By Andrew Berthrong
Forget what you think you know about mining — of hunched figures hammering away in the dark danger of a narrow shaft, of the constant risk of cave-ins or the precious vein petering out, of the miners’ strong-set faces streaked with black dust, their tired eyes, of canaries in cages.
Salt Mining, particularly at Redmond Life, is different in almost every way.
This trend-bucking is something of a habit at Redmond Life. Its salt mine in Redmond, Utah, is not only a picture of cleanliness and safety — with over 15 miles of luxuriously broad and vaulted tunnels burrowing through the pure salt of an ancient seabed — but its Heber facility is equally impressive for very different reasons.
A little history: in 1958, a drought drove two brothers — farmers Milo and Lamar Bosshardt (pronounced ba-shard) — to begin mining the salt, which in those days lay exposed to the open air, one end of the huge vein of salt having been heaved up from below millions of years ago. The place was well-known, but never successfully mined. The brothers’ father even told them, “Don’t do anything with the salt — you’ll lose your shirt.”
They did it anyway.
Salt On A Geological Scale
I want to see it all for myself so, having arranged for a tour of the mine, I drive the couple hours south from Heber to Redmond under a blue cloudless September sky.
The mine sits among acres of farmland, right next to the old Bosshardt farm. If it weren’t for the tall conveyors piling up salt in the yard, you might not suspect there’s a mine here. All the land around is still in vigorous use: some for alfalfa and hay, some for grazing. As I drive slowly by on the gravel road, a few quiet black cows raise their chewing heads and stare.
I’m met by Lamar Bosshardt’s grandson, Kyle — a fair-haired middle-aged man with a full rusty beard that’s just beginning to gray. He looks a little like a Viking.
He leads all of the tours. The mine has been a popular local school field trip for decades and, a few years ago, Ozzy Osborne and his son came to the mine to do a television show. “They were very pleasant,” Kyle says.
Kyle believes strongly in the salt he mines. He carries a pocket-sized shaker of Real Salt everywhere he goes and relies on the salt and its 60-plus naturally-occurring minerals to add savor to his meals when he’s out and about, and even to ease muscle aches. In fact, one of the first things he tells me is that in the 22 years he worked underground breathing that mineral-ish air, he rarely — if ever — got sick, a record he is sober about.
“Maybe it was luck,” he says. “Maybe those were the healthiest years of my young life, but I believe that it also had something to do with the salt.”
We get into his truck and he begins to show me around the facility. There is the salt dust-encrusted crusher that takes the huge chunks of salt and sizes them for different markets, from salt licks for agriculture to road salt. The road salt sits in huge mounds all around the crushing facility and Kyle’s brother coordinates the distribution of the road salt all throughout the West.
Kyle takes me around one side of a huge mound of reddish salt and the dirt road begins to cut down into the earth, sweeping down like a freeway offramp. Almost immediately, the ground changes from dirt to salt and we are confronted by a wide black gaping open — what in mining they call a “portal” — carved out of a sheer face of pure salt, as if scooped out by some giant hand.
In we go.
You drive into the cave and it envelops you. Once inside, its gray-reddish hue — the exact color, it turns out, of Kyle’s beard — composes the walls, the ceiling, the floor. But even those concepts, rooted in the language of a human-sized home or building, are too small for what this is.
The mine plays with your sense of scale, of time and of space. Salt, in most of our experience, is small. It sits — stark white — in a shaker on the table. We sprinkle out the tiny granules onto our meals and measure it out one teaspoon at a time. But here at the mine, just north of Redmond, salt is huge.
Here, the scale is geological. The Redmond salt deposit was laid down in the Jurassic Period — about 160 million years ago and long before humans or any industrial pollution were in the picture. Back then, a vast inland sea covered most of what is now Utah. When it dried up, it left a layer of salt nearly a mile thick, part of which was eventually pushed up to the surface by geologic activity along the Wasatch fault line. Once exposed, it became a gathering place for animals and a resource for native peoples and settlers. The small portion of the salt deposit that the Redmond company mines today is nearly inexhaustible. These days, the mine produces about 600,000 tons of salt per year.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of years of reserve here,” says Kyle after the rumble and roar of a dump truck hauling a load of four-foot hunks of salt fades away into the darkness. The headlights cast a pale light and long shadows across the wide salt road and along the vast rock-salt corridors. To me it feels like science fiction, as if exploring one of Saturn’s baren moons. I ask him if he ever gets used to being down here.
“Yeah,” he says. “I imagine right now you’re confused and turned around, and a little lost too, but when you live this — it feels like your home.”
Kyle has never received a paycheck from any other company. He started working the mine in 1987, after graduating from high school, and worked underground for 22 years before moving into a more managerial position topside. He has never left and has no plans to.
That Deep Salt Connection
This is another pattern I’ve noticed — people at Redmond stay at Redmond. Kyle’s cousin Darryl Bosshardt says employee turnover is less than a half a percent, far below the industry average.
A few weeks after I visit the mine in Redmond, Darryl — who works in business development at the Redmond Heber office — invites me to one of their monthly company lunches. Darryl is waiting for me when I arrive. He’s a smiling, slightly-built guy, who immediately begins talking to me about the people at Redmond. What’s remarkable to me is that, even though I’m a last-minute visitor, they have my name already printed on a welcome sign on the buffet table.
