WA Salt now among shakers

FRANK Lister and his family have shared a long and happy affinity with working in the salt mines.

Mr Lister is managing director of WA Salt Supply, a family-run company founded in 1944, which supplies the local market and exports to almost a dozen countries.

The Listers’ association with salt began after Frank’s father, Arthur, and uncles, George and Jack, followed the advice of a Kalgoorlie politician who said the WA industry should opt for locally mined salt instead of importing it from South Australia.

At the time, Arthur, George and Jack, who were based at the mining town of Widgiemooltha, were keen to find an alternative to the slumped activity of gold mining, so they started harvesting salt from Lake Lefroy where they held a mining lease.

From there salt became a staple earner for the family.

Today, Frank’s cousins and business partners, Tony and John, mine salt at lakes at Koolyanobbing and Esperance, and daughter, Emmie, has taken the company through ISO-9000 quality assurance.

“I can remember being about four and helping my Mum with hand sewing some salt bags,” Frank said.

“Back in those days salt was harvested by fairly humble means. Dad used a shovel to scrape the salt off the lake and it was placed into 20-tonne containers by hand.”

Today, WA Salt Supply uses contract labour with sophisticated equipment for harvesting salt and its refining factory at Hamilton Hill employs 25 people to process 50,000 tonnes of salt annually.

The majority of mined produce is sold domestically but a healthy export trade is being developed through pursuing niche markets for companies requiring premium grade processed salt in their manufacturing processes.

A global debut was made in 1990 when Mr Lister responded to an inquiry from a British paint manufacturer and won business away from the company’s German supplier.

The confidence boost spurred the company to explore and win business in Mauritius, Reunion Island, Singapore, Tonga, New Caledonia, Fiji, Brunei, Japan, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Exports earnings of around $1 million annually are expected to grow as a plan is progressed to marry freight logistics with the identification of clients who have a need for premium salt.

The product is palletised and shipped in containers.

Frank said many of his clients, such as a textile manufacturer in Mauritius, used first-world technology for their product but only had access to local salt suppliers who were still using third world technology.

In 1998 the company signed a contract with a Mauritian textile producer to supply 4,000 metric tonnes of salt for use in stabilising dyes.

Mauritius was serviced by a direct shipping link from Fremantle but rising freight rates made it more difficult to compete with salt producers from Thailand.

“In the main we have attempted to absorb the freight rate increases we’ve experienced over the past six to nine months,” Frank said.

“Salt is a low value commodity and freight costs can amount to 40 per cent of production costs, so we have to be pretty diligent about freight costs.

“I identify my target countries based on freight logistics in that I always make sure the product will be going to a port where cheap freight rates are available to it.”

– Frank Lister

“Salt is cheap and it is available everywhere, so we have to ensure that our product is in a class of its own.

“I identify my target countries based on freight logistics in that I always make sure the product will be going to a port where cheap freight rates are available to it.

“Once I’ve done this I search for industries near that port that can use our product and that are willing to pay a premium for it.

“For instance, some manufacturers like a product that is brilliant white, while others are looking for certain mineral characteristics.”

He is optimistic about opportunities to export more produce to Japan, where the Government plans to deregulate the salt market after 2002.

The company sends an average of two containers a week – 40 tonnes – to this market for use in specialty foods.

“Even if we win something like 0.001 per cent of this market – with 170 million people – we will secure substantial business,” he said

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