July 16th, 2003
I am in the fortunate position of helping Knelson out with their marketing initiatives during probably their most exciting year since inception - their 25th anniversary. And as part of the ongoing plans and celebrations, I had the pleasure of interviewing the company's founder, Byron Knelson. What follows is the story that came out of that interview - I kept it as brief as possible; Byron has excellent recall and lots of stories! Patty Moore
To say Byron Knelson was the inventive type would be an understatement. Raised in the service station business in a small town on the Canadian prairies, and welding by the age of 12, Byron was born to an inventive father who passed that drive onto him. He recounted one story, when he was a young father himself, and came home to find his wife, Lee, ironing with one hand and rocking son Brett's stroller with the other. Byron disappeared into the basement, started tinkering, and very quickly an old record player became a cradle rocker - from that evening on, Brett slept to 70 rpms!
Combine that trait with an entrepreneurial spirit and more nerve than a rotten tooth, and you've got the makings of a success story. But it didn't happen over night - well, maybe, but I'll get to that. Byron had more jobs than he can remember - from vacuum cleaner salesman to real estate agent - before finally finding his niche; his first one, that is. In 1958, he went broke in construction, as he puts it, and decided to make his own job. But how, asked skeptical Lee, we have no money and no one who'd loan you any? It was true. He was three months behind in his payments at four different places. He knew someone who had money, though. A man he'd met only once before, Frank Cameron, and gutsy Byron went to him with his plan. The plan was to start a backhoe company. "I have a good business head, and I'm a good operator; I know I can make it work," said Byron. He managed to obtain references, one from one bank he'd kept a clean slate with, the others from personal friends, and was given the loan.
The first month was tough. He hawked his guns, took gas from his boat to power his car, and was late with his first loan payment. That first month also proved he had what it took to make it work. Byron and his backhoe made $1800 for a month's work, when typical backhoes of the day were making $1,000.
Within eight years he owned 7 tractors and subcontracted out others. Essentially, he became a backhoe broker, and the most well-known man in the industry. He was manager of the Lower Mainland Construction Owner Equipment Association, and was responsible for not only increasing membership to 80, but for driving the prices up in the industry. Byron and Lee would run Backhoes Unlimited until 1997.
What does this all have to do with the Knelson story? Well, besides demonstrating the kind of drive necessary to make a business work, it funded the new venture. Now let's get to that.
In circa 1971-72, Byron became one of a group of investors of an alluvial gold mine in the Yukon. Byron decided to visit the property - Black Hills - but actually only made it as far as Eureka Creek, which was less than one-third the distance. What Byron discovered was the most inefficient, labour- intensive occupation he had ever seen and knew there had to be a better way. He spent five days at the site; the total sum of Byron's mining experience before inventing the concentrator that bears his name.
After that visit, Byron began investigating methods of metal recovery. He found that everything was being done with one G force of gravity. Why not go after more Gs? Why not a centrifuge? It took Byron a year and a half to find a US firm who made a centrifuge. He immediately purchased four units, brought them to Canada, and started testing. They would only run for 10 minutes before they would start to pack up, but it was enough to prove that they could collect finer gold particles better than the common sluice boxes of the day. He tried everything to get them to work - sped them up, slowed them down, experimented with everything he could think of, but nothing worked.
Meanwhile, he was busy with Backhoes Unlimited, working full days, and well into the evenings. When he'd finally stop for the night, he would wind down in front of the TV for a half an hour before hitting his pillow. One night he turned on the Tarzan movie; saw Tarzan fall from a vine and, predictably, land in a pool of quicksand. Bingo! Make quicksand in a controlled environment, with upward water flow so the particles can't settle and compact. The Knelson Concentrator was born. (Remember, I said "maybe" it happened overnight?)
Byron told his engineer, coincidentally named Peter Nelson, to build him a centrifuge machine with the slope between one half of vertical and the slope of the machine he was trying, the rings twice as big and twice as deep and with drill holes in the recesses. Marry this to an outer casing and drive water up the shaft into the casing and out through the holes. "It was as crude as hell," recounts Byron, "but it worked". They tried it out at a local aggregate operation, and within 20 minutes he knew he was on the right track.
But how did you market it? "I've never been able to sell anything I didn't believe in 100%," says Byron, "but the Knelson Concentrator pretty much sold itself". Yes, Byron made lots of phone calls, and he attended various mining events over the years, but it was really word of mouth that brought mill operators to his door. I had to ask; did you ever think the Knelson would become so world-renowned? Byron chuckles, "I never imagined anything like this. I imagined something pretty good; but not this good! When I built the first Knelson, I had no intention of becoming an equipment supplier to the mining industry, I built it because I needed something to recover fine gold from the small placer mine that I had gotten myself involved in," he went on to explain. "It was truly a case of necessity being the mother of invention and in my case I was fortunate to come up with something that a whole lot of other people had a need for as well."
Ryan Jones, then owner of Mockingbird Mines Ltd., was Byron's first customer, and was happy to speak to me about his experiences. "I took a 12" Knelson Concentrator to the O'Donnell Valley in Northern British Columbia where we were processing black sand, and as a result, reduced staff in the Gold Room from six people working 24 hours a day to one person working one shift." Ryan went on to use that same concentrator for explorations in Ghana, West Africa, and Nevada, USA. It was eventually stolen, and never recovered, but Ryan had no regrets; "the concentrator paid for itself many times over".
The first major offshore sale for Knelson took place in 1986 to the Aredor Diamond Mine. Diamond mine, you say, but isn't the concentrator known for its fine gold recovery? That's right. Aredor used their Knelsons, 10 of them in fact, to recover gold from their diamondiferous tailings!
It wasn't until son, Brett, joined the company though, that Knelson undertook the monumental task of manufacturing its own units. Until then, the work was contracted out from a complex of portable offices located on Byron's home property. With Brett's urging, Knelson began manufacturing in 1992 from a small rented facility in Langley. The company now owns and operates 41,500 square feet of office and manufacturing space, and employs more than 60 staff. It also has more than 30 agents around the globe.
And, 25 years after the prototype was first introduced in 1978, the Knelson Concentrator has become an integral component in many of the world's most modern and sophisticated precious metal recovery circuits, with over 2,500 units situated in over 70 countries.
Well, there you have it, a very brief look at the annals of Knelson's history. Our interview ended with a statement from Byron that I can add nothing to:
"When I invented the Knelson Concentrator I had a salesman's utopia. I had a unique product, I knew I was building the best piece of equipment in the business, and I also knew if something needed improving it would be improved as soon as I found out about it. Consequently, I had total confidence in my company and my product. I coupled that with two other things. My ability to sell, and probably most important of all, my ability to bring excellent people into my projects. The integrity of our product and our workforce, and in particular, the integrity of our agents worldwide, is a genuine verification of this statement."
Today, Byron is enjoying retirement and is a very active seventy-something year old. He is still involved in mining, and still tinkering with new machine ideas. I think you'll be hearing more about him.