Quarrying & Mining Magazine
Q&M Q&M Comment

Catching up with Paul Tidmarsh

This industry veteran has a remarkable knack of turning challenging opportunities and other folk’s cast-offs into great businesses and this time he’s processing unique minerals – big time.

In past issues of Q&M we have covered Paul Tidmarsh’s early business career years with his company Tidco and the manufacturing of the original Barmac crusher (before it was sold to Svedala in 1989), and then his engineering years in Matamata with Rocktec, which he sold to the Stevenson Group in 2006.

We caught up with Paul again as he was building one of the biggest industrial process and storage facilities in Tokoroa since the original Kinleith Mill was built in the early 1950s.

Although he lives in Tauranga, Paul has centred his business, Blue Pacific Minerals, in the small Waikato settlement because it is close to his two mines and the township has an extraordinary supply of natural gas and electricity to service the timber mill. The company needs plenty of heat to dry its valuable resources – zeolite and perlite.

We are saving some of this story for our next issue, because the road to Tokoroa and the production of industrial minerals has been a long one for Paul, and it’s a story worth telling in detail.

“The last time we interviewed you in 2007 was to cover your engineering past and you invited us back to talk about a new business you were about to rev up called Blue Pacific Minerals. How did this come about?”

Dross to zeolite

“It comes back to when I sold the Tidco and the Barmac business 25 years ago and I decided to invest the money into three diverse businesses that wouldn’t demand that I be involved on a day-to-day basis.

Zeolite, a microporous solid, has strong consumer appeal as an absorbent for kitty litter, barbecue fat and oil spills and it is a vital ingredient for slow release fertilisers, animal feed additive, and a carrier for a host of added value products. The product is only as good as your imagination for what it can be used for.
Zeolite, a microporous solid, has strong consumer appeal as an absorbent for kitty litter, barbecue fat and oil spills and it is a vital ingredient for slow release fertilisers, animal feed additive, and a carrier for a host of added value products. The product is only as good as your imagination for what it can be used for.

“One of these was the Rocktec engineering business, which was sold in 2006, the second venture was to buy up three adjoining beef and cropping farms and convert these into a very smart dairy farming enterprise milking 1250 cows through two cowsheds, and thirdly I also invested with a couple of guys in the scrap metal processing industry in Auckland, which ended up being the forerunner to Blue Pacific Minerals today.

“When Rocktec was just in its infancy we were making gear for quarries and for processing scrap metals. These guys were trading quite well in scrap when they got into the dross business [a mass of solid impurities that forms on the surface of low-melting-point metals such as aluminium].

“We bought the dross, or slag, from secondary smelters and set up a plant [built by Rocktec] in Waharoa, near Matamata, in 1992 under a business called Resource Refineries. Dave Hill, who joined Tidco as an engineer at 23, also became involved as a partner and we exported recycled aluminium to smelting companies in Australia, Sri Lanka and India, until the supply of the raw material here in New Zealand began to dry up.

“We were going okay until the price of aluminium halved in value.

“I had invested a lot of money in building the dross plant at Waharoa and we had been paying a lot of money for this dross as there was another company competing for the resource, but they went broke. With this change in circumstances I said to the manufacturers we weren’t going to pay for the dross, but if you need to get rid of it you can dump it at our factory. So, in the end, we got the resource for nothing because their only choice was to dump it. So, with no cost of goods, the company started to do okay again. But then these metal processors started closing down and the dross became scarce.

QM_Paul_Tidmarsh_2“I thought, shit, this business is going to fold. We had to face reality and nothing was turning around. But we had buildings, staff, infrastructure and machinery, and equipment. This was around 1995 and I parted company with my city partners and said – I will retain the Waharoa dross plant, and you keep the original business of scrap metal.

“The dross plant was sold to interests in Australia but now I had a building and not a lot of work and that’s when I thought of industrial minerals.

“During the Tidco years we had a laboratory and people used to send us mineral samples to test. One of these products was zeolite, which had only recently been discovered on the Volcanic Plateau at Ohakuri by a pair of geologists.

“They were processing the mineral for animal litter and other ‘absorbent’ uses, but struggled with marketing, and sold down.

With both mines in full production Tidmarsh and Hill knew they were wasting time processing the material at a modest sized plant at Tokoroa and transporting the product to Waharoa for bagging by hand. They looked at investing in a new process plant and storage.