We all sit in the sun in the parking lot, eating chili. Darryl tells me that employees work in teams, and although each team has a leader, the leader’s role is more of a facilitator to help each employee get the most out of their experience at Redmond; to, as the company mission states, “elevate the human experience,” which is a phrase we might associate more with a college literature class than a mining and manufacturing company.
Darryl introduces me to a tall fellow sitting nearby, turning to him to elaborate on these teams for me. Ken explains the purpose of the teams, which you would think would be something business-y, like “to streamline the shipping system” or “to develop a marketing strategy.” Instead, Ken says their teams are “trying to deeply connect with each other.”
And that is what is so remarkable about the company: they’re more interested in how they do their jobs, in building and maintaining positive and productive relationships, than simply completing a certain task. They seem to be looking beyond the work, toward building an environment of mutual growth.
“It’s about the people,” Ken continues. “We expect everyone to speak their mind and do their part on the team. No one is above or below anyone else — we really don’t like titles. I don’t typically tell people I’m the CFO. When they ask what I do at Redmond, I just say I play with numbers.”
And this is true. I wouldn’t have known any of the job titles of any of the people I met with at Redmond if I hadn’t asked. I still don’t know Kyle’s official job title because I didn’t ask — it just never seemed to matter.
Not only does it seem to eschew the typical business world hierarchy, but Redmond also offers an unusually wide range of unique products and services — from salt and raw milk, to toothpaste and skincare, as well as many industrial products, such as road salt and agricultural salt. But while I’m there, they hardly talk about these things. The products speak for themselves. Instead, the people at Redmond mostly talk about ideals.
“It’s not for everyone,” Darryl says as the lunch wraps up and we move inside. He explains that because the company takes such a holistic view of the employee, it’s possible that some could find it all-consuming. The wrong personality could burn out.
Not Your Typical Office
When lunch is over, we go inside and sit on a couple of couches next to a workspace you might see in any medium-sized business: a few rows of glowing computer screens where men and women type or talk on the phone or to each other.
Darryl calls over a small, energetic woman who’s a member of what’s called the Culture Team. Her name is Sue and she turns out to be the team leader, which, again, I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t asked. She talks a little about her past before she was hired at Redmond, about her breast cancer survival and the huge lifestyle changes she made to get and stay healthy, which eventually led her to Redmond.
“I think I only had five interviews, which for Redmond is pretty fast,” she says.
That’s a lot of interviews. And she was an exception. Usually the process is longer and more rigorous. Darryl tells me about another employee they talked with over the course of five years before he was hired.
I’m beginning to get it: When you’re a company that places so much value on community and the interdependency of people, this meticulous hiring process makes sense. The kind of work environment it’s trying to create depends on hiring the right people; people who understand what the company is trying to achieve and who buy into its ideals of collaborative teamwork, trust and umbuntu — the idea, as Sue says, that “we are because of each other.”
We sit, and the conversation turns to a phrase Darryl uses a lot — it is an idea central to the culture at Redmond. He calls it “putting yourself in the place of most potential.” I’m not totally sure what this means, so he explains that it expresses the culture of trust the company tries to encourage among its employees; that when employees get the company vision, when they really adopt the company mission of elevating human life and experience, then they can decide better than any manager how their time is best spent.
Sometimes, Darryl says, an employee’s “most potential” might be to be at their kid’s baseball game instead of at work. The idea being that when that trust exists, the work of most value to the community is achieved.
Just as we’re talking about this, out of nowhere, Sue whispers, “Turn around.”
I turn, and a child — he’s probably no older than three years old — trots by gripping a piece of paper with the outline of a shark on it. His mother is working at a computer nearby and when the boy comes to her, she lifts him up to a chair next to her.
“This isn’t uncommon,” whispers Darryl, leaning over to me. “There are other times when I’ll come in here at nine or 10 o’clock at night and she’s here working by herself. Life is a blend. And nobody is keeping tabs on that — we just trust her.”
He says that their philosophy is to focus on that blend, to allow people to be their whole person. “The better I can let Sue be her, the better I can be me.”
This conversation reminds me of something Kyle said down in the mine about purity, lamenting how white, processed salt is somehow “pure.” He told me that a question he gets asked a lot on his tours is about what Redmond does to clean the salt extracted from the mine.
He got a little impassioned, remembering. “I say to them, ‘Which would you rather put on your table: something that’s been in the earth, protected from any contaminates for 160 million years, since the Jurassic Period, or something that’s evaporated off of the Great Salt Lake today?”
“We don’t do anything to it. We mine it. We crush it. We package it. That’s it.”
I know he wasn’t being metaphorical, but I can’t help thinking that this is what the people at Redmond are trying to achieve in a greater sense. They believe that the salt they’re providing is what salt should be, that the minerals it contains don’t make it less pure, but more. The minerals are what make a complete salt.
Which is just what they believe about people. They don’t just want an accountant, or an electrician, or a truck driver, or a marketer, or a web designer — they want the whole person. Not just for what they can do, but who they are.
They’re looking for what’s real. Real salt and real people.