Centenary Bulletin 15 – General Mills – Minnesota, USA

February 13, 2019

General Mills – Minnesota, USA

General Mills were a large US flour miller who in the 1980’s had evolved into a major consumer food manufacturer and supplier. Tic Clark had an old friend, John Swildens, who was a senior manager with General Mills industrial division and they were looking for opportunities to sell their guar and locust bean gums to the mining companies in Australia.

Guar and LBG were both thickeners used in ice cream and other food products, generally sourced from suppliers in India and Pakistan, and the non-food quality product was only useful in limited industrial applications.

Locust Bean Gum was very effective as a suppressant for the minerals in floatation cells in the nickel industry. Western Mining Corporation at Kambalda in WA were one of the major users and were the General Mills target for their Guar gums.

The Indian producers of LBG and the Pakistan producers of guar gums were engaged in a major battle to secure WMC business with the added complication that both products were seasonal crops and subject to the variable weather patterns of the subcontinent.

Western Mining were particularly vulnerable to an interruption or a shortage of supply and preferred several suppliers and used LBG exclusively due to cost and performance benefits.

The challenge was to firstly get WMC to convert to guar and then to obtain a commercial quantity of the orders. Robbie Clark and several General Mills engineers spent many years visiting Kambalda near Kalgoorlie arranging trials then convincing the mine to make the switch to guar.

Circumstances which included a failed LBG crop in India meant that WMC decided to switch to guar and we obtained our first order. Container loads of guar from Pakistan to Fremantle were then road freighted to Kambalda.

Ultimately Norman G Clark reached a point where half the WMC purchase was General Mills guar gum. We received a commission on sales and on the volumes used this amounted to a very nice piece of business.

Once WMC were a volume customer then we started chasing the other nickel miners. The next biggest was Poseidon at Windarra about 360 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie near Laverton. Poseidon was a much harder sell. They were already using a CMC product which was not natural like guar gum but a manufactured chemical. The CMC worked on their ore and was cheap and easy to use. At the same time, they were cash poor and not in the least bit interested in running trials.

We decided that was not the customer that we needed and went back to WMC and targeted them for the other half of the business that we did not already have. After a lot of persistence (and good pricing) Norman G Clark obtained 100% of the guar business for General Mills. At the time this was an extraordinary volume of product and probably took a large proportion of the Pakistan crop. It also alerted the Indian LBG producers to the potential market at WMC and they were soon chasing this very lucrative customer and as expected convinced the mine to change back to LBG. General mills had lost all the business.

It was a good lesson in being a sole supplier where every competitor targets you. Better to allow the other guy to have a few scraps.

General Mills also had another mining related product. Totally unrelated to gum and a modern way of extracting metals from the mined ore. The product was called LIX which was short for liquid ion extraction and was used to recover copper from a mined copper ore body using a concentrated acid solution which would be recovered once the copper was produced by an electro winning process. This was a highly effective method of recovering copper from ore bodies where the copper mineral was very fine grained and there was a cheap supply of electrical power.

A variation of the LIX process also uses solvent extraction for recovery of uranium from uranium ores. Under certain conditions it is possible to conduct in-situ mining where the ore body has the uranium mineral dissolved underground with acid and the resultant liquid is pumped to the surface with the recovery of the uranium as “Yellow Cake’.

The environmental issues associated with solvent extraction make it very hard to gain approval to mine using this method. No LIX sales were made during our time with General Mills who eventually sold their industrial chemical division to Henkel who took over the Australian representation for their local office.

Today solvent extraction is used for winning uranium at the BHP Olympic Dam site and at the Beverley Mine near Wooltana S.A. which is producing uranium from an in-situ mining operation.

In 1970 Robbie Clark, working as a geologist, spent some time at what was then the Beverley Prospect where the drilling exploration had found excellent uranium ore about 400 feet below the surface in a loose sand aquifer. The primary source to this uranium would have been the Mount Painter deposit in the Flinders Ranges which was the original mine for the uranium for the British atomic bombs post WWII.

Due to the poor ground conditions at Beverley it was totally unsuitable for underground mining. The uranium is today mined by solvent extraction, probably using LIX which was offered as a mining solution in the 1980’s.