46.8158° N, 87.7285° W
Big Bay, Michigan
Kristen Mariuzza, general manager of the Upper Peninsula’s Eagle Mine in Big Bay, Michigan, is a Superior Woman. Mariuzza is one of less than a handful of women who oversee a large-scale mining operation in the world.
By Dale Hemmila
When Kristen Mariuzza looks up from her desk, she sees faces. The faces are in photo collages and individual photos on her office wall, placed directly across from where she sits every day.
Those photo collages are filled with faces of employees at Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The smiles on their faces, and the camaraderie in the group photos, tell the stories of people who enjoy what they do.
Mariuzza is quick to explain that the photos are a reflection of the job satisfaction she sees and hears from the Eagle Mine workforce, and her office display is an indication of the pride she feels in leading that group.
At Eagle Mine, Mariuzza is managing director, which is the top management position in the nickel and copper mine, which is, in fact, the only primary nickel mine in the United States. It produces up to 750,000 tons of ore annually.
Mariuzza oversees mining facilities that includes an underground mining operation in eastern Marquette County, and a processing plant a 66-mile drive west from the mine site. The operation employs 200 people directly, with another 250 local contractors whose work supports the mining facility.
To say it is unusual to have a woman as the senior manager of a mining operation this size would be a bit of an understatement. Asked about other women in a similar position, Mariuzza noted there may be one or two others worldwide of which she is aware.
Nonetheless, Mariuzza, a professional environmental engineer, was named general manager of Eagle Mine in September of 2017, moving up from her position as Health, Safety, Environment, and Permitting Manager at Eagle.
Mariuzza has achived a pretty lofty position for a woman who didn’t even want to be an engineer in the first place.
“I wanted to be in theater,” she said recently while recounting her career path. Her theater interest stemmed from high school performance days. “I was Annie Oakley in ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’” at Ishpeming’s Westwood High School, she said. Her post high school studies, though, were nudged along with some help from home.
“My parents said I could go into theater after I got an engineering degree,” she said with a laugh.
And so it was off to Michigan Technological University (MTU), where at first she majored in electrical engineering, thinking that might be useful as a possible entry into a theater career.
It wasn’t long, however, before her interests and major changed to environmental engineering.
“I liked the science behind it,” she explained. “More life science, biology, micro-biology, groundwater clean-up. My plan was to clean up old (industrial) sites. Mining was not in my big vision.”
But after she had an opportunity to spend summers working in a mining environment, she changed her outlook. As an intern, she spent a summer working for Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company in its environmental department. Cleveland-Cliffs operated two open pit iron mines near her hometown. A second summer was spent as an hourly, paid vacation replacement at the mines where she drove a production truck, worked on the blast crew, and, after a hand injury limited her duties, spent time working in the pit dispatch system.
“I was intrigued,” she said about her mining experience. “Everything was so big and I was fascinated by the site.”
After earning her degree from MTU, a mining career still didn’t develop, as she took a position with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) working in the water division. As the Upper Peninsula district engineer, she spent her time reviewing designs for waste water treatment facilities and inspecting and auditing plants.
”I would meet with city commissioners and city managers,” she said. “Helping some of the old mining communities secure funding for waste water treatment was gratifying.”
Her expertise in water management landed Mariuzza on a stakeholder committee to help write part 632 of the mining laws in Michigan during 2004 and 2005. That part of the law regulated mining of minerals such as copper, nickel, zinc, gold and silver. Ironically, it was part of the law that the then-proposed Eagle Mine would have to comply with to receive its permit to operate. As it turned out, in her position at DEQ, Mariuzza was part of the review process in 2006 for Eagle’s water management system. The mine received its operating permit in early 2007.
At the same time, Mariuzza was restless in in her position at DEQ.
“I wanted more of a challenge,” she said. “So I went home for three years. I really didn’t know what I was going to do next.”
As a stay-at-home mom, she became involved in a variety of non-engineering activities. She became a personal trainer, a Sunday School teacher, and a volunteer at her kids’ school. “I was the popcorn lady,” she said, and she even taught a community schools fitness class.
But it wouldn’t be long before Eagle Mine came knocking to gauge her interest in coming on board.
“I wasn’t interested,” she said, “but my husband could see it was time.”
So she joined Eagle in 2010 as an environmental engineer and said: “I haven’t regretted a minute of it.”
In 2015, she was named to Health, Safety, Environment, and Permitting Manager, and after less than three years in that position, she was tapped for the top job at Eagle.
“I love my job, I love the industry,” she said. “I believe in what we’re doing, and Eagle is a special place to be.”
Along with being a woman in her position, it is a bit out of the norm for mining operations to place an environmental engineer in the top management position, but given Eagle’s unique circumstances, it seemed appropriate.
“The environmental aspect controls so much of what we do,” she explained. “We’re under a microscope. Our permits are critical. They looked at me and I knew the environmental part; I had the people skills. It just made sense. I think it was my leadership background, and good people skills, and the passion I have for Eagle.”
It was obvious the company agreed.
“Kristen’s strengths within management, leadership, and communication will help advance Eagle…and continue Eagle’s operational success,” said Paul Conibear, then-president and CEO of parent company Lundin Mining, in announcing her appointment.
Additionally, it appears Lundin Mining has little gender bias as well, as Mariuzza pointed out that the company’s new CEO and CFO are both women, and that Eagle’s eight-person management team includes three women.
“Lundin has been very good about that,” she said
Since her appointment, Mariuzza has refined her management style and worked to develop a deeper understanding of the operation.
“As an environmental engineer, I had a process background, so I understand the processing plant,” she said. “I needed to learn about the mine and finance, and the management team has been fantastic teaching me about the things I didn’t know. My passion is leadership and always trying to get better.
“I have always worked in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “I feel like I have to prove myself and earn credibility.”
She pointed to her two summers working with Cleveland-Cliffs as giving her a leg-up on mining credibility beyond books and the boardroom.
And, as a woman, she said her leadership style fits Eagle well. She asks the management team to focus on what she calls “soft skills,” making sure they are listening, hearing and learning from others.
“Every single person out there needs to be valued,” she said, “and I think women are a little better at that. Our workforce loves working here; it’s like a family and we’re going to treat people right.”
Still, she certainly remains a woman in a non-traditional woman’s role, but seems to enjoy being an example of where women can be successful.
As an example, she recalled a communication she received when the announcement was made about her move into the senior position at Eagle, remembering a text from woman who simply said: “My daughter was so happy because she said it makes me feel like I can go out and do anything.”