The three partners huddled around a picnic table on a crisp morning in early September to talk about their start-up business, biC (for “Brothers in Christ”). These three “brothers”, all with different backgrounds, had taken different arcs to land in the same place at the same time to form a company that just four months earlier was just a dream. It’s not difficult to understand why they attribute their early success—and their very existence as a business—to divine intervention.
Todd Roth, Robb Bigelow and Steve Ellison have all worked in the mining industry for portions of their professional careers, and their career paths have crossed at various times. Between them, they’ve worked at taconite plants in Minnesota and Michigan; gold mines in Alaska, fracking sand mines in Wisconsin…to name a few. They know mining. While they didn’t all work at these operations at the same time, they had enough in common that their career arcs eventually landed them all in Minnesota at the same time.
“Maybe it’s the nature of mining, and maybe it’s our entrepreneurial itches, but we did a lot of brainstorming about different business ideas,” said Robb Bigelow.
“And a lot of those ideas weren’t much good,” chimed in Todd Roth.
One idea that seemed to hold promise was the idea of salvaging or recycling lead shot at shooting ranges. Enter the third partner, Steve Ellison.
“A few years ago, a friend of mine won a contract to salvage lead at a shooting range,” said Steve. “I jumped in and helped him for a while, but then I accepted a job here in Grand Rapids and we moved to Minnesota.
“This concept has a lot of potential,” Steve continued, “and this is where it seems like a ‘God story.’ This wouldn’t have worked out but for God’s hand. One day this spring I drove up to the Grand Rapids Gun Club. I asked two questions: how much is a family membership, and have you thought about reclaiming the lead from the range? Within a couple of minutes Bob LaPlant, who had been mowing the fields, was off his tractor, shaking his head in disbelief.”
“It turns out that Bob, or J.R., as people know him around the gun club, had been thinking about how to reclaim the lead at their facility. After doing a little site testing with our ‘proprietary sampling techniques’ (a No. 2 shovel and a tape measure), we gave Bob an estimate of how much recoverable lead that could be salvaged and how much the Club would receive in revenue,” said Steve. “This is a win/win deal: the Club earns a percentage of whatever we sell, and we generate some revenue.”
“The harvesting operation doesn’t cost the Gun Club a dime,” added Todd. “We work around their shooting schedule, which is normally Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons.”
The work is weather- and site-dependent, Robb explained. Just as with other mining and harvesting, they need to understand the soil types in areas where they’re working.
“Sandy granular soils tend to dry out quickly,” said Robb, “while clayey soils—hold the water much longer. This particular site has a combination of both…so after last Saturday’s rain, we couldn’t get into this field until Wednesday. It took a while to dry out.”
Much like crop farming, the biC crew needs to make the proverbial hay while the sun shines. As a start-up company, the three partners comprise the entire work crew. Their workdays are long, the work is dirty but the three ‘amigos’ are having fun while working themselves into the best shape of their lives.
“During the first week here we struggled to stack the pallets that our lead is shipped on,” said Todd. “Now we’re throwing them around like toothpicks!”
The first step in the lead harvesting process is to prepare the shooting range, work that varies from site to site. While most shooting ranges will be cleared of any major obstacles (trees, fences, etc.), the biC team scrapes the topsoil into windrows, or stockpiles.
These piles then become the feedstock for the screening machine, the second step of the recycling process. The stockpiled soil containing thousands of pounds of lead is put into the screening machine which classifies by size. Next, because the lead is so much denser than most everything else on site, the ensuing step focuses on separating by density and out the other end falls the lead.
The final phase is shipping the totes of lead pellets. The pellets are collected in tote bags with handles, and what appears to be a half-full bag contains 2500 pounds of lead. The totes are rated for heavier limits, but the team has learned that 2500 pounds is enough. Occasionally the bags rip or are punctured, so they are handled with care.
The cost of entry into a business like this is quite capitally intensive and so biC Services reached out to Grand Rapids State Bank for assistance. Thanks in part to a line of credit from Grand Rapids State Bank, several pieces of mobile equipment were leased to help make this dream a reality. Much of the equipment is new, so it has taken them a while to understand how everything works, how to fix it, and how to optimize each step of the process. This will help them manage the operation when they decide to grow the business or add additional equipment.
“Our trigger date for moving ahead was in the middle of June,” explained Robb, “That’s when biC Services, LLC was born. We received help from Betsy Olivanti at the Small Business Development Center in Virginia; she was great. She helped us package our business plan using our data and projections. That made it much easier for us to approach Jeff Lee at GRSB. I have known Jeff for a long time through the work my Dad (Frank Bigelow of Bigelow Appraisals in Hibbing), has done with him. Jeff did a super job of understanding the business and working to get financing in place in timely manner.
By late July, the new business had arranged lines of credit. By the last week of July, only months after forming the company, the screening equipment arrived. Just more than a month later, the team has already shipped upwards of 100,000 pounds of lead to their customer.
As the band of brothers works to learn the business and do some marketing, “it has been a bit of a whirlwind,” said Todd. “Since the time Steve met with Bob LaPlant, we received names of 11 other shooting ranges as referrals. All 11 are interested in having us work with them, and we have two firm contracts lined up. Our next work site is already lined up, and we should be able to finish that project yet this fall. Then we have an out-of-state range that we’ll begin working on in March, when the ranges here will still be frozen.”
Before the team actually launched their business, they spent a good deal of time agreeing on their guiding principles and determining what they would not compromise. They went through several heart and soul conversations prior to getting started. All three partners are men of deep religious conviction, and they start each day in prayer. This keeps the three men centered, and three months into the new business, they are still having fun.
“We work out our decisions unanimously,” explained Robb. “We will try to learn all aspects of the entire operation, but we each have specialties. I drew the short straw: I’ve been taking care of the finances. Todd handles the logistics of getting our product to market. Steve has been finding new shooting ranges for us to work on. So far, so good.”
Given the seasonality of the business in northern Minnesota, what do they plan to do from November to March?
“We’ll figure that out,” said Todd, “but we envision that we can shut down the recycling operation and focus on using our diverse backgrounds to offer operational services, safety and leadership development, for example.”
The first customer for their harvested/recycled lead is a lead smelting operation in Missouri. However, the team will consider other value-added markets, including ammunition and battery manufacturers.
“We believe we are differentiated from our competitors by the thoroughness of the work we do,” continued Steve. “We don’t come in, as some other firms might, to cherry-pick the sweet spots of the range containing most of the shot pattern. We’ll get everything, and the range can rest easy that they’ve generated the best return from the recycling effort and that their site is in great shape.”
The team is enthusiastic about the future growth potential. Shooting sports are emerging in many high schools throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. There were 40 kids who participated on varsity teams in Minnesota in 2008; in 2016 that number has grown to 11,000. They want to do what they can to encourage that growth.
“We gauge our success by the sense of satisfaction from the customers, the shooting range managers and club officers,” added Todd. “Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far here in Grand Rapids, we are definitely on the right track.”
The guys know that ultimately the business is in the hands of the good Lord. “We are thankful for the opportunity to work together,” said Robb, smiling. “As we like to say, 'if God is for us, who can be against us.'”
Above (left): topsoil containing lead pellets is stockpiled for recycling; (right) Todd and Robb pose with their new mobile screening plant.
Bottom (left): totes loaded with clean pellets ready for shipment; (center) a "problem rock;" (right) the Grand Rapids Gun Clubhouse.