Between 2011 and 2014, Tony Johnson, 44, transformed Batavia, Illinois's Midwest Salt from a small water-softening company to a major distributor of road salt in Chicagoland and beyond. When the snow hit the fan during the epic blizzards of 2013-14, his know-how kept the salt flowing.
--As told to Etelka Lehoczky
When I took over Midwest Salt, I saw that the road-salt business was a matter of supply chain and logistics--and I'd spent 15 years working in logistics. I'd worked with the railroads and over-the-road hauling, and my experience coordinating all those moving parts was very similar to what I had to do to move salt.
In the winter of 2013-14, the whole salt industry changed in 30 days. A lot of municipalities ran out of road salt, and big salt producers weren't nimble enough to find new sources and new delivery methods. They weren't using long-haul trucking, so they couldn't move salt more than about 300 miles from the source. That created an opportunity for us.
The four or five companies we compete with locally weren't bringing in enough salt either. Because I was familiar with the transportation industry, I was able to source salt from all over the country. During February 2014, we secured 450 truckloads that had to be moved from a mine in Kansas into our customer base in a weekend. I'd never shipped a load out of Kansas in bulk form, and I had no idea whom to call first. I did know there were online load- posting boards where trucking companies listed available trucks. I was able to line up some trucks using the boards, but I needed more. I talked to the person who ran the biggest board and explained that it was a safety issue and I needed to know the top five brokers in the trucking business. He gave me those names, I made those contacts, and in 24 hours we had all the loads covered.
After that winter, the North American mines weren't able to bring salt to the surface fast enough to meet the demand. We started sourcing from the single largest salt facility in the world, in Mexico's Baja California. To get salt from there to the Chicago market, I bought all the space on four 50,000-ton vessels. The salt on all of them was supposed to be brought into New Orleans, put on barges, and carried up the Mississippi and then into Chicago. But last year, the lakes and rivers didn't start to unfreeze until April, which backed up barge traffic. So I had two of the vessels bring the salt up the East Coast and around through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes.
These experiences gave me the chance to secure contracts with large municipalities and in the private contractor market. This year, we're supplying salt to counties in Colorado and Ohio, to one of the top 10 snow-removal contractors in the country, and to agricultural co-ops in southern Indiana. Thanks to my transportation experience and our Mexican supply, we can guarantee they'll get their salt.