KALGOORLIE, Australia (Reuters) - Gold miner Dianmin Chen - running Australia's Norton Gold Ltd NGF.AX for China's biggest gold producer Zijin Mining Group (601899.SS) - says there's still money to be made in mining.
While other companies are bracing for tough times by laying off workers and closing mines, Chen has been given a mandate to nearly double gold production and is keeping an eye out for potential acquisitions.
"We see this lower market as an opportunity to grow," he said in an interview.
Chen, who took the top job after Zijin paid $240 million for control of Norton a year ago, is lead speaker at the Diggers and Dealers mining conference starting Monday as organizers hope to inject some optimism into a likely gloomy gathering.
With bullion prices down more than 25 percent since October 2012, giants like Barrick Gold (ABX.TO) and Newmont Mining (NEM.N) are joining Australia's small- and mid-tier miners in laying off workers and selling higher-cost operations.
A group of seven one-time Australian favorites including Alacer Gold AQG.AX, OceanaGold (OGC.AX) and Silver Lake Resources (SLR.AX) have clocked up A$2.5 billion ($2.23 billion)in writedowns this year.
Globally, Barrick posted an $8.7 billion writedown, while majors Goldcorp Inc (G.TO), Newmont and Kinross Gold Corp (KGC.N) reported a combined $6 billion in impairment charges linked to plunging gold prices.
By contrast, Norton, which has mines in the Kalgoorlie region in western Australia's outback, aims to nearly double bullion output to 300,000 ounces over three to five years.
Its 350 employees were all rewarded with pay rises this year and Chen says there is no talk of writedowns.
China interest has been the big hope for the sector and optimism resurfaced after ChinaMolybdenum Co (3993.HK) agreed last week to pay $820 million for Rio Tinto's (RIO.AX) (RIO.L) majority stake in the Northparkes copper and gold mine.
Chen is upbeat about future growth.
Norton is working its operations harder to cut costs, he said. It will soon be able to extract 1.7 grams of gold from every ton of ore, up from just 1 gram per ton in the past.
The miner is also close to mopping up Kalgoorlie Mining Ltd KMC.AX, acquired via a friendly scrip takeover that will help dilute Zijin's ownership of Norton by about 7 percent to below 83 percent, hopefully boosting liquidity.
Chen said "plenty of mines" are for sale in the Australian gold fields and elsewhere in the world. Norton was "always looking", although he declined to give names.
"We aren't going to stop at 300,000 ounces," he said.
Barrick said last week that efforts to sell some mines in Australia were "well-advanced", while Alacer has said it has received interest in some of its mines.
For now, Zijin wants to see Norton's additional gold come from the assets it already owns, Chen said. Norton has already upped its 2013 guidance thanks to higher grade ores.
"This year we are looking at an 11 percent increase in gold production," he said.
"Our mandate is to double our production from our existing platform," said Chen. "If we have extra M&A activities we would go beyond that."
($1 = 1.1223 Australian dollars)
Editing by Richard Pullin