2013.

In addition to the actual excavation to the shaft itself, the remaining work to be done at this stage is the installation of the production hoist, which will be required for skipping ore by early Q3 of next year. The production hoist is currently being shipped to site, with installation to commence immediately when all parts arrive to the site. Typically, these installations will require up to 2 months, typically, before final commissioning of the electrical and mechanical components [ph] can begin. This should be in line with the current schedule, and be ready for completion of the underground infrastructure.

Moving to CapEx. Considering that the bulk of our development investments have already been made, we feel very comfortable that our final CapEx spend will not differ substantially, from the $106 million budget for this year. And as for next year's CapEx, we are currently working on our budgets, however, I just want to clarify that we do not expect the timing of the shaft will have a major impact on our capital plans for next year, as we have already completed a substantial amount of the development today, and consequently have some flexibility in our spending priorities. And on that note, I'll turn it back to André to start the Q&A session.

André Jean Douchane

Thank you, Greg. Before we open up the line for questions, I just want to remind everybody that we are currently in our budgeting process, and because we're not completed with it, we really can't speak to it yet. And however, we will provide guidance on January of 2013, as we always do. And now, we're pleased to take some questions from our analysts and institutional investors. For individual investors, it would probably better if you will just please contact Camilla at a later time.

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Operator, we're prepared for the question session.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Andrew Mikitchook.

Andrew Mikitchook - GMP Securities L.P., Research Division

Greg, maybe you could just give us at least your expected -- what you expect at least to happen with this ramp-up with this shaft? Should we really expect that no significant -- is it a spectrum that there should be -- is it no significant contribution from the shaft until Q3? Or is it going to be some sort of incremental ramp-up once this hoist is installed sometime in Q1 -- installed in commission sometime in Q1, what should be the spectrum in there that we should expect?

André Jean Douchane

Andrew, it's André. I'll take a crack at this first. I mean, there's things that has to be put in like a pocket, and although a pocket is being worked on, it's necessary for any kind of efficient loading and material, and those pockets are scheduled at very long period down the shaft. The shaft -- I'll re-remind you the shaft, although it's a critical piece, it's not -- the timing of the stopes and the stope development is equally, if not more important, and that's on schedule. So no, the -- in the [indiscernible] words, I'll ask Greg to add anything [indiscernible] shaft rates, but it will be ready -- it should be ready to start taking some muck up around the 1st of July, and it's a big machine, it's complex, it's computer-controlled, and it takes a while to break in as with anything. I mean we've had a few issues with some of the equipment as it is, that's supposed to be brand new, but you have a controller go out but nobody knows that it's going out and plate part comes from China and our spare parts haven't come up [ph], so you just have to go through them and then take some of that delay. And so we're giving you a long period of having those issues. That's why we say start up third quarter, production at the end of third quarter. And Greg, did I forget anything?

Gregory R. Struble

Well, that sums it up pretty good. There's a lot of moving pieces to it, as André said. And the hoist is just one part of it. So when that shows up, we can move that along in parallel to the actual slashing of the shaft itself. But the pocket and the rest of the infrastructure's all an ongoing process, and we seem now to be pretty well ready to start using by the end of Q2. And then, as André mentioned, ramp it up to 3,500 tonnes by the end of Q3.

Andrew Mikitchook - GMP Securities L.P., Research Division

Okay. And then in the meantime -- this might be kind of budgeting question, you guys said that, that limited ability to respond but in terms of the capacity [ph] on the ramp, we've seen it hovering at above 20 -- about 2,500 tonnes a day from various sources, I think mostly, Roby frankly, and maybe some development ore from offset. Is that a reasonable expectation to continue on the ramp, or is that more -- it's not sustainable?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

Yes, I think, that's very reasonable. Bear in mind, Andrew, that we're just now starting our first offset real production, so that's a huge addition that we have coming our way going forward. It's going to be a little more costly, taking it up the ramp, so that's one piece of it. Secondly, recall that we've been very successful in converting up the Roby resource, so that's another piece of it. And then, I think, the third part of it is, as we're looking at now in our budgets, the open pit still has some life to it, and we're very pleased with our sources that we have available to get us through another year.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our next question comes from Alex Terentiew.

