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Peter Whittall: Pike CEO in the global spotlight

Published: 9:06PM Tuesday November 23, 2010 Source: ONE News

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall has become a household name since the explosion at the West Coast mine on Friday that has left 29 miners trapped underground.

Thrust into the public limelight under horrific circumstances, the CEO has earned respect for his handling of the situation during a time of what Pike River chairman John Dow has called "enormous personal turmoil".

"He knows all these guys personally, ones that work at Pike he recruited himself. He's personally friendly with a number of them, it's breaking his heart right now," said Dow.

Whittall's appointment as CEO followed nearly 30 years' experience as a coal miner and mining executive, according to his online work profile .

In 2005 he was made Pike's general manager of mines, where he took on responsibility for the operational aspects of the business, including the safety and environment areas.

His tenure as manager was highlighted by Pike River's first production run of coal two years ago, after a catalogue of development set backs.

He has a history in mining in Australia and holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Mining) and a Masters of Business Administration.

Now, however, Whittall's experience has forced him into an unenviable position, having to address dozens of anguished family members twice a day in the knowledge the potential loss of 29 lives happened on his watch.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee has lauded his efforts so far.

"What a hell of a job," he said.

"He has to front one of the worst situations anybody possibly could, and so I think the clarity of his communication is admirable."

Dow also commented on Whittall's ability to put the situation in laymen's terms.

"Peter has got the ability to take the most complex technical issues and communicate them in a simple, clear and quite graphic terms.

"But what I think underpins all of that is the man's natural humanity. He's a really decent bloke," he said.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn is also convinced Whittall is the man for the job, but says that it has taken its toll.

"I've seen a person that's a very sharp operator turn into a worried person and, like, sincerely he is worried," he said.

In the days since the explosion, Whittall has become noticeably more drawn, showing signs of little sleep.

His daily updates on the progress of the rescue effort have, and are being, scrutinised by one of the biggest and most probing media packs New Zealand has seen.

However Brownlee said the pressure will be on for a long time yet.

"There will be a multiple inquiry process I suspect, although that's not all completely determined.

"He's got a huge amount in front of him, but he will be aware whatever he has got to deal with is a small part of what the families are dealing with at the present time," he said.

At this evening's press conference Whittall presented CCTV footage shot at the mouth of the mine when the explosion occurred.

He indicated the situation was worsening as rescue efforts continued to be thwarted  and curtailed the conference more quickly than the previous conferences, saying his men still had work to do.

Earlier today shares in New Zealand Oil and Gas, the part-owner of Pike River Coal, fell over 30% in the first few minutes of trading, which resumed this afternoon after a trading halt.

NZOG, which owns 29.4% of Pike River, requested the halt in Australia on Friday afternoon once news came out of the explosion at the West Coast mine. A halt was also placed on the New Zealand exchange yesterday morning.

NZOG was at $1.20 on the NZX when trading was suspended and today fell 40c in the first few minutes when the trading halt was lifted at 1:12pm. At the close of play it was trading at .87c.