“In 1995 the company ended up in Fernz hands, who owned 40 percent of the Bay of Plenty Fertilizer Co (now Ballance Agri-Nutrients) and they set up a processing plant in Tokoroa.

“When we decided to get into industrial minerals we approached them and asked if they wanted to sell out.

“We struck a deal and agreed to a price, but they couldn’t get approval because, as a public company, their board thought they might get more by putting the business up for tender.

“They got 14 offers including one from us but we missed out on price but eventually ended up with the company when the successful tenders wanted out due to the fact they did not know what they were doing.

“The French company they picked from among the tenders was one of the biggest end users of the finished product

“They took our offer and insisted on a five-year exclusivity supply arrangement with them, which we wanted anyway; this gave us a guaranteed market for five years and they couldn’t buy off anyone else.”

Tokoroa beckons

The year was 1998 and the business they ‘bought’ off the French was Tokoroa-based NZ Natural Zeolite.

With a name change to Blue Pacific Minerals, Paul and Dave Hill were now in possession of a zeolite mine near Rotorua, a modest processing plant at Tokoroa, and a bagging facility at the old dross plant at Waharoa.

“From the mine we could only process in dry weather and had to put enough product under cover to see us through the wet months. We started out processing about 2000 tonne of zeolite a year. The original dross plant at Waharoa was set up as a bagging plant for the zeolite and we distributed from there in modest amounts. The plant we purchased could only cope with three quarters of a tonne an hour and it had employed 35 people filling bags with coal shovels – well almost.

“As soon as the five-year term agreement expired we starting selling the product direct and broke into other markets such as oil spill, for which we created our own branded product. We also slowly rebuilt the bagging plant to cope with about six tonne an hour.

“Zeolite is easy to crush, but hard to handle and you have to get rid of the high moisture. Back then we didn’t have enough covered storage sheds so it took a lot of gas energy to dry the material down to below 15 percent moisture using a rotary kiln that was about 100 years old.”

Mineral prospecting and perlite

“After upgrading our old processing plant we ended up with spare capacity so we went looking for another mineral and found perlite [an amorphous silica], which is another commodity mineral with about six uses around the world.

“It’s a glass with water trapped inside. When heated quickly the water turns to steam and it expands like popcorn to 30 times its original size. As a lightweight aggregate it has many uses as an insulator in the gas industry, is used in foundries to mop up impurities in the melt proccess, wineries and breweries to micro-filter impurities and in the building industry as a component for manmade board.

“Five thousand to 6000 tonne of perlite is consumed in South Australia each year just for their wine industry.

“As a global commodity perlite has to be either the best or the cheapest and luckily, we have good shipping lanes on our doorstep and, we produce among the best performing perlites in the world used in our target markets.”

Expansion at Tokoroa

The zeolite comes from an opencast mine 20 kilometres south of Rotorua at Ngakuru, and the perlite comes from a mine on forestry land just south of Tokoroa.

With both mines in full production Tidmarsh and Hill knew they were wasting time processing the material at a modest sized plant at Tokoroa and transporting the product to Waharoa for bagging by hand. They looked at investing in a new process plant and storage.

“We looked for years and we had two important criteria: we needed a lot of gas for drying and we needed a lot of power.

“Carter Holt developed a new subdivision near its mill in Tokoroa, where we already had a processing plant, just down the road.

“The eight acre site we bought had access to natural gas [going to the mill], power and had an existing building, which we have modernised and expanded.

“Dave and myself along with Geoffry Tappin from my old company Rocktec designed the whole new plant. Rocktec in Matamata is making a lot of the processing gear, such as the crushers, screens and conveyors while the automated bagging equipment and kiln systems are being imported from offshore.

“The original plant down the road will be tweaked to handle the perlite full time while the new plant will process and bag zeolite. We were really a zeolite company that did perlite on the side but will now process both minerals at the same time.

“The whole project is being done in five stages and will cost about $10 million all up; with $3.5 million spent on a new 4500 square metre building and another $6 to $7 million on plant and new gear at the mines.

“We hope to have everything up and running by May 2015.

“We plan to increase production of perlite from 7000 tonnes to 20,000 tonnes, and zeolite from 12,000 dry tonnes to 40,000 tonnes within two years.”

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