Women Head 3 Ethanol Plants in the Midwest

Passion, leadership and vision are more important than gender in the work of three top managers. This article is published in the June issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine under the headline "Women at the Top."
By Janna Farley | May 17, 2016

These days, it’s not unusual for women to run corporations, but not many of them are leading ethanol facilities. In fact, there are only a handful of women in top management in the industry. Ethanol Producer Magazine talked to three about their experiences and how they’re helping to move the industry forward.

Barb Bontrager
General Manager/CEO
United Wisconsin Grain Producers

When Barb Bontrager drives by a cornfield, she sees potential.

Potential for the environment, for the economy, for the United States.

Bontrager is the general manager and CEO of United Wisconsin Grain Producers, a community-owned ethanol facility with more than 900 investors in Friesland, located about 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It’s her job to harness that potential she sees growing in the corn fields she passes by.

Bontrager has worked for UWGP since November 2004. A certified public accountant, she came on board as the CFO just before the facility opened in April 2005 and was promoted to general manager and CEO in 2012. She is responsible for the day-to-day operations and financial management of the ethanol facility, which employs more than 40 people.

UWGP purchases 20 million bushels of corn from the local region annually and has among the best ethanol per-bushel yield rates, at 2.86, in the industry. UWGP has had an exceptional earnings history. Since the beginning of operations in April 2005, it has recorded $108 million in earnings, of which 74 percent were distributed to its members.

The stats make Bontrager smile. She’s a numbers person and her accounting background means she’s comfortable forecasting the facility’s financials and positioning them for success.

But what really gets Bontrager excited is thinking about everything that’s possible.

“Ethanol is a win for everyone. It’s better for the environment and produces less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil refiners,” she says. “On top of that, we’re able to sell fuel for less than we can bring it in from countries that hate us, and we’re looking at ways to use that fuel more economically, and working through those hurdles to get beyond the 10 percent blend.”

But the ethanol industry can do so much more, Bontrager says. “The ethanol industry is relatively young. There’s a lot of untapped potential here,” she says. “We have a lot to learn about corn and how to get more value out of that kernel of corn.”

Working in a male-dominated field never has been an issue for Bontrager. She grew up with three brothers, after all. “It’s just something that’s never been a big deal,” she says. “I just don’t see people as male or female. We’re all just people.”

But Bontrager knows she’s somewhat of an anomaly in the ethanol world. If she had to guess, Bontrager says, at industry conferences, only about one in 10 attendees are women. The small number of women in the ethanol industry, however, does not mean that her peers in the industry and her customers don’t respect her.

“That hasn’t been my experience at all,” she says. “In fact, I think farmers understand—especially those small mom and pop farms—the importance of women to the success of an operation.”

“I really enjoy coming to work every day,” she says. “We’re doing so much good. It’s something I’m proud to be involved in. We have all this potential from just one little ear of corn—and we’ve only just begun. There’s a lot of room for growth.”

Becky Pitz
General Manager,
Poet Biorefining-Mitchell

If there’s one word to describe Becky Pitz, it’s passionate.

Whether she’s overseeing operations of Poet’s plant in Mitchell, South Dakota, located 80 miles west of Sioux Falls, advocating for ethanol in Washington, D.C., or just hanging out with her husband and daughter at home, Pitz is always on the go and always giving 100 percent.

Days start early. Pitz is usually in the office by 6 a.m.

“I like to get there early and look at the plant,” says Pitz. That allows her to chat with the night crew as well as welcome the team coming in for the shift exchange at 7. “It’s nice to start the day with no one in the office, too,” she says.

Getting a jump-start on the day is helpful because there’s a lot going on. The Mitchell plant is one of the company’s highest producing facilities. In 2014, the plant bought 25 million bushels of corn from farmers and produced 72 million gallons of ethanol.

The long hours can be tiresome, but for Pitz, who started as the plant’s technical manager in 2006 and was named the general manager in 2013, it’s all worth it.

“I love what Poet stands for. If we can reduce the amount of foreign oil we’re dependent on with something that’s clean, green and renewable, how do you not love that?”

And she feels  fortunate to be able to do that in South Dakota.

Pitz grew up in Ipswich., about two and a half hours north of Mitchell. She never thought she’d be able to find work in her chemical engineering field so close to home.

