VIRGINIA — People drive by the rather little-known-to-the-public factory on West Chestnut Street all the time, never really realizing just what takes place inside the modest structure.
Or, knowing of the genius of the man, now 91, who founded the three-generational company, currently run by his grandson.
While the big “S” on the outside of the building is designed to resemble the parts manufactured inside, not everyone is aware that this is one of the most successful rotary drill bit companies in the entire mining industry.
Superior Rock Bit Co., is among only a handful of manufacturers in the world producing the large rock bits used in taconite/iron ore blast-hole drilling, and it supplies nearly all of those bits used on the Iron Range.
The sealed bearing, tri-cone rotary drill rock bits have been made at the Virginia company since the mid-1970s. During the past nearly 44 years, Superior Rock Bit has developed specialized rock bits for iron ore drilling using proprietary bearing and seal technology.
It all started with the patriarch, Frank Klima, who on a recent day proudly stated that he is “going on 92.”
He takes a seat in the office of his longtime company, in a building adjacent to the shop. A book on how to “Patent It Yourself” sits among other publications on a table.
It’s appropriate, because Frank holds several patents, including in “Adaptive Control for Rotary Drills,” “Method of Making and Placing of Slurry Explosives or Blasting Agents,” as well as several other patents related to the design and manufacturing of the sealed bearing rotary drill rock bits.
A native of the Upper Peninsula iron mining village of Alpha in Michigan’s Iron County, Frank enrolled in the Michigan College of Mining and Technology after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mining engineering in 1954, and then landed a job as a mining engineer for U.S. Steel’s Oliver Iron Mining Division on the Iron Range, where he worked for 12 years.
His last project, he said, involved the construction of the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron.
During the 1970s, there were many manufacturers of rotary drill bits, and Frank worked for one of them — as a salesman. At the time, all rock bits used in mining were air bearing bits of similar design.
One day, while talking with another salesman at the Coates Hotel in Virginia, Frank grumbled about his dissatisfaction with the quality of the bits. “I’m going to build my own,” he said, sure he could do it better.
And that’s exactly what he did. “I started from scratch,” he says with a smile.
Frank developed what in 1976 would change the industry by designing and manufacturing a patented sealed bearing rock bit at his Virginia company, originally known as Superior Blasthole, founded in 1975.
Rock bit “Serial No. 001” was completed on Nov. 1, 1976, he remembers.
Frank named the company “Superior” after the steel industry’s tie to Lake Superior — “for one,” he says. And — “to be the best.”
It’s customary to paint the bits. “You have to pick a color,” Frank notes. He chose royal blue — similar to the color of “my ’72 Eldorado” (Cadillac).
The blue paint, however, went on thin and needed a base coat, so first the bits were painted silver. Eventually, the company stopped painting them, he says, recalling how one day an employee at a local mine expressed disappointment at the lack of color.
“It looks so nice coming out of the box,” the worker told him.
Frank smiles. “It was back to blue again,” he says.
Superior Rock Bit’s manufacturing process has come a long way since then with developments in technology, but the bits are still spray-painted blue.
And the company is yet focused on superior quality and customer service.
All of the steel used in manufacturing the rock bits is sourced and forged in the United States.
“It’s all mined in our backyard,” said Frank’s grandson, Aaron Klima, the company’s current president and manager. After being moulded in the Great Lakes Basin, it “comes right back to us.”
The company consumes 250 tons of high alloy steel each year for its product, he said.
All manufacturing takes place at the Virginia shop, aside from the forging, done in Milwaukee, and heat treating, which is also sent to Wisconsin.
The company is proud to use domestic steel, Klima said.
The only other company making drill rock bits in the country is in Pennsylvania. The rest are “all foreign,” Frank notes.
Superior Rock Bit was passed down from Frank to his son Dave Klima, who was actively involved for more than 30 years. Dave had been working at an accounting firm, but as his dad’s company began to expand he took over the books, and then also ran the shop.
Aaron Klima, an industrial manufacturing engineer, was next in line.
“I have two generations of the family name to live up to,” he said. “I also have a family of my own to look out for.”
His wife, Amy Klima, is the company’s human resources specialist and manages the office’s accounting and marketing. The couple has two children, Madelyn, 12, and Kyle, 9.
Klima, 46, began working at the factory in high school. Technically, he says, he started there at about age 12 — “cutting the grass.” He studied manufacturing and engineering at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and continued working at Superior Rock Bit “to pay my way through school.”
He stayed on after graduation to keep medical insurance coverage. “I’ve stayed ever since,” he said.
Klima “took over designing” about 10 years ago. His grandfather had everything on paper, and it was quite an effort to digitize it all.
So much, for so many years, had been done “by hand” and using much simpler machinery, Klima said.
Thanks to computer-aided design programs and advanced CNC machinery, the company can now produce far larger batches of rock bits in “half the time.”
Superior Rock Bit typically manufacturers about 90 bits per month — about 1,050 per year. “But lately we are seeing an increase in demand at over 100 bits per month,” Amy Klima said.
There are many production steps from start to finish.
Steel forgings are put through a series of machining processes. Tungsten-carbide inserts — the teeth that cut into the rock — are hydraulically pressed into the cones. The three-part leg and cone assemblies are later welded together.
What once took two months to complete on the antiquated equipment is down to “a three-week turnaround,” Klima said.
“You have to work hard, but it’s rewarding,” he added.
The company has 12 full-time employees, including Aaron and Amy and a number of machinists and welders. Most workers were born and raised on the Range. Some attended trade school elsewhere and “wanted to come back,” Klima said.
A few of the employees have been with the company for 30 years.
“It’s a good crew,” David Klima said.
Aaron Klima’s brother-in-law, Dave Surla, serves as the business services sales representative.
Superior’s rock bits come in diameters of 12.25-16 inches — based on the size of the blast hole. The final product ranges from 250 to 380 pounds.
While the bits are custom-made for the Iron Range’s hard rock, they “take a lot of abuse,” Klima said. They cut into rock using 110,000 pounds of pressure, spinning roughly 70 revolutions per minute.
The carbides can be changed out quickly when veins of quartz or other types of unexpected rock appear during a drill, Klima said.
That’s one of the advantages of being a small company. Experienced technicians provide field services, which “save the mines money,” Amy Klima said.
Customer service is “our niche,” Aaron Klima added of the company, which has additionally supplied bits to mines in Michigan and Canada.
“We are always changing and adapting the design,” he said.
Flexibility is a key ingredient to success when outfitting the mining industry.
“We’ve lived through several downturns,” Dave Klima said.
During the steel crisis of the 1980s, the business was forced to cut prices, Frank recalls. During that decade, there was one entire year when “we only sold one bit — to Minntac,” he said.
The company also weathered the recession of 2007 to 2009. But business, today, is good.
Klima added that there is a real need for copper-nickel mining, such as that of the now fully permitted PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes. “There’s cobalt and nickel in our steel. It has to come from somewhere,” he said.
Too often there is “a disconnect” regarding where materials used in everyday items come from, he added.
Superior Rock Bit is essentially part of a full circle, Klima said. What is mined becomes, down the line, a rock bit — an important tool in assuring that mining can continue on the Iron Range.
Frank’s devotion to his dream is clear as he talks about Superior Rock Bit and its transitions though the years. “These are a couple of good guys,” he says of his son and grandson.
“They both do a good job. That’s why I can sit here” — and know, that at nearly age 92, the company is in good hands.
Another generation of rock bit Klimas may even be on the horizon. Nine-year-old Kyle “wants to be an engineer and take over the business,” say his parents.
“I’m very fortunate to do this here; to raise our family the way I was raised,” said Superior Rock Bit’s third-generation Klima.
Frank Klima’s company will remain competitive into the future, says the family — based on the founding core values of superior products and superior service.