It all started on Christmas Eve 1925. The first cold crank of new machinery cut the crisp air, an iron locomotive wheezed on the tracks nearby, and a handful of workers fired up a small factory.
That’s how Western Clay, which sits on the easternmost end of Aurora, first stirred to life nearly a century ago. The factory has been chuffing and churning out bentonite clay ever since. Now Western’s current managers and employees hope its recent merger with Redmond Minerals—finalized August 1, 2021—will ensure the company continues for another hundred years.
The Redmond purchase marries two of the longest-running businesses in the valley. Both mine bentonite and have been trading work—and occasionally competing for customers—for decades. Now they’ve joined their talent and resources as one.
“Western Clay was a successful company before the merger and we’re excited for the possibilities we’ll have together in the future,” said Troy Fielding, head of industrial bentonite sales at Redmond. “This merger was just a formality to an already great relationship, and we are so very fortunate to be able to officially call them a part of the Redmond family.”
Western has a long, successful, and storied history before joining Redmond. The plant operated through the Great Depression and World War II and has never shut down in its nearly 100 years.
“It’s kept quite a few families in the valley going through some pretty hard times,” said Brad Boyter, president of Western.
Boyter first began working at Western building pallets at 12 years old, saw the company through multiple owners, and helped negotiate the merger with Redmond. He’s also the keeper of a treasure trove of artifacts resurrected when employees tearing out floorboards in the factory’s packaging area found boxes of records and correspondence underneath.
The clay environment helped preserve the papers, which include stationery from Hotel Utah, sepia-toned photos, receipts from the Salt Lake Hardware Co., Western Union telegrams—and a letter from an employee who embarked on a business trip to California in a Ford Model T and wore his car tires down to the iron rims.
Western was originally operated by a California company who hired local farmers to mine the clay deposit above Aurora and haul it in wagons to the plant for refinement and transportation on the Denver & Rio Grande Western.
The company was eventually sold to the parent company of SUFCO, and later bought by locals Fred and Neal Mortensen. The brothers managed Western into the ‘90s, then offered key employees the opportunity to buy into the company. Eventually, Western became an ESOP—100% employee owned—and remained so until the Redmond buyout on August 1st.
That’s where Redmond and Western’s formalized association begins, but their relationship goes back years. In the early ‘90s both were selling clay and vying for the same industrial bids. When a large project requiring environmental bentonite came up in Moab, the amount of clay needed—and the timeframe it was needed in—was beyond what either Western or Redmond could produce. So, they decided to join forces.
“I remember Rhett Roberts (current CEO of Redmond) and the Bosshardts (then owners of Redmond) came to Western’s office when I was just an accountant in the back room,” Boyter recalls. “They walked in, shook hands with the Mortensens and sat down. Neal (then president of Western) was a cigar-smoking, cowboy hat-wearing, plain-spoken man, and Rhett came in wearing sandals. I thought, how is this going to work?”
But it did work. The unlikely business partners determined to tackle the Moab job together for the benefit of both companies’ employees and the entire state.
“The relationship was born from a handshake that day,” Boyter said, “and from that moment it just continued to grow.”
The companies continued to collaborate under a handshake partnership until just a few years ago when Western tragically lost two of its key members and experienced health scares with a few more. It forced them to take a hard look at the business and determine the best way to secure its future.
“We’re a tightknit company and we hated to bring people in from the outside to fill important management positions,” Boyter said. “It made a lot of sense to reach out to Redmond because of the sheer talent they have and ability to attract quality people, and see if they’d be interested in talking.”
Redmond, who had offered to buy the company twice before, was indeed interested—and now so was Western.
“At that time every employee of Western was an owner, and every employee had a vote on whether or not the merger happened,” Boyter said. “There wasn’t one dissenting vote.”
Doug Anderson, head of industrial products at Redmond, said formalizing the partnership was a synergetic move for both businesses and a seamless process for customers.
“We’ve always had great respect for each other,” he said. “We’ve seen where our strengths complement each other, where we can learn from each other, and have so much in common in how we do business.”
The companies’ complementary methods of operation played a big role in Western’s decision.
“We’ve always tried to be a good neighbor, a good steward of the land, produce a quality product, and take care of our people,” Boyter said. “We wouldn’t have made the deal with Redmond if they didn’t do business the same way and feel the same way about their people.”
As for the near century-old plant in Aurora, not much has changed since the merger. Western Clay continues to do its thing as an industry leader of industrial bentonite and celebrate a rich and meaningful past. Now it can also look forward to a secure and successful future—which is what the partnership was all about.
“You run a place for over 30 years, you want to see it have a future,” Boyter said “That’s what really excites me—to see that with Redmond, it does.”