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

A couple of questions guys. On the stoping, you guys say that you're still on schedule, are you having a different -- is the stoping done by yourselves or a different set of contractors? I'm just wondering the turnover that you're commenting on with the shaft development, if that's just being done by a totally different set of people, and if you're going to -- if you're experiencing any of the same sort of turnover issues on your stoping development?

André Jean Douchane

Alex, it's André. The entire mining continues to post fuss over qualified people, and I think that's been our problem ever since, but we have a different contractor that's in the process of sinking the -- driving the declines, and they seem to be doing pretty well and good shape, and they've managed to keep schedule all through all of it, so to answer your question simply, it is a different contractor. And stope development, they also are doing the initial trend risks [ph] and enterage into the stopes as we get, probably we're getting more and more stopes. And eventually, we'll come at this from both ends, we'll come at it from the bottom and from the top. But certainly the ore for 2013, 2014 and on into 2015, comes through the development of the upper level. Greg, do you have anything else to add to that?

Gregory R. Struble

I think to your point on the turnover, it's pretty stable. Our mining developers tend to be a little bit more closer to home whereas...

André Jean Douchane

It seems to be quite stable now.

Gregory R. Struble

Yes, Whereas the shaft guys are very much in flux. There's a lot of competition for good quality skilled shaft men. So to the point earlier, we don't see as much delaying or really raising your risk in that part of it.

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

Okay. Just kind of following up from Andrew's question prior, and the current quarter with Q3's underground production, if my math is right here, I think I was getting about 1,900 tonnes per day, but you guys beat nicely on the open pit ore. So what, was there a congestion issue underground this quarter? I mean, do you expect the development rate to pick back up and the 2,500-tonne per day rate being continued in 2013? I just wanted to get a bit of color on that.

André Jean Douchane

Well, 2013, we're still going through those budgets, of course, but I think some of the Q3 shortfall, was related -- the lack of the water vents that we had, it did make some places a little harder to get to, so there was a bit of a delay around that. But the bright side of it, it actually helps us accelerate some development in other areas. So it allowed us to bring, have some of the upper Roby resource that we brought into the plan.

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

Okay. And with the shaft being delayed a little bit, and I know this is all part and parcel of the previous question, but congestion on the ramp was kind of a concern that limited some of your development and production in the past, and now that you'll be mucking this -- or trucking the stuff up with your ramp from the Offset Zones, from a longer distance, any concerns there that congestion could, again, become an issue, or 2,500 may be too aggressive? Sorry, apologies, you may not be able to answer that question, but I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Gregory R. Struble

I think I can answer it very generally. It's, really, the way to look at it is, the shaft is down to the first loading station, we'll be able to use that for helping to move men and material. So that, in itself, will help decongest the ramp quite a bit. Equipment could be staged underground, it doesn't have to go up and down the ramp like it does now, we'll be decoupled to a certain degree, support traffic from truck traffic, so there's a potential benefit there.

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

Okay. Last question, open pit. Another good quarter there on both tonnes and grade. I think you guys -- I don't remember your exact number, I think it was around 1 million tonnes for the open pit, and then if I -- I think you guys are pretty much almost there already and we've got 1 quarter to go, why did you get -- why is the mine getting such a high number of tonnes out of the open pit, what are you guys seeing there?

Gregory R. Struble

Basically, as I said earlier, we have a little bit of a, delays in our underground this quarter because of the rain events, so obviously, we will try to make up the difference from the open pit. But I think the important thing here is that, when we shut the pit down in 2008, it was still a viable mining option, and we're taking advantage of that now.

Alex Terentiew - Raymond James Ltd., Research Division

Okay. So do you have the capacity to kind of keep going at this rate? I guess is what I'm getting at, I'm trying to look at, going forward, can this sort of 3,600-tonne per day rate from the open pit be sustained, or do you think that would be scaled back down a little bit?

Gregory R. Struble

I think let's wait until we do our guidance in January, but we don't -- we're very pleased with where the pit's at now. It's probably not going to be a lot different than, let's say, where we're at so far.

Operator

Our next question comes from Edward Otto.

