It’s no use trying to fight the red. “It’s best to just embrace it,” advises Simon Kinnersley, the director of Óxidos Rojos de Málaga. That’s what he did some time ago now, and he seems to have blended into this strange place. Everything here - the floor, ceiling, walls, machinery, workers and even the office furniture and birds that rest on the ceiling beams - are covered in a vermilion dust; the surface of Mars must look like this. It also reminds you a bit of the Wild West films.
This businessman greets his visitors from his digger, dressed in a tattered pink tee-shirt and shorts that may once have been blue. His naturally pale skin - he is a foreigner by birth, although he says he feels ‘malagueño’ - is tinged with an earthy hue which has nothing to do with the sunbathing which is enjoyed by so many retired Brits on the Costa del Sol.
Now aged 70, he comes to work at 7 o’clock every morning along with his six employees at this unusual factory which produces 5,000 tonnes of high quality natural red pigments a year and exports them halfway round the world.
Óxidos Rojos de Málaga is probably the only surviving company from the era of industrial splendour enjoyed by the province in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was founded in 1905 by a British investor called Norman Stuart Kinnersley - Simon’s grandfather - who came from Somerset to seek his fortune, although it was not until 1921 that the business was formally set up and registered. That’s why they are celebrating its centenary this year, and they are still going strong: 90 per cent of the factory’s production is exported to over 30 countries and turnover is expected to reach a record high this year, around two million euros.
The original production plant was in Huelin, in Calle Héroe de Sostoa. It eventually had more than 100 employees and in the 1970s it moved to the Guadalhorce industrial estate, where it remains today. It immediately became known as the ‘colorao’ factory. It still does today what it used to do a century ago: grinds the iron oxide extracted from Andalusian mines to obtain what is known as ‘Spanish red’, a natural, economical, durable and non-toxic powdered pigment with numerous uses. Now, of course, they use more machinery, with fewer workers and in accordance with strict quality protocols.
One colour, a thousand uses
The head of exports, Raúl Sánchez, says there are many uses for the Oxired powder, which is its brand name. “Painting ships, anti-corrosive coatings, roof tiles, bricks, concrete and cement (sports tracks and cycle paths get their characteristic colour from ferric oxide), fertilisers, animal food, to name a few,” he says. But it has some more unusual uses, too: in the past it has been used as a food colouring and for cosmetics. There is even evidence that in the mid-20th century in Kenya it was imported for use as body paint in traditional dances. Now, researchers from Malaga university who have been contracted by the company are looking for innovative applications for the product, which is in fact the same one used by Homo Sapiens to decorate the Altimira cave.
In those boom days of industry in Malaga in the 1920s other companies, also financed by foreign capital, produced the coveted ‘Spanish red’ as well, but over time only this one remained, and not just in Malaga but in the whole of Spain. What is extraordinary is that it is still in the hands of the same British family: the heirs of Norman Stuart Kinnersley, represented in the Golden Valley Colours company, which was and still is the 100 per cent shareholder in Óxidos Rojos de Málaga.
The family character of this unusual industry is not just reflected in its ownership: the jobs have also passed from fathers to sons. One of the oldest employees, Francisco Ojeda, has been making ‘colorao’ for over 30 years, just as his father did before him. And the only woman on the staff, Isabel Bautista, who is the head of administration and quality, has been there for 21 years and her uncle, Antonio González, was the factory manager for three decades.
“This really is a family business and all the employees have been here a long time, so we almost think of it as ours,” she says.
The present director of Óxidos Rojos de Málaga is the grandson of the founder, which some people might think would make the policy of the company pretty conservative. However, that isn’t Simon Kinnersley’s personality.
When he arrived in Malaga 16 years ago to take over a business about which he knew nothing (“not about the way it functioned, anyway,” he admits), the company was in a difficult situation. “We needed some major investment. I came because I didn’t want the company to close after such a long history: it survived the First World War, the Civil War, the Second World War... we needed to keep it going,” he says, and with “energy, passion and new ideas” he convinced the owners to invest the one and a half million euros necessary to renew the production line.
There was also a stroke of luck. The most essential part of the factory is the mill where the stones are ground to extract the red oxide. Buying a new one would have cost a fortune and the shareholders were not prepared to pay it. Simon found an alternative, almost by magic.
“We were driving through the countryside in Jaén and we saw a huge machine abandoned in a field. Ihad a hunch about it, and we went to ask what it was. They said I could have it for 8,000 euros, but I didn’t know if it was what we were looking for or whether it worked. I found an expert in this type of equipment: a British man who was living in the USA. I sent him photos of it by email and he said there was no doubt about it, that it was a fantastic machine and would last for decades. And it is still working today,” he says proudly.
The Óxidos Rojos family is looking ahead with optimism, as they celebrate the company’s centenary. “We’re sure we have a great future. Now, at last, sustainability is a priority concern and our product is more attractive than ever, because it is a natural, cheap and non-toxic alternative to synthetic pigments,” says Raúl Sánchez.
In contrast to the simple production method of ‘Spanish red’ (drying and grinding ferric oxide, one of the most abundant minerals on the Earth’s surface), synthetic pigments are made by burning scrap metal in Asian countries, with the toxicity that that implies.
Also, the company is guaranteed a supply of its raw material for some time: it has its own mining concession in Priego de Córdoba and the vein they are exploiting at present will go on for decades. The ‘colorao’ factory is prepared to continue for at least another hundred years, colouring the world red.