“I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to grow my career in South Dakota,” Pitz says. “It’s important to stay here, to raise our daughter here.”

Pitz acknowledges that balancing a demanding job with family life is challenging, but she makes it work.

“I want to be a role model for my daughter, someone she can be proud of.” Demonstrating to her daughter that women can be successful managers, especially in an industry like ethanol which doesn’t have many female managers, is important to her.

At Poet, though, her gender is not an issue, Pitz notes.

It really doesn’t matter, Pitz says, if you’re a man or a woman. “I don’t even think about it,” she says. “With Poet, if you work hard and you’re good at what you do, there are unlimited opportunities.”

Besides, she’s used to it. Pitz graduated from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where the student body is made up of five men to every woman. “I’ve always been in a male-dominated world,” she says. “I’m just used to it.”

Pitz would rather not worry about gender issues anyway. She’s more concerned about being a strong advocate for ethanol. Many people don’t realize how much rural areas like Mitchell rely on renewable energy for jobs and economic strength, Pitz says. Poet in Mitchell employs more than 40 people and provides farmers throughout the area with an alternative market to sell their crops.

Of course, the benefits of ethanol extend beyond Mitchell. That’s why Pitz is also an advocate for the industry in Washington, D.C. She’s traveled to the nation’s capital with Growth Energy to visit with lawmakers about the benefits of renewable energy and the renewable fuel standard. 

“I’m proud to do it,” she says. “I love the opportunity to spread the word and help educate people about renewable fuels.”

The opportunities for the industry and for Pitz are unlimited.“The sky’s the limit, really,” she says. “It’s a big industry and it’s only going to get bigger. I love that I’m a part of it.”

Nicole Gries
Plant Manager
Valero Renewable Fuels-Welcome

Life at Valero Renewable Fuels in Welcome, Minnesota, definitely is a balancing act for Nicole Gries.
As the manager for the ethanol plant located about 100 miles southwest of Minneapolis, Gries is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the plant that processes nearly 43 million bushels of corn into 135 million gallons of denatured ethanol and 400,000 tons of distillers grains coproducts every year.

She’s constantly monitoring production quality results, making decisions on run rates and planning for capital projects—all while maintaining industry-leading standards in production, safety, product quality and environmental stewardship.

Gries’ organizational skills have stood her in good stead as a plant manager and also as the mother of three young children. As any parent knows, the job duties in that role include being a chef, teacher and chauffeur.

The autonomy and career capital that come with executive roles help her get the job done, whether she is at home or at work. “It’s all about making the most of the assets you have,” “Gries says.

Gries has a background in chemical engineering and previously worked as a process engineer, first for Cargill and then for Rohm and Haas. After moving back to the Midwest, Gries worked for VeraSun Energy before Valero acquired a group of VeraSun’s plants. She’s been the plant manager for the Welcome facility since 2013.

There’s never a typical day at Valero’s Welcome plant. With more than 70 full-time employees, Gries spends a lot of time on personnel issues. “Each facility depends on its workforce and plant culture and to accomplish that, you have to stay on top of it,” she says. “It’s a pretty important facet, and it’s something I get pretty passionate about, too.”

During the past year, Gries has focused on increasing plant reliability and reducing the amount of unplanned downtime. That means planning schedules and evaluating preventive maintenance or upgrading equipment—really taking a multifaceted approach to plant management—and then being able to equate that to a financial impact rate. 

Performance expectations have elevated as the ethanol industry has evolved, Gries says, and she credits the strong leadership of her core management team in making sure everything gets done right.

“The business is maturing, but with margins being tighter, you have to get creative, you have to look at everything to determine where you can optimize,” she says. “We do a good job challenging each other to come up with new ideas, to not be satisfied with the status quo, and figuring out how to make our hare-brained ideas actually work,” she says.

Being a woman is a nonissue. “If I’m doing the best I can, I’m satisfied. I never compare myself side by side to my male counterparts,” she says. “I tend to be a little methodical and conservative in my approach to work,” Gries says. “I like a challenge, and I like meeting or exceeding my expectations.


Author: Janna Farley
South Dakota-based freelance writer
janna.farley@gmail.com