Edward Otto - Cormark Securities Inc., Research Division

Just a question on the open pit operations. I was curious what the waste mines was for the quarter?

Gregory R. Struble

Ed, I don't have that right in front of me, but it's a very small percentage. As you recall, there's a bit of a catch fence we had to build in the North part of the mine -- North part of the pit space. We just moving that out of the way. I believe it was less than 50k tonnes, but don't quote me on that until I double check it.

André Jean Douchane

There's been a bit of an advantage to that thing in that there was an open cavity underneath all of this which had to be filled. And so a lot of the waste was gobbed back under there through raises [ph], as the same with the underground mine because of the old workings from the Roby zone, a lot of the waste does not have to come out of the mine, it goes back into the old workings, which helps structurally cuts down the haul distances and everything.

Edward Otto - Cormark Securities Inc., Research Division

Excellent. And then can you guys provide any operational or spending update from Vezza?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

Right now, we're, as [indiscernible] we're also going through the budgeting there. It's definitely not part of our primary focus that we have on the palladium, but I expect to have a better update on that start of the next year.

Operator

Our next question comes from Nathan Littlewood.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Just a few questions. Number one, has, I guess, with the schedule spillover from 2012 into 2013, is it reasonable to assume that there's also advance in CapEx spillover? And if so, can we quantify that number?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

We really can't quantify it right now, because we're going still going through the financials, and we'll will have full some [ph] update when we do the quarter review. But I think where we're at with our overall construction, Nathan, is we're basically done. I mean, there's a few things left to do on the surface. So the bulk of our spending is behind us, and we understand it very well. As we go into next year, of course, it's going to be pretty much just drifting and shaft construction, so we're feeling very comfortable with where we're at in our current capital outlook that we gave you today. We don't see it varying significantly to you on that number. Obviously, there could be a little carryover from billing it -- billing forms and things, but we're pretty certain about that number.

Gregory R. Struble

In the big scheme of things, what's left here, I mean that the big bucks are in the shaft, the hoist and the original development of this thing. The actual sinking of the hole in the ground is not where the big bucks are. So the rest of it's done and paid for, it's just a matter of the -- Galloway's in there, and they're stoping their way down, they finally got some semblance of a cycle going, and it's just a matter of getting down now. And as I said the pocket, the first pocket's being developed underneath. So to actually blow the rock out and haul it out the bottom, that's not a lot of money compared to what we put in.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. So the scope of works for the $116 million CapEx budget that you have today is pretty much the same as the scope of work for the $116 million CapEx budget that you had for your 6 month [indiscernible], so to speak?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

That's correct.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. Also, just on the long-term targets, you've previously been a little bit more explicit with that and actually said 200. Now you're saying significantly with -- I'm just wondering should we infer from that, has there been a review at all of the longer-term target? Is there a reason there for being a little bit more vague with that one?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

I don't know that I understand your question, I don't know if anybody's been. Camilla?

Camilla Bartosiewicz

No. Nathan, we never give any formal guidance with respect to production for the transition years. We've only been pretty vocal about 2015, at which rate we would be producing at 250,000 ounces.

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

We tend to have a steady ramp-up as we would through there, but that was exactly when you hit 150 -- when you hit 200, and when hit 250. And I don't know that -- but we haven't really specifically tried to figure that out. We're just --

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Yes. [indiscernible] disclosure.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

So it's not the '13 or '14 number that I'm asking about; it's that longer-term number which you've talked about previously is 250,000 ounces and to [indiscernible] $300 an ounce?

Gregory R. Struble

Yes. Okay. [indiscernible]

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

So that $300 an ounce [indiscernible]?

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Right. I mean you'd have to, obviously, update your assumptions on byproducts by using things like [indiscernible], but to be conservative you could say low 200, based on current assumptions on grade and tonnage, I -- So I think that it hasn't changed.

Gregory R. Struble

[indiscernible] post-250, point 15, yeah.

