Larry Lehtinen: A Life in Metal
You might say mining is in Larry Lehtinen’s blood. His great grandfather, who emigrated from Finland mines around Tower, Minn., which might explain his lifelong affection for the Iron Range, where he grew up and still lives.
Lehtinen (Mineral Eng., ’77, M.B.A. ’83) is the CEO and chairman of Magnetation, Inc., which is based in Grand Rapids, Minn. The company is devoted to “smart mineral recovery” using a patented process that facilitates the removal of iron ore from mining tailings—effectively turning waste material into a profitable product. Lehtinen bought the company as a faltering startup in 2008. It now employs roughly 250 people at operations located in Grand Rapids, Keewatin, and Bovey—all in Minnesota—and at its newest plant in Reynolds, Ind. The company is on pace to employ 500 people with $500 million in revenue by the end of next year.
“I like the tangible things we do—mining, processing, and watching the physical stages that occur,” Lehtinen said of his work. “It’s very satisfying to see things go from a napkin sketch to an actual finished product.”
Lehtinen was first introduced to the mining industry shortly after high school, when he landed a summer job with the Department of Natural Resources, working in the minerals office in Hibbing, Minn. The DNR collected samples from around the region, looking for gold and base metals like copper or nickel. Lehtinen worked in the chemical lab, as well as out in the field. “It sounds fancy, but I was the grunt digging holes,” he jokes.
“It’s very satisfying to see things go from a napkin sketch to an actual finished product.”
The job, however, piqued his interest, and after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mineral engineering, Lehtinen went to work as a mining engineer for Inland Steel. He quickly rose through the management ranks, becoming a plant operations manager by the age of 32. “I mastered that and got a little bored,” he admits.
He tried developing a software company on the side (“That was my first foray into entrepreneurial activity”), but soon realized his passion remained in mining. In 2001, Lehtinen launched his own company with seed capital from the Iron Ranges Resources & Rehabilitation Board: Mesabi Nugget, in Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which produced iron nuggets from ore and remains in business today. The biggest challenge of running a business as a sole proprietor, he says, was waiting for customers and investors to respond. “One guy can move pretty fast, but these companies move pretty slow,” he said.
In May 2007, he sold off his interest in Mesabi Nugget and bought Magnetation. “The company intrigued me because I’d worked as a mineral-processing engineer on magnet separation when I was younger,” Lehtinen said. “The thinking at the time was that you couldn’t do anything with the discarded hematite because it’s nonmagnetic. But the reality is, it’s faintly magnetic.”
Magnetation’s technology allowed engineers to extract ore that was previously inaccessible.
Until recently, mining was an industry in decline. Lehtinen says it’s gratifying to see mines put back into production and exciting to see demand grow for Iron Range products. Mining is vital to the world’s economy, he notes: “If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it.”