How Studying What Was Thrown Away Built an Empire
Not many companies can claim their startup began on a Post-it Note; but in 1982, a little Post-it Note played a pivotal role in the eventual formation of a company, Southeastern Performance Minerals, based in Deepstep, Georgia.
Located in Washington County about 20 miles southeast of Milledgeville, Deepstep is less than one mile in total area and is in the heart of kaolin country. The origin of kaolin can be traced back to 7th century China, where it was used to make porcelain. It is nearly white in color and is distinguished from other industrial clays because of its fine particle size. Although kaolin is found throughout the world, deposits with suitable whiteness, viscosity and other favorable characteristics are rare. Ironically, the best deposits are not located in China. The Unites States has high-quality deposits in the Southeast – mainly Washington County, Georgia. It has been mined since colonial times and approximately sixty percent of the world’s kaolin clay is mined in this area.
Other valuable deposits are located in Brazil and the United Kingdom. Kaolin has an extensive array of usages from the paper industry where it serves as a paper coating that contributes to brightness, smoothness and gloss, and improves printability. Additionally, it is used by the paper industry as a filler, reducing cost and the use of tree-based resources. It is also used in china, porcelain and tableware, in which its color, gloss and hardness are ideal characteristics. It is also used in products including paint, rubber, cable insulation, specialty films and fertilizers. New uses are being discovered frequently and ensure that the mineral will remain in demand for a long time.
David Avant was working for Georgia Kaolin when his boss, John Smith, the chief geologist, left a Post-it Note on David’s phone asking a simple question: “We mine 2.5 million tons of kaolin each year and ship 1.4 million tons, what are we throwing away?” David proceeded to investigate. He went up to the sandboxes, collected some of what the company was throwing away, and the answer was interesting. To refine the kaolin, they had to discard a lot of sand, which took a lot of time and money. So, David deduced there must be a way to monetize all that “dirt” that was being discarded to reach the kaolin. This led to that “dirt” being sold to numerous buyers from Redi-Mix concrete companies, which need sand for concrete, to golf courses, which need sand for bunkers. One of those courses includes Great Waters here in Lake Oconee. But that was just the start of the bigger purpose.
David learned that in processing the kaolin, part of what was being thrown away was Mica, a shiny silicate mineral with a layered structure, found as minute scales in granite and other rocks, or as crystals.
In 1994, David remembered that Post-it note his boss had left him in 1982, and again asked him- self, “what am I throwing away?” David left his job at the big company and started his own mining business with his wife, Sandra, on property once owned by his grandfather.
This company, Georgia Industrial Minerals, recovered sand from the sedimentary ores that contained mica, sand, and clay. Very quickly it was realized that considerable mica had to be removed in order to upgrade the sand products. The emphasis was shifted from sand to mica and the patented technology was developed and implemented. Since 1997, this facility has been dedicated to improving the recovery of muscovite mica, and has expanded several times.
In June of 2015, the company became Southeastern Performance Minerals. Another Avant-owned company, Deepstep Mineral Products, imports thousands of tons of mica from India for specialty pigment grades of mica.
Southeastern Performance Minerals is the only muscovite mica facility that mines, processes, and grinds micaceous ores from sedimentary deposits. The area that is mined was once a Coastal Plain that collected large volumes of sediment of weathered igneous and metamor-phic rocks that were deposited in this Coastal Plain many years ago.
Subsequent leaching by ground water over the years dissolved the trace impurities in these sedimentary deposits and the results are very white individual flakes of mica that easily delaminate into very thin mica flakes with excellent slip and sheen. It is this unusual geo- graphic intersection that created an industrial ingredient that can be found in everything from paint and computer screens to cosmetics and vodka...yes, you can drink a form of dirt – it’s called Viniq vodka. Mica is in dishware and roofing asphalt... talking about a variety of end usages! Mica provides everything it mixes with a unique sheen...metallic paint on your car? It’s mica. Shiny finish on your fingernail polish? It’s mica. Fingerprint kits used by the FBI? It’s mica. Have a fancy Toto toilet in your home? It’s made from kaolin sourced from David Avant.
Within the mining industry, there’s an interesting saying: “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” So, practically everything in the room where you are sitting was either grown on top of the ground (wood, fibers) or it was mined underground (glass, plastics, television, cell phone, chairs, computer screens). Some people are critical of the mining industry, but it is in just about everything you touch. Washington County, Georgia is fortunate to provide such a valuable key ingredient to the global marketplace and a lot of it is due to “the sand man.”
“The Sand Man” was a poem written about David Avant and hangs in the office he shares with wife of 40 years, Sandra. The poem, written in 1994 by Tricia Blizzard, a family friend, says it all:
Ode to David
In every man's life there's a mystery
When he grows up what will he be?
Most have a plan and never stall
But some little boys want it all.
Our friend David chose to study rocks
Called himself the geologist with the gold locks.
Married a lovely lady - Now three girls bear his name
But he was always searching for that little bit of fame.
He went to Nashville, but they sent him home.
Now he sings in the church cause he's too old to roam.
He used to brag about his great softball plays
Until all those aches and pains got in the way.
A He-Man hunter with his bow and arrow
Boasted of being able to kill even a sparrow.
Now his weapon of choice is a pack of Red Man
And he's proud when his spit hits the trash can.
A geologist by trade, a musician at heart
He's been a dreamer from the very start.
Now he's announced to the world his new plan...
This starry-eyed boy thinks he's the SAND MAN!!
This article, by Lee Heffernan, was published in Lakelife March/April 2021