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SANTIAGO, CHILE — Last summer, Chile’s mining minister found himself with a crisis on his hands: a collapse in the San Jose copper-gold mine had trapped 33 miners underground. As the world watched, Lawrence Golborne led the successful charge to find and rescue them.

In the course of 69 days — culminating with the last miner being pulled to the surface on Oct. 13 — Golborne, 48, went from being one of Chile’s least known government officials, to one of its most popular. He now has more than 90,000 followers on Twitter.

In December  Stanford Business magazine caught up with Golborne, a 1996 graduate of the School’s Stanford Education Program,  in his office in Santiago.

“The experience in the San Jose mine,” he began, “has been the most intense experience that I ever had in my life.”

While much international attention focused on the later rescue efforts, the 17 days before the miners were found alive proved far more difficult, he said. Hundreds of family members converged on the mine, demanding information and generating nationwide attention. Many relatives were so desperate they wanted to search the mine themselves. Most didn’t trust the government.

The Chilean government found itself in a strange role, Golborne said. Normally, the responsible mining company, San Esteban, should have undertaken the search-and-rescue operation. But it was clear that San Esteban did not have the capacity to do so. Golborne credits his boss, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, for making a politically risky calculation: the government would lead the rescue effort.

That decision that today sounds nice, I think at that moment was a very complicated matter,” Golborne said.

Early on, he suggested to Piñera that they might eventually have to call off the search.

“‘Mr. President,’” he recalls saying, “‘You have to think about until when we are going to continue looking for them.’”

No one knew at that point whether the miners had been crushed by falling rock or killed by an air blast. Golborne calculated that they should keep looking for at least 30 days. Although the miners only had enough food for two days, he believed they had adequate air and water. If they were alive.

 ”I don’t know what would have been the right date to stop looking for them,” he said. “But being realistic, there was a day. 90 days? 120? 180? Who knows? And fortunately we never had to do that decision.”

Seventeen days after the collapse, a drill came up with a now famous note attached: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33.” (We are okay in the refuge, the 33.)

“That was the most important day of my life, the day that we found them,” Golborne said, “when I really felt that all the effort had a reward.”

Once they found the miners, he said, the rescue itself was a “technical” issue,  “a matter of work, money, and technology to get them out.” The only questions were how long the rescue would take and what would happen if one of the miners fell ill.

“An appendicitis 700 meters under the earth could have been a problem,” he said.

The government split its efforts into three categories: supporting the families, providing food and medical attention for the miners, and overseeing the technical aspects of the rescue. That included sending down probes, opening up an escape path, and evaluating the rescue proposals that were flowing in from around the world.

Golborne, who was CEO of the huge Chilean retail conglomerate Cencosud until 2009, said his background in business made managing the various teams easier.

“I always said that I am lucky that I had to face a crisis in my area of expertise,” he said, “because if it had been a medical crisis with somebody dying, probably I wouldn’t have been able to help.”

Beyond that, he said those 69 days reinforced another management lesson.

“When you get committed people with an objective, you can obtain tremendous results,” he said.

The rescue workers felt for the miners and their families; they wanted to alleviate their suffering and save lives. As a result, he said, their commitment was “extraordinary.”

Just months earlier, on Feb. 27, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake had killed more than 500 people. Golborne thinks that’s part of the reason there was such widespread support for the rescue among the Chilean public.

“We had a rough year with the earthquake,” he said. “We needed a story with a happy ending.”

With so much focus on that happy ending, critics insist that the miners never should have been trapped in the first place. They say the San Jose mine had a record of serious safety violations, including worker deaths. Workers had filed complaints that allegedly went unacknowledged. Inspectors from Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service closed the mine following one 2007 accident, then allowed it to reopen in 2008, without adhering to all safety standards the critics argued.

Golborne says the government should strengthen the auditing of working conditions in mines. Because there was “an evident flaw in the number of inspectors that the national mine service … had in previous governments,” he says, the Ministry of Mining is requesting a bigger budget to hire more inspectors. But he doesn’t think changing laws and regulations is the best way to remedy safety problems. Instead, he wants to foster “the conscious creation of a culture of safety.”

“The only thing that really will help will be the consciousness of all the participants in the activity that we have to put security — safety — as our main goal,” he said.

Golborne says he left business for public service because he believed strongly in President Piñera’s agenda. Would he consider riding the wave of his newfound popularity into a run for the highest office, as some have speculated?

“We are very far from the election,” he said. “I want to be a very good minister. That’s all.”

— Jocelyn Weiner

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