Ayla Hutchinson, 16, may be the youngest and farthest-traveling entrepreneur to showcase at the Minnesota State Fair this year.
Hutchinson, who lives with her family in a small city in New Zealand, conceived of a safer approach to splitting kindling in 2012 after she saw her mom, Claire, slice her finger with a hatchet. Her dad, Vaughn, an engineer, who admits that he never would have thought of what has become the “Kindling Cracker,” built a prototype in his workshop.
Ayla’s idea, originally invented for a school science fair, ended up winning innovation awards in New Zealand. It grew into a Hutchinson family-owned business that manufactures in New Zealand. The Hutchinsons granted U.S. distribution rights to Burnsville-based Northern Tool & Equipment.
Ryan Kotula, Northern Tool’s owner, became intrigued with the simplicity and safety of the product and contacted Vaughn Hutchinson. Kotula traveled to New Zealand last winter to explore a North American partnership.
“There were larger companies after them, but we are a family business … started in 1981 in a garage, and we’re still a family business,” Kotula said.
The families liked each other and struck a deal. And that included a visit to Northern Tool and the State Fair by Ayla, Vaughn and Ayla’s sister, Jasmine, 14, to demonstrate the product at the Northern Tool exhibit.
The Kindling Cracker, which retails for $99, features an upturned ax blade, extended and secured by a steel pipe from a base, enclosed by a steel safety ring. A piece of wood is placed on the ax blade and is split by striking with a mallet or another piece of wood.
Ayla also is something of a teen-entrepreneur idol in her country. She has spoken to thousands of schoolchildren about academics and imagination. And she delighted a steady stream of visitors with her expert demonstration and easy way at the fair.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said of her notoriety. “I just go along with it.”
This is not exactly a get-rich scheme yet for the working-class Hutchinson family.
Vaughn was milking cows and cutting firewood on top of his struggling small business. He shuttered it last year to focus on the Kindling Cracker. The family had to finance the costs of patents and trademarks in partnership with a New Zealand manufacturer.
As sales have grown and the family gets royalties, the initial proceeds go to a college scholarship fund for Ayla and Jasmine. They also went on a modest shopping spree at the Mall of America to buy tennis shoes during a break from the fair.
Ayla seems as interested in helping people as she is in big bucks. She has given away dozens of the devices in New Zealand to indigent elderly and people with disabilities who find it easy to use. In fact, one of her favorite memories is driving about five hours from home with her dad this year to deliver a Kindling Cracker to an elderly widow who heats her home with wood.
“I had heard she needed one,’’ said Ayla, who said the woman was stunned when Ayla arrived at her door. “We sorted out a place for it to sit. She served tea and cookies. And now she doesn’t have to beg the neighbors to cut kindling. It was fun. ”
Happily not No. 1
It’s been widely reported that Enbridge Energy’s 2010 pipeline rupture in Michigan that spilled 840,000 gallons of crude oil mainly into the Kalamazoo River was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It cost more than $1 billion to clean up, and its rank as the No. 1 land-based oil spill (ocean spills have been bigger) has been noted by journalists, Wikipedia and, most recently, a report by Michigan state agencies.
But is it really the largest? No. In 1991, 1.7 million gallons of crude oil spilled when a pipeline burst near Grand Rapids, Minn., according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency data going back to 1966. That’s twice the volume of the 2010 Michigan spill. Minnesota’s figure is confirmed by a federal agency. But even that spill isn’t the largest, a record apparently held by a 1910 California accident.
When shown the 1991 spill records, Brad Wurfel of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, happily conceded his state’s 2010 oil spill isn’t No. 1. “Any chance we can get credit for fastest environmental recovery from a big inland spill?,” Wurfel asked. For a YouTube video of that, go to strib.mn/MIspill.
Ethics and leadership summit
Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University will give two presentations on Sept. 17-18 as part of the fall ethics and leadership summit at the University of St. Thomas.
On Sept. 17, Hanson will address: “How Much Ethical Behavior Can We Expect From Government and Business Leaders?” at 4:30 p.m. in the at the downtown law school’s Schulze Grand Atrium. On Sept. 18, he will conclude the one-day “2015 Upper Midwest Ethics & Leadership Summit” at the UST School of Law that will include presentations on the “brave new world” of cellphones, bloggers and other new media. Registration and more information at: www.stthomas.edu/hollorancenter.
Dynamic buys assets of Materials Processing Corp.
Dynamic Recycling of Onalaska, Wis., has agreed to purchase assets and provide service to former customers of Materials Processing Corp. of Mendota Heights. It closed this summer after it got in trouble with Minnesota pollution authorities and lost its industry certification for improper storage of millions of pounds of electronic waste around the Twin Cities.
The industry has been challenged by declining commodities prices.