Kevin Costner really cares about the environment. 15 years ago he hired me as the first sales rep of Costner Industries Nevada Corporation (CINC). Kevin Costner, his brother Dan and Dave Meikrantz licensed a technology from the Department of Energy, where it was used to reprocess uranium, to apply to Oil Spill cleanup projects. During the filming of Waterworld and after the Exxon Valdez spill, Kevin was inspired to apply technology to oil spill cleanup work. I was attracted to the company because it was entrepreneurial, open field, a huge opportunity and had passionate investors behind it, and I frankly wanted to clean up oil spills. After 12 months or so, I became VP of Worldwide Sales.
I accepted the job as employee number 6 and saw it quickly grow as we pursued and closed innovative applications in new markets.
When I first joined the company, the centrifuge didn’t work for oil spill cleanup because the centrifuge was designed to mix and then separate for use within multi-stage chemical extraction processes. This initial mixing phase emulsified the mixture to the point of no return – it couldn’t be separated – think of mayonnaise or your favorite thick salad dressing. I sent the engineers back to the drawing board with the goal of minimizing the amount of mixing that would occur in the mixing chamber. To the credit of the engineering team and Kevin Costner whom continued to fund the effort, they devised a way to minimize the mixing such that the emulsification was minimized (think an oil/vinegar light shake) such that it could easily separate oil from water, particularly in the event of an oil spill.
Well, while this resign was happening, I needed to generate revenue. I identified new applications and sold into pharmaceutical production, food processing, chemical manufacturing, oil production in Canada and offshore, mining, among others. I hired my friend and colleague from a previous company to run all oil-patch and offshore production, Mitch St. George. Mitch was awesome (and remains awesome – I spoke with him an hour ago – he’s an the Netherlands making these machines as you read this). He got us into all kinds of oil production operations. Together, we sold millions of dollars worth of machines and opened a dozen new markets.
This was really hard work, but we persisted. Some of the things that I remember include:
- Jumping on a flight covered with butter as I returned from a demo at Lipton where they made butter.
- Being knocked over by a cloud of Methylene Chloride when I cracked a glass window on the machine (tightened the bolt too hard – design flaw that’s been remedied) at a chemical plant in Arkansas.
- My fingers going numb during test runs in Chicago where we were making a sugar substitute (the yellow stuff) in the lab.
- Making naproxen at extreme purity in South Carolina and recalling the excitement of a successful run.
- Drinking Guinness with my cohort Scott, after several long demo days, in a bar in Chicago that was a favorite of Jack Kerouac and reciting Kerouac lines to each other.
- Slicing my finger at Abbott Pharmaceutical in Chicago but completing the tests because the product costs were $20,000 per minute and I didn’t want to waste time. Upon completion of the tests, I got 12 stitches to sew my fingertip back on.
- Lugging our test equipment through customs in Puerto Rico and Canada to run tests.
- Assembling and cleaning the units 100 times per year.
- Standing high above open oil tanks in the boonies of Calgary trying to make it easier for farmers to produce their side crop, oil.
- Signing documents that stated that a chemical release would likely kill me.
- Drinking loads of rum and talking about Ernest Hemingway with Scott, on the coast of a small town in Puerto Rico on the balcony of a small Inn (owned by New Yorkers and located where the locals lived) because there was too much rain to run our tests at Merck Pharmaceutical.
After leaving Costner Industries because they wouldn’t share equity with me (that’s just their thing – they actually paid me very well) I wondered why I took these life-threatening risks. It was because I loved the upside, the exploration, the smart people I worked with like Mitch, Dan Costner, Dave Meikrantz and his Chemical Engineering son Scott. It was the memories that I accumulated – the spirit that, as a team of a dozen or so, we could do anything – and I mean anything. We were going to change the way that oil-based products were made.
I guess I sold about 500 units – but not a single unit was deployed to clean up oil. I always thought, though never discussed with him, that this was a disappointment to Kevin – given his initial dream of helping the environment. The thing that would really make those 3 years of ass breaking and risk taking (to my health and life) would be if these units could help clean up the BP Oil Spill. To Dan, Mitch, Kevin and others that may still be working on this project – I’m rooting for you as your biggest fan if you make this happen! Call me if I can help in any way – I still remember exactly how the units work – piece by piece.
It looks like BP bought 32 units to process 6 million gallons per day – AWESOME, AWESOME, AWESOME. #KevinCostner sells 32 #oilspill machines to BP to recycle 6 million gallons of water a day – http://tinyurl.com/28ymbny
Thank you Mike, for sharing your Story with us.
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