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From the 20-mule team that transported borates through Death Valley to a new state-of-the-art plant in Boron, see how the California-native Rio Tinto Minerals has made collaboration a pillar of its company culture.
It’s an element that’s used in just about every industry and product you can think of. Polymers, ceramics, fertilizers, flat screen TVs, fiberglass—you name it, it probably contains boron. Luckily for those companies that mine for borates, its pervasiveness in the marketplace has meant success and profits in one of the biggest downturns for the heavy industry.
Funnily enough, its ever-expanding list of uses even benefited the snake oil salesmen of the Wild West.
“A hundred years ago when U.S. Borax, now Rio Tinto Minerals, started mining in Death Valley, there were a lot of borate snake oil salesmen,” shared Dean Gehring, President and CEO of Rio Tinto Minerals. “The funny thing was that borates could actually do so many things that they were right on more than you’d expect.”
The mining company supplies over 30 percent of the world’s borates, equating to around three million tons mined each year. With over a 1,000 customers in 100 countries, this strong market presence is another reason they have survived during a rough period for mining.
Rio Tinto Minerals’ roots are in Death Valley, California, where mining started in the late 1800s. The iconic image of the famous 20-mule team that hauled ore from Death Valley to Mojave, CA is still very much a part of the company today.
“That 20-mule team is still on our business cards,” Gehring said. “We believe it symbolizes the strength, teamwork, and perseverance on which the company was founded, and are traits that are still required for success today.”
Gehring believes that people enjoy doing meaningful work—producing and providing a product like boron that allows consumer products to be manufactured fits the bill perfectly—as well as being part of a team. With a global operation of Rio Tinto Minerals’ scale, teamwork is incredibly important to the culture of the company and has set the foundation for its safety and inclusion initiatives, as well as its innovation and investment strategies.
A Collaborative Company Culture
Maintaining the culture for a large global company is no easy feat, but Gehring relishes in the challenge.
“You have to be intentional about the culture you create,” he shared.
There are a lot of things that make Rio Tinto Minerals a distinct company to work for: employees don’t just “mine and refine”, but can tell you what products are used for and feel like a part of the value chain; the strong focus on safety is just one way the company shows it cares for its people; and the unique complexity provides a challenging but rewarding work environment.
The company recognizes that to be effective and efficient, it has to be a business that operates seamlessly across the world. For Gehring, this means although he might not be involved on every project or decision, that he is aware of how each piece of the puzzle fits with the company’s overall strategy. This includes participation in a weekly conference call, where he doesn’t contribute, he just listens.
“It allows me to review the plan versus what is actually happening in real time. I get a sense of the pulse of the business, can measure and make assessments on the process, but the most valuable feedback I get from the call is making sure that collaboration and teamwork are present in every aspect of the business.”
Three Focuses on Safety
This culture of collaboration and teamwork is absolutely critical to Rio Tinto Minerals’ commitment to safety. It’s proven this commitment by attaining the safest year on record in 2015. That certainly doesn’t mean the company will be resting on its laurels—the desire to continue to improve is set in its unique three-focus approach.
The first of these focus areas—personal accidents including cuts, scrapes, and bruises—are not the types of accidents that could lead to a fatality, but are a great way for Rio Tinto Minerals to evaluate if its work is safely designed.
“We don’t want people to be doing work where people will get hurt,” Gehring shared.
With all of the right procedures in place, injuries can still be present if the safe behaviors are not taught. The company understands this, and performs job observations to ensure the proper safety standards are being demonstrated.
Rio Tinto Minerals’ second focus on safety is a recent development. After seeing its safety performance plateau and still having fatalities elsewhere in the industry, the company decided to hone in on the specific causes of fatal injuries. This area includes tasks like working at heights, with electricity, heavy machinery, or anything else that could pose a critical risk to employees’ lives. To make these environments as safe as possible, Rio Tinto Minerals has developed checklists for all critical controls, and makes sure these are in place before anyone even starts work.
The third focus area is on ensuring the entire process is fundamentally safe. This includes doing structural reviews of buildings and gas pipelines and anything else that if not managed well could result in a large catastrophic incident.
“I’ve been in the mining industry for 25 years, and I have never seen such a comprehensive approach to safety,” said Gehring. “The root cause of an incident where one employee has cut his or her hand could be completely different from an incident that could have resulted in a fatal fall from heights. Therefore we have to recognize the taxonomies for different events are in fact different. I really like this approach.”
Diversity and Inclusion
You can’t have teamwork and collaboration at a high level like Rio Tinto Minerals does without also being committed to diversity and inclusion within the organization. Gehring shared that a company like this is going to be diverse by the nature of being a global business. But he also knows that it is impossible to hire the best people for the job if you ignore a segment of the population.
“The mining industry isn’t always known for its diversity, but Rio Tinto Minerals is actively trying to change that view. We have specific initiatives that target unconscious bias, and training and support for those employees who are underrepresented in the business but have the drive and the skills to move up.”
Gehring was honored to name Isabelle Brassard as his replacement as the General Manager of California Operations when he took his current role; Brassard is the first female Operations GM in Rio Minerals’ history.
“When you think of the origins of mining in the 1800s, the images depict a tough, physical, and difficult work environment that reinforce the perception our industry is a male dominant profession,” Brassard shared. “The reality is modern mines are driven by technology and innovation that require creative problem solvers. That’s why we work with our local schools to highlight the exciting mining careers in the STEM related fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“I’m proud to work for a company that takes diversity and inclusion very seriously. Respecting and valuing our differences is not just the right thing to do; it makes us stronger and smarter because each of us brings a unique set of skills, knowledge, and perspective to our company. It leads to better discussion, better decision-making, and better outcomes for our company and our customers”
Rio Tinto Minerals also values diversity of perspective and leverages the diverse thinking, skills, and experience of our employees and stakeholders. And because of Rio Tinto’s strong company culture, employee retention is high, and there is a large range of age groups within the company. In many situations, this is an incredible opportunity to keep and share hard-fought wisdom with newer employees. Other times, it can present a bit of a challenge.
When Rio Tinto Minerals modernized its 60-year-old plant in Boron, California, operators who had been with the company for years would need to learn to adapt to new machinery. The company faced the potential issue head on by involving operators and maintainers in the design for the plant from day one.
“It helped everyone get excited about the coming changes, and got our employees in the right mindset to adapt to the new technology,” shared Gehring. ”We also helped the transition by assigning technical experts to work with the operators to further improve the process after we had some runtime under our belts.”
Rio Tinto Minerals’ SIOP Initiatives
With a global business the size of Rio Tinto Minerals comes a complex global supply chain.
“There’s a certain complexity that has to exist in our supply chain. While our main competitor is trying to simplify their supply chain, we’re recognizing the nuances in ours so that we can leverage these opportunities.”
The company’s Sales, Inventory, Operations, and Planning (SIOP) process allows it to comprehend and manage this very involved supply chain. Rio Tinto Minerals has been using it for a few years now, and has recently made some changes in the last 10 months to keep up with technology trends. So just how good is this strategy? Turns out, very good.
“At the beginning of last year there were work slowdowns in the Port of LA because of longshoremen negotiations,” Gehring shared. “It had a big impact on the U.S. economy, backed up the entire West Coast, and caused huge delays for anyone who was shipping through the Port of LA.
“We recognized the problem early through our SIOP process and developed alternate ways to ship. We still maintained relatively low inventory levels, and not a single customer was shorted on their order.”
Investments in Rio Tinto Minerals’ Future
This new state-of-the-art plant in Boron was a long time coming for Rio Tinto Minerals. The $150 million investment two years ago has brought about better utilization of the resource and more flexibility for processing different borax ores.
“The company needed to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Automation and electronic controls have this new plant running very well, and has increased our ore recovery,” Gehring said.
Another old plant was up for upgrades as well—this time in France. The 1902-constructed plant was the main producer of borax products for Europe through World War One and Two, but today it focuses on the specialty chemical aspects of borate for the pharmaceutical and nuclear industries. The investment this year was to replace the last of the plant’s pre-war equipment.
A further demonstration of its global presence, Rio Tinto Minerals is also investing in a new prospect in Serbia. The company has invested $60 million to date and has received approval to complete its pre-feasibility study.
Two products have been found at this mine site in the form of lithium borate ore.
“Each mineral will provide about half the value of the revenue stream that comes off the property, and will account for over 15 percent of the world’s lithium,” shared Gehring. “The mine will have a life of over 70 years, and is a tier one opportunity for us in the lithium borate space.”
The company has held tight to its past and history, and especially the symbol of the 20-mule team, but has also impressed the industry with its forward-thinking, strategy, and its success.
These opportunities for investment and innovation will continue to present themselves to miners like Rio Tinto Minerals that are committed to the best not only for its customers, but for its employees, partners, and stakeholders.
Rio Tinto Minerals is a global leader in industrial mineral supply and science. We provide over 30 percent of the world's supply of refined borates, remarkable minerals that are essential to life and to modern living. A part of the Rio Tinto Group, a premier international mining and resources company, we serve more than 1,000 customers in 100 countries that rely on borates to create an extraordinarily diverse range of products.
Rio Tinto Minerals distinguishes itself through cutting-edge research and development; world-class safety, environmental, and community practices; and a commitment to constant innovation and improvement.
Rio Tinto Minerals Head Office
8051 E. Maplewood Avenue
Greenwood Village, CO 80111