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

I think one of the things that caught us offguard, it's going to catch a lot of mining companies offguard, is the cost of power, especially as they push this green movement. I mean, take a look at your personal power bill, you really ought to take a look at it, because about 10% of your power's coming from green power, and its 1/2 your cost. This thing is way premature. As a business, we're getting hit with this stuff, too, and that's why I'm glad to see some people beginning to complain about it. Its time wasn't now, and they pushed it, and somebody suggested that maybe David Suzuki should take a stake in MBA. That's -- Anyway, it's, that's something that hit us and we're trying to do what we can about, because it is a cost that we did not expect. I don't think anybody expects it.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay, so can we ask what is your annual power bill at the moment?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

I don't know what that is off the top of my head.

Gregory R. Struble

Well, it's kind of varied. We'll -- I'm not going to give it up. We're going to go to the [indiscernible]. I mean you just have to look at -- it's -- can we give a percentage, it's a -- the percentage increase we got when they changed the rate. That was pretty significant.

André Jean Douchane

It was pretty significant. It's roughly 40% to 50%, yes.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

So you're just seeing a 40%, 50% change in the power...

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

The increase in our power bill, yes.

André Jean Douchane

We're not sure what the starting point was. Maybe we can talk about that when you have your [indiscernible]

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

[indiscernible] will be coming out.

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Okay. We'll discuss it in November with our financials.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Sounds good. A couple of other quick ones, the water management stuff seems to be a bit of a recurring thing. Could you just help us understand where that might show up in the finances? Is that like an operating item, or is that going to be a CapEx item which would be included in or incremental to the 116 [indiscernible] ?

Jeffrey A. Swinoga

Yes, Nathan, it's Jeff here. We're going to treat it similar to what we had in Q2, so you'll see a break out in the other category for the one-time direct flood costs [indiscernible] with the quarter event.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. And just to be a little bit more specific on the previous question about Vezza, where are you at with the disposal strategy process?

Gregory R. Struble

I think it's -- we really wouldn't discuss M&A, especially stuff funds guy [ph]. We continue to work very hard to optimize an asset for ourselves, and I guarantee you, if something happens, you'll be the second one to know right behind [indiscernible]. If something material happens, believe me, we'll release it to the public.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our next question comes from Andrew Mikitchook.

Andrew Mikitchook - GMP Securities L.P., Research Division

I'm not sure if Greg or someone else is able to give us any comments on how the initial scoping is going in the offset, maybe in terms of reconciliation to either at least, geometry or maybe even grade in tonnes or continuity, anything at all?

André Jean Douchane

Yes. Andrew, one thing -- I'm going to let Greg answer this, but one thing that's never been an issue at LDI is the ore reserves. They've always been within a couple of percent going back to over the 10 years that I've been with the company. It's a very, very consistent deposit, but I'll let Greg give you the specifics there.

Gregory R. Struble

Yes. I think -- I don't have the actual reconciliations available now but we will be talking to this sometime in the future. But I'll say this, I'm very excited. This is the first time we've got actually stoping in the Offset, and the job here that we're planning out, are coming out as we're drilling them. Now, mind you [ph], this is the first stope. Our experience so far has been, there's not a lot of surprises, so we're very pleased with what we're seeing start to open up.

Andrew Mikitchook - GMP Securities L.P., Research Division

And still, only the focus on the offset, nothing with the cowboy or the others that, that's still being pushed out to the future, right?

Gregory R. Struble

I think to that point, Andrew, we are seeing pretty good growth laterally, and Cowboy now appear to be more tied to the offset than thought originally. So this will all come out in our exploration update for sure, but it's -- there's not a lot of surprises, we're seeing some good thicknesses, especially below us where we're currently at, but we're very encouraged too with some of the lateral growth that we're seeing. So I think it's probably prudent to talk to offset, and as we rationalize what Cowboy and Outlaw mean to that, it will become clear to all of us.

André Jean Douchane

Andrew, I also think it's critical that we as a team keep our eye on the ball here and stay focused on the development project as best we can and make that our priority, because that's where our future is, the exploration looks great for the other stuff, but right now we need to stay focused.

Operator

And that was our last question.

Camilla Bartosiewicz

Okay. Thank you, operator, and thank you, everyone for joining us. We will be available for follow-up discussions after the call, if anyone wishes to contact me directly. Thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, we thank you for your time and attention. This webcast is now concluded.

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