Travis Kolari has experienced iron ore mining from the ground up.
Kolari, a 1991 Virginia High School graduate, in the mid 1990s started working in iron ore mining as a summer student at United States Steel Corp.’s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron.
Today, Kolari is plant manager at U.S. Steel’s Minnesota Ore Operations Minntac Mine and Keetac in Keewatin.
“When I first walked in the door the very first day, I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’,” Kolari said. “But as time progressed it seemed to be a very good fit. The pay was good. The benefits are fantastic and it’s an opportunity to work in a business where the opportunities are fantastic. The sky is the limit here.”
Kolari grew up the son of a miner.
His late father Niilo Kolari was a maintenance manager at Minntac.
Kolari had thoughts about becoming an attorney.
But after high school he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I started a family in the Marine Corp.’s and had an opportunity through my father to tell me there was an opportunity at Minntac,” Kolari said. “As you’d imagine a lot of people had parents working in mining. At just a broad level I knew what mining was all about. Sometimes, I’d wake up to go to school and my dad was already gone to work. I knew he was a supervisor and was involved in the maintenance side of the business. And that’s about all I knew about it.”
Kolari was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1994.
Kolari then went to work at Minntac Mine as an operating laborer in the concentrator.
“It’s a huge facility and I think I was just taken back and amazed by the size of the equipment, the size of the operations,” Kolari said. “I really didn’t have much of a maintenance background other than doing things at home. Generationally speaking, I grew up in the time where dad still showed you how to do everything. So I had a little bit of mechanical aptitude, but not on that scale.”
Gradually, Kolari advanced to higher positions.
He went on to become a shift manager in the crusher.
In 2013, Kolari became plant manager at Keetac.
In 2020, he was named plant manager at Keetac and Minntac.
He’s also currently working on a masters degree at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, a business school.
Kolari was recently named board chair of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota (IMA).
The IMA, which represents mining, mining vendors, suppliers, and other supporters, is headquartered in Chisholm.
The chair is a two-year position.
“We are lucky to have Travis as a board chair,” Kristen Vake, IMA executive director said. “His knowledge of the industry and his passion is like no other in the industry.”
“I’m excited to be a part of it,” Kolari said. “Kristen is going to do an absolutely amazing job. She comes from that communication background. The main driver there is the educational piece and making sure everyone up here and in the state understands mining and then growing the membership to continue to get people on board and support us. It’s the biggest game in town here and in the state, especially with what U.S. Steel contributes to the school trust. It’s a big deal and I think the more support and advocacy we get, the better it’s going to be.”
Northeastern Minnesota iron mining jobs are among the best in the region, offering good pay, solid benefits, a variety of jobs, and advancement opportunities.
Working for U.S. Steel has provided Kolari and his family with a good life, he said.
His different jobs with U.S. Steel allowed him to buy his first new car, a house, and raise a family, he said.
“U.S. Steel is a really great company in terms of mobility and the ability to do different things,” Kolari said. “I started as a shift manager and kind of worked my way through the coordinator spot and the area manager spot and division manager spot and now a plant manager opportunity. If you’re an hourly employee, you have the same kind of opportunities. There’s endless amounts of different jobs out here in operating, maintenance and electrical. So there’s a lot of different neat things you can do with steel operations across the country domestically and now with Big River Steel and operations in Europe. If an individual wants to pursue those things, there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Growing up in a great family, learning to do the right thing and the Golden Rule about how to treat others, have all been key to his success, he said.
Military teamwork, focus, intensity, never giving up, and putting your mind to a task, have also been a major factor in guiding his career, Kolari said.
Kolari said he describes his management style as what might be described as non-nonsense.
“My management style is pretty straight forward,” Kolari said. “I try to understand people from their perspective. There’s expectations. I’m big on intensity and expectations, but at the same time you have to have some flexibility too. You need to understand the dynamic of your people. If you’re a shift manager and you’re running a crew of 10 or 15 people, unfortunately it’s not cookie cutter. There’s people with different backgrounds and work ethics. There’s different people and everybody has issues outside of work that sometimes get brought to work. There’s all walks of life and you need to be empathetic.”
Having worked as a hourly employee has given him a unique perspective as a manager, Kolari said.
“I think I attribute some of that to my time in the hourly ranks at U.S. Steel, understanding people. Sometimes you need to walk in people’s shoes to understand where they’re coming from and understanding what the jobs are really like versus coming into a leadership role where you don’t really understand what the work is like.”
As technology has changed and several generations of the same families have worked at Minntac Mine and Keetac, Kolari said he’s especially proud of the Minnesota Ore Operations safety record.
“Safety has improved ten-fold,” Kolari said. “Coming out of 2022 for the first time in a long time we had zero days away (from work) at Minntac and at Keetac. That tells you something. There’s a lot more focus and intensity on safety more so than I’ve seen in my career and it’s paying off. At the end of the day, we’re sending people home to their loves ones and that’s a good thing. ”
As far as the future, Kolari said he sees Minntac Mine and Keetac continuing to play important roles for U.S. Steel.
The approximate $150 million U.S. Steel investment at Keetac to construct a DR-grade pellet system along with U.S. Steel’s acquisition of Big River Steel, the modern mini mill in Osceloa, Ark. and other investments, are big steps forward, he said.
“I’m really excited for the future,” Kolari said. “When U.S. Steel put out their ‘Best for All’ strategy and mining being a really important differentiator for them, the investment in DR, and U.S. Steel continuing to drive the green energy side side of things, we’re part of the strategy long term which makes me very excited. The future is bright, no doubt about it and with the ‘Best for All’ strategy, I think we’re leading the way among steel companies with the intensity of that.”
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