Virginia-based TriTec expands alongside taconiteIf you thought the U.S. had abandoned all heavy manufacturing in exchange for coffee shops, boutiques and pet salons, a visit to TriTec should change your mind.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
VIRGINIA, Minn. — If you thought the U.S. had abandoned all heavy manufacturing in exchange for coffee shops, boutiques and pet salons, a visit to TriTec should change your mind.
This is a gritty, dark, dirty place where sparks from welding machines fill the air, where they can bend steel that’s nearly 3 inches thick and make it into just about anything you can imagine.
Giant cranes, each able to lift 20 tons or more, move overhead hoisting the big stuff that breaks and wears out across Minnesota’s Iron Range.
The front door is 40 feet wide and 40 feet high.
This is where repairs are made to the massive shovel scoops that gobble up giant chunks of raw taconite to put in monster dump trucks. Workers here also build indestructible diesel fuel tanks for those dump trucks.
When taconite plants complained that the red-hot taconite pellets need a better place to land when they came out of the furnace, that their old “pellet pallets” weren’t holding up, TriTec engineers and welders came up with a better design that’s tougher than the originals and saves mines money.
TriTec designed them for U.S. Steel’s operations just down the road, but now mining operations as far away as Brazil are interested.
“We feel we make the best cooler pallet in the world right here,’’ said Mitch Robertson, president and founder of TriTec.
Robertson arrived in northern Minnesota from West Virginia just in time for the infamous Halloween Blizzard in 1991.
“I really didn’t mind it. People thought I was crazy,” Robertson said recently, his home state accent still obvious. “But I don’t mind winter. I like to ski."
Robertson settled here as the Iron Range contact for a company called Dewar Inc., a West Virginia coal industry supplier looking to make inroads in the iron mining industry. The job went well, and Robertson got to know key players in Minnesota mining.
But when Dewar wanted to relocate him to a western state, Robertson balked, quit his job, found a couple of silent-partner investors and started TriTec steel fabricators in rented space in Mountain Iron in 1995. It was just Robertson, a welder and a part-time secretary.
“I didn’t want to leave the Range. I like to hunt and fish.
I wanted to raise my family here,’’ Robertson said in an office decorated with taxidermied deer mounts and photos of his family.
Since then he’s purchased an industrial site on Virginia’s east side, on the lip of the old Richelieu natural ore mine, and built TriTec up to $10 million in annual sales with more than 60 employees and a $3 million payroll. Employees on the work floor are represented by the United Steelworkers of America, and Robertson said he pays more than his competitors to keep his highly skilled work force in place.
Steel fabrication is the backbone of the company, but they also do machining, basic welding and cutting. TriTec engineers are even for hire to test the structural integrity of tanks and other equipment across the region.
More expansion plans are in the works, including a paint shop now under construction. TriTec recently acquired some adjacent tax-forfeited land at the old Staver Foundry for room for growth.
Much of that success, half or more of TriTec’s business, is tied directly to the Iron Range taconite industry. And with most of the Range mining operations humming along near capacity and new companies building operations, TriTec has been very busy.
“We do work for all the mining companies in Minnesota,’’ Robertson noted. When they are going good, we are going good.’’
For the past three years, things have been going very well.
Feeding off mining boom
Northeastern Minnesota is rife with businesses that have thrived in recent years alongside the mostly good times for mining: Other steel fabricators like Furin & Shea in Hibbing; engineering companies like Barr and Jasper; Virginia-based Idea Drilling has units drilling exploratory core samples for ore across the region; and companies like Joy Global (formerly P&H MinePro), which earlier this month opened a $20 million plant on Virginia’s north side, where it will service giant mining equipment.
Tony Sertich, chairman of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said TriTec exemplifies the economic reach that mining has across the region, what economists call spin-off jobs that sprout from larger sectors like mining.
“They are the poster child for that kind of spin-off manufacturer that wants to locate near mining activity,’’ Sertich said. “They create jobs here because the mining is here, but they also have the ability to market products globally to grow even more, beyond the local mining industry.”
The symbiotic relationship with the mines is obvious at TriTec. Robertson pointed to a giant auger used to pull hot iron nuggets out of the furnace at Mesabi Nugget that was in the TriTec shop for regular maintenance. It was one of more than a dozen pieces of mining equipment in the giant building for repair or remanufacturing on this particular day. Most of the pieces weighed 10 tons or more.
Jeff Hansen, general manager of Mesabi Nugget, said TriTec has been instrumental in the startup and operation of the state’s first iron nugget plant near Hoyt Lakes.
TriTec fabricated much of the custom ductwork at Mesabi Nugget and other proprietary elements of the plant, Hansen said. Now TriTec is helping to keep the nugget plant open.
The big auger “probably weighs more than 30 tons,” Hansen said. “We have a hard enough time getting it out of the plant and onto a truck and to Virginia. It would be a huge undertaking if we had to take it all the way to Chicago or Minneapolis to have it worked on.
"It’s also nice to have that kind of expertise close to home,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to go over and see the work being done.”
TriTec also is big enough, and willing, to tackle emergencies that arise at mining operations.
“They’ve been a big part of getting us up and running and keeping us going,” Hansen said. “If we need something done, they get it done.”
Future looks bright
A plasma arc torch at TriTec can cut steel and iron into just about any shape possible. And when work is slow, they can cut fancy letters and scrollwork to form an artistic fireplace pit or wall hanging — even Christmas ornaments.
“The markup for that stuff is a lot higher, but I’m not sure we could make a living at it,’’ Robertson joked.
Indeed, it’s the heavy industrial work that will be the backbone of the business for the foreseeable future. In addition to the custom work he does for each mining company, Robertson also wants to start dedicated production lines for TriTec’s two most popular products — the pellet pallets and the 1,160-gallon diesel fuel tanks.
The fuel tanks were all the rage at the recent national mining conference in Las Vegas. Where original equipment tanks on giant trucks made by other manufacturers generally last a year or two before failing, TriTec’s tanks have gone for seven years without a leak.
“It’s a big deal when they have to take one of these big trucks down because of a leak; it gets very expensive for them,’’ Robertson said.
TriTec could end up building the tanks for the original manufacturers or for a secondary dealer. But he thinks having a dedicated line for a dedicated product is another way to grow the company based on stable market demand.
“We could add another 10 people if this happens,’’ he said.
Robertson toyed with, and then backed away from, the idea of making the support towers for giant wind generators. That industry flourished for a time but has now hit the doldrums, and wind companies are going under water fast.
“We looked at it. But it became clear it was either all or nothing. We’d have to put everything we had toward just wind, and I’m glad we didn’t go that route,’’ Robertson said.
Now, Robertson is licking his chops over the potential of copper mining in northern Minnesota. And he’s eying the Oil Patch in North Dakota and the tar sands oil production of northern Canada as future markets. TriTec has a Bismarck, N.D., office that caters to the coal mining and coal-burning power plant industry, but he said breaking into oil has been a tough nut to crack.
Still, he thinks TriTec’s expertise in making big, bulk liquid tanks makes expansion into the oil business a good bet.
“We can make tanks and other things that we know they need. It could be a big deal for us; it’s just hard to get their attention right now," Robertson said. “But we’ll do it. We have what they need. ... They just don’t know it yet.”