Compass Minerals UK Ltd’s levels of annual success may be dependent on factors out of its control, but has for the past two decades ensured that its flexible approach, high-quality mining techniques and commitment to continuous improvement keeps the company prepared for any eventuality.

As one of the UK’s primary miners, storers and distributors of rock salt to deice the country’s roads each winter, the unpredictable nature of the industry means that the ability to remain entrepreneurial and innovative is imperative, and this is something that Compass Minerals UK has been able to achieve amid the core backdrop of key customer collaboration, employee improvement and service diversification.

In such a niche market, building a reputation is paramount, but Compass Minerals UK, formerly known as Salt Union, has certainly been around long enough to boast such acclaim.

Director of Compass Minerals UK’s Salt Business, Ian Gordon explained: “We have just recently changed our name from Salt Union Limited to Compass Minerals UK Ltd. Unifying ourselves as one Compass Minerals allows us to build on our long history of which Salt Union has helped build. 

“We have been owned by Compass Minerals since2001 and Compass Minerals floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 2003. We are able to leverage the expertise that they have in the US and Canada in areas of salt and agricultural specialty fertiliser products, while carrying on the same good work we’ve always done as Salt Union under various ownerships.”

In the UK, the company now consists of the one salt mine in Winsford, Cheshire where it has the capability to mine, 1.5 million tonnes a year to a customer base comprising local authorities as well as the highways agency to ensure the safety of UK roads. 

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“We currently mine almost exclusively with Joy Global’s heavy duty continuous miners, moving on from the drill and blast method that was used in the past,” said Managing Director, Gordon Dunn. “As mining has developed it has been an ideal application in the salt mine to use continuous miners and we’ve recently purchased our third which we’re building now.

“We’ve also spent the past two years developing into new reserves, 100 metres below where we’ve historically worked, in a lower bed of salt, and we will be in those reserves for the next 30 years.”

Setting up now for long-term sustainability is a hallmark of Compass Minerals’ success in the UK, and the benefits of the continuous miners has not gone unnoticed, with the parent company replicating the investments and operations in Canada to strive for the same results. 

Dunn continued: “Over a five-year period, Compass Minerals has invested more in the UK than it had done in the previous 15 years.

“We’ve put in the new continuous miner and a new hoisting system, we’re installing the new heavy duty drift conveyor that is a mile long and can pull 1,800 tonnes per hour for a mile, and we’ve also invested heavily into crushing and screening.

“Compass Minerals is investing heavily into the sustainability of the overall facility here in the UK.”

DeepStore

Established in 1998 at its Winsford site before acquiring two further locations in London in 2007, the concept behind DeepStore is to fill the void left behind after mining has occurred to store archives, documents and possessions 150 metres underground in what has been a highly complex and successful initiative.

Gordon explained: “We effectively create rooms in the space left behind when the salt has been taken out of the mine, and we store documents for some very well-known customers.” 

These customers include financial institutions, police departments, universities and hospitals making the operation not only highly significant but also massive in its stature; the area equivalent to that of 700 football pitches.

The idea behind DeepStore was to create a storage facility naturally free from the dangers of ultraviolet light, vermin or flooding, and as the mining operation expands, so too will the areas of space left behind to develop the business further.

“It’s a very green reuse of mined areas of the mine, so essentially a great way of getting further value out of it,” Dunn said. “We currently have around two million boxes stored underground, with customers such as The National Archives, capitalising on the ideal temperature and humidity, which is an ideal environment for long term archives and especially paper records.”

Having been awarded ISO9001 and ISO14001certifications already as a result of its four-pronged security, technology, quality and sustainability model, Compass Minerals is keen to push forward DeepStore even further in the future as a much more consistent and stable source of value to support its salt operations. 

Dunn added: “DeepStore is part of our plan to expand the alternative uses of the mine, which isn’t just records management, to grow and support the mine so it is less weather effected.” 

Flexible business model

Severe winters in the UK can lead to excessive need for rock salt on the roads, sometimes even beyond what’s available and stored within each local facility. Conversely, mild winters can lead to too much salt being stored over that year.

“Our average production rate over 10 years is around 1 million tonnes,” Gordon said. “However, over those 10 years we’ve never had an average year. It’s either at one extreme or the other which requires a very flexible business model.

“We therefore run a steady state model where we produce a fixed amount each month, and let the stocks on the surface float depending on the demand to ensure we can supply our customers.” 

This strategy is not only dependent on the weather at the end of the yearly cycle, but is also dependent on close collaboration with the company’s key customers and them setting their own demand levels correctly.

Gordon continued: “We encourage customers to hold a certain level of stock. We provide guidelines on holding a certain number of days’ worth in the event of a winter or snow crisis kicking in. 

“We help to make sure they are adequately stocked and ready for the next winter period from December into January and February, because severe weather limits how much we can dispatch from the mine each day and can cause logistical challenges on restocking customers to their needs on a timely basis. 

“That’s why it’s so important that we have the right equipment in place and the flexibility of man power contracts too for when these events occur.” 

Continuous improvement

Having invested a lot into continuous improvement programmes across the company in the search for incremental development, there is special focus turned to the bottom line and the progression of the people within the business. 

“We invest very heavily in training and monitor, as a KPI (Key Performance Indicator), the amount of training per employee and the value to make sure we’re putting the right amount in,” Dunn said. “In regards to the new equipment, all the craftsmen that would be using the equipment will have been sent to the manufacturer in the US to have hands-on experience with them, ensuring better maintenance performance for the company in the future. 

“We make sure the workforce feels part of the incremental improvements in efficiency and have a say in all of it, and they’re happy to do so because they can see the improvements being made in their methods of work which are now safer, cleaner and less labour intensive.”

Looking forward and Compass Minerals UK plans to have moved completely into the new mining area over the next five years, as well as enjoying a new power supply to the mine to enforce even more flexibility and safety in matching demand.

Dunn concluded: “We’re always focused on improving and we aim to run more equipment simultaneously in the future to be more flexible dependent on the weather.

“Part of the value we provide is this guaranteed level of service. Our customers know we will be here for the next 30 years and that we will be able to provide for them for at least that length of time.”

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