Auburn’s Northwest Territorial Mint a real money
by JOSEPH TURNER
Mint is a small company, but its reach extends
around the world. The company along the West
Valley Highway in Auburn takes large bars of
silver and gold and melts them down to make tiny
bars of silver and gold so they’re more
affordable to small investors.
It also mints coins for admirals, generals and
military units to commemorate their rank or
tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, and now
the U.S. military wants the company to make
Bronze and Silver Stars to honor its heroes.
It has quietly become the unofficial mint for 19
countries by making legal tender for nations in
South America, Pacific island nations and on the
European continent, countries too proud to let
it be known that a small company in America –
not their own treasuries – is minting their
“National currency is something that countries
are sensitive about, even though three-fourths
of them farm it out,” mint owner Ross Hansen
said in an interview earlier this month. “There
are over 200 countries in the world, and only 53
have national mints. A lot of countries are so
small that it’s not economical for them to set
up their own mints. But they’re still sensitive
That’s why, Hansen said, he couldn’t be more
specific about which countries hire his company.
Hansen said he’s looking to move the company to
“Right now, we’re shoe-horned in here in three
different buildings,” he said of his plant on
the valley floor.
In the next three to five years, he wants to
triple the size of his factory, double his work
force, open his factory to public tours and
create two museums to tell the history of
minting and money.
He believes his factory and museums would be a
perfect fit in Tacoma’s museum district. It
could take advantage of the synergy between
downtown and the Tacoma Dome with its museums
for history, art, glass, children and,
eventually, a car collection.
But land prices have gone up, so Hansen said
he’s also looking at property in Federal Way as
a fallback location.
TURNING BIG BARS INTO LITTLE BARS
Hansen has come a long way from the coin shop he
once operated in downtown Auburn. In 1981,
Auburn Precious Metals and Coins had only two
part-time employees. It expanded to 10 full-time
employees after he moved into an old bank
building and started selling jewelry and renting
safety deposit boxes.
He started minting his own coins in 1984,
largely because he wasn’t happy with the quality
of metals he was getting from private mints at
the time and they refused to improve the
products they were selling him. He started his
own mint and drove the others out of business.
The Legislature gave Hansen’s company a tax
break in 1985 because the state sales tax was
driving his customers to states that don’t have
a sales tax.
The bullion part of his business entails buying
and melting 1,000-ounce – about 70-pound – bars
of mostly silver and turning them into 1-, 5-
and 10-ounce bars for investors.
Those large bars are out of reach for smaller
investors, he said, with gold hitting an
all-time high of $921 an ounce in late January
and silver selling for $16.70 an ounce – a
“Would you pay $990 for a bar of gold here or
drive to Portland and pay only $900?” Hansen
asked. So lawmakers exempted that portion of the
business from sales tax in the mid-1980s.
STATE ALLEGES UNFAIR PRACTICES
This year, Hansen is asking the Legislature to
extend the company’s tax break to the state
business and occupation tax.
He faced a setback earlier this month when the
state Attorney General’s Office sued his
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior
Court, alleged that Northwest Territorial Mint
failed to deliver products to customers on time
and was unfair in its refund policy.
“Many consumers who bought bullion from
Northwest Territorial Mint lost the value of
their investment,” Paula Selis, senior counsel
in the Attorney General’s Office in Seattle,
said in a news release. “By the time the order
arrived, the gold or silver was worth less than
what they paid.”
The Attorney General’s Office, the Better
Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission
have received 82 complaints against the company,
the news release said.
Hansen said the Attorney General’s Office
doesn’t understand the nature of his business.
He contends his customers have not been
financially harmed and that his delivery and
refund policies are tailored to a business where
metal prices can fluctuate hourly.
He also argues that his company deals with
investment products – not consumer items – and
therefore is not subject to a state
consumer-protection law that requires companies
to refund customers’ payments within 30 days if
they don’t deliver when promised.
600,000 POUNDS OF COPPER A YEAR
Gold and silver have more allure, but copper is
the metal that his mint uses most – 600,000
pounds a year, Hansen said. It is the major
component of brass, and most coins are made from
a copper nickel alloy or a copper zinc alloy.
The mint makes a lot of coins. The military
accounts for 60 percent of what is called the
custom minting field.
“Every unit in the military has its own coin –
every commanding general, every admiral, every
ship, every unit,” Hansen said. “And there are
literally thousands and thousands and thousands
of unit coins.
“Guys also like to commemorate events like a
tour in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said.
Northwest Territorial Mint now has 135
employees. The company makes coins for the FBI,
the Secret Service, police officers, fire
departments and emergency medical technicians.
Microsoft and Boeing order coins they can give
to workers upon completion of a special project
or for their traveling executives, Hansen said.
“Coins are like business cards,” he said.
“People exchange them. It’s like a secret
‘PEOPLE THINK THIS IS SEXY’
Hansen said one reason he wants the museum is to
showcase the talents of his staff and the work
“What we do, people think this is sexy,” he
said, referring to the artistry and pouring
molten metals into forms.
“I can’t draw a straight line, but I have seven
full-time artists on staff and a number of
sculptors who create these coins,” he said. “A
coin is a piece of metal with art on it.
“The history of money from different cultures
over the years, we think that has a lot of
appeal,” he said. “And we’ll give them a factory
Last summer, Hansen brought Rob Vugteveen on
board to head up the money and minting museum
project. Vugteveen, who has a masters in
geophysics, developed the Asarco Mineral
Discovery Center in Tuscon, Ariz., a former open
pit mine that’s now a museum.
The Museum of Minting and Money would tell the
story of the minting process from the Roman era
to present day, Vugteveen said.
“We don’t have an extensive collection of items,
but we know people who do,” he said. “We’re in
conversation with people, and they are as
excited as we are and are moving forward.”
Hansen said he’d like to have his new factory
and museum open in late 2010.