Best in the Business

FROM THE JUNE ISSUE: This year, Ethanol Producer Magazine launched the Ethanol Producer Awards, naming winners based on open nominations in five categories.
By Lisa Gibson | May 23, 2018

In their inaugural year, the Ethanol Producer Awards proved to be a worthwhile endeavor, with excellent nominations of noteworthy producers and partners summitted in each of the five categories—The Good Neighbor Award, Board of the Year, Workplace of the Year, Project of the Year and Collaboration of the Year.

Winners were chosen by Ethanol Producer Magazine’s editorial staff and editorial board. Many categories brought tough decisions, as more than one nominee seemed deserving of recognition. 

The winners have shown themselves to be exemplary in their respective award categories. They are as follows:

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AWARD
Exemplary Community Service and Support
Pacific Ethanol Magic Valley Inc., Burley, Idaho
“As a company, Pacific Ethanol has always promoted community outreach efforts at all of our locations,” says Wayne Rylant, human resources manager for Pacific Ethanol. “One of our plants, the Magic Valley Plant in Burley, Idaho, stands out above the rest. They have consistently pushed all of our plants to think of new and better ways to help make the communities we live and work in better and stronger. They have been true pioneers in promoting our community service programs.”

The Magic Valley plant won Pacific Ethanol Inc.’s month-long food drive competition in September 2016, collecting and donating 1,976 pounds of food to the Community Council of Idaho and the South Central Community Action Agency. In 2017, Magic Valley upped its donation to 2,173 pounds.

Al Lowe, plant manager, says Pacific Ethanol Magic Valley’s largest community service project is the food drive, but many employees participate in parades, Christmas toy drives, charity walks, community clean-up and local youth athletics. “We try to encourage employees to do their part in our community,” Lowe says.

“We want to be part of the community fabric,” he adds. “We all live here and raise our families in this small area. When we support the community in organized activities, we are essentially saying ‘We are part of this with you and we care.’”

During the 2016 Trunk-or-Treat event, employees started a trend by decorating their float to hand out Halloween candy. The next year, 10 other participating companies followed suit, distributing candy to about 1,500 local children.

“Pacific Ethanol realizes that being part of a community is more than receiving a pay check and spending it here,” Lowe says. “They understand that personal involvement requires time spent by people at events that may not be able to be scheduled around time away from work. When employees express a desire to be involved in these scheduled activities, they attend with management approval.”

Pacific Ethanol offers eight paid hours per year for community service and one-third of the Magic Valley plant employees logged their hours in 2017, making it a company-wide leader, Rylant says.

BOARD OF THE YEAR
Exceptional Board Leadership, Planning and Vision  
Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. LLLP, Benson, Minnesota 
In her nomination for CVEC, Renewable Fuels Association Director of Regulatory Affairs Kelly Davis starts with, “Best board in the business” and goes on to describe “excellent” diversification moves, strategic growth through investments, and passion.

Chad Friese, CVEC general manager, agrees. “They are a great group of people and individuals and they certainly deserve the accolades and recognition,” he says. “They certainly go beyond the call of duty, not just looking out for the members they represent, but always looking at opportunities to engage in a positive outcome for the future.”

Diversification moves include production of beverage and industrial alcohol, both niche markets, says Dave Thompson, CVEC’s board chairman. The board has also invested in Guardian Energy, which owns plants across the country. Friese adds that the CVEC board has invested in technology and efficiency.
“We’re one of the older plants in the industry,” Thompson says. “This is our 23rd year of grinding corn, so we end up doing a lot of capital projects to keep us modern and efficient.”

Board members have varying backgrounds including banking and farming, but all have a passion for the ethanol industry, