SAGDesign samples being taken at the Fedorova Project drill site north of the Arctic Circle, not far from Murmansk. From left to right: Dmitry Yermakov, senior metallurgist, Barrick Moscow; John Starkey; and Yury Kulikov, metallurgist, TOMS
Who doesn’t love a story about a small Canadian company making it big? The leap to becoming a global company is never easy and is guaranteed to come with its pros and cons, benefits and sacrifices, both good and bad alike. In John Starkey’s case, both owner and principal consulting engineer for Starkey & Associates, going global has had very satisfying results.
Starkey first started working independently when he left Kilborn Limited (now SNC-Lavallin) in 1989 and, at that time, formed a company called Applied Ore Testing Inc. Just when business had started to really grow, Russia fell, and the rising success of AOTI fell with it as the mining industry reacted to this unknown force. Starkey was forced to close the laboratory and pilot plant. Two other Canadian companies in the ore testing business also suffered the same fate at that time. But the test, later to be named SPI (SAG Power Index), had been born.
From 1992 to 2000, Starkey worked under various contracts while co-developing (for commercial use) the SPI test in which he held a royalty interest and which he ultimately sold when the SPI test was well accepted by the industry. At an age when most people are primed and ready to gather up their retirement fund and settle into a cozy, tranquil, long-awaited state of being (highly deserved after years of hard work), here was John Starkey, ending one phase of his life and just as quickly starting up a brand new one.
After selling SPI, he founded Starkey & Associates Grinding Design and Process Engineering in 2000, and in 2002 he invented the SAGDesign test, a test whose sole purpose is to design SAG mills and SAG grinding circuits. Starkey & Associates, Dawson Metallurgical Labs Inc. and Outotec are all the original founding members of the SAG Design Consulting Group. With Starkey as the inventor and Dawson doing the research and test work, the two collaborate effectively in doing the test work and designing commercial SAG mills around the globe. Operating at arms length, Outotec carries the patent and offers to its clients a process guarantee for commercial grinding mills designed by Starkey and supplied by Outotec.
Starkey says that the first major step towards going global began two years ago, when he was given the opportunity to go to Russia on a major contract with High River Gold to oversee engineering of their Berezitovy gold milling plant.
The new technology was a huge hit in Russia, most likely because they didn’t have the up-to-the-minute technology required to design mills they felt comfortable enough to sell to the Western mining world. Western support is required to attract foreign investment.
A major change that took a little getting used to was the very evident language barrier. With the help of a Russian interpreter, he was easily able to get his message across. All information was presented in both English and Russian PowerPoint, with the interpreter translating the spoken word during the seminars. Testing in Russia began and in 2006, Starkey & Associates had officially gone global.
One of the biggest challenges to working globally was the need to endure long periods of travel away from home. “Even though TOMS had requested my help before I came, it was necessary to meet the Russians at their places of work and spend enough time with them in Russia to show them that I was serious in my offer to do business with them. The seminar presentation took several months to prepare and translate and was the defining moment in their acceptance in doing what I proposed. Without these efforts it may not have happened,” commented Starkey.
One of the advantages of travelling is that you get to meet interesting people. On his last trip back from Irkutsk, Starkey was returning home with a lot of luggage. Unfortunately, as the flight to Moscow was about six hours late, he missed his connecting flight to Toronto. If that weren’t bad enough, the lack of trolleys meant that Starkey had to carry all five bags out to the taxi — the international terminal was six kilometres away. “Fortunately, a young man in his mid-twenties offered to help or I might be there still!” he said.
The young man in question was a business consultant working for a large international company in Moscow, but Starkey found his story compelling. “At the age of 16, his father, a director and shareholder of a Russian company, died. Overnight, his mother went from affluence to total poverty, as his father’s share in the company was seized by the other directors. She had no legal recourse, but he and his mother persevered somehow to get his education completed. It is fitting that he now, as a business graduate, is advising Russian companies on the need to change and to abolish unproductive practices,” he continued. “He has a brilliant future ahead of him.”
To date, the SAGDesign Consulting Group has added three satellite member laboratories and now has four SAGDesign test mills up and running in various parts of the world — one located in the United States at Dawson, two in Russia at TOMS and Irgiredmet, and one in Australia at Ammtec. Business appears to be booming again.
“The transition didn’t happen overnight though,” Starkey was quick to point out. “The entire process is a reasonably long one.” After running the business out of his home for so long, he needed to open up an office (in Oakville), and this was done in May of this year. He also noted: “…although working from home provided great flexibility, especially when it came to spending time with my wife, family and grandchildren, it is nice to have that certain boundary between work and home life.”
Hiring more staff is the next priority. Since going global, though, Starkey says he’s so busy it’s hard to even find time to think about who to hire and when. The more difficult applications to come by are the young graduates hot off the school grounds. Young graduates mean he can train from the ground up on the new, more reliable procedures on how to design SAG mills. Young graduates also mean that there are no pre-conceived notions — a clean slate so to speak.
Still, he’s not about to slow down yet. A fifth portable SAGDesign test mill (which he owns) will be put into service in Lakefield on a uranium project by the time this issue of CIM Magazine reaches your doorstep. This mill is used for testing radioactive ores and will be moved to any licensed laboratory where radioactive ore testing is being done.
Despite all the commotion, the hustle and bustle, and the long list of ‘to dos,’ Starkey said that “going global has affected the company for the better. This was just a good moment in my life to do the things that I really enjoy, both at work and at home.” All the more proof that being successful doesn’t necessarily mean losing touch with the things in life that really matter. In fact, it sometimes can give you a greater appreciation for the time that you do spend with those that mean the most. Starkey’s achievement is proof that hard work and dedication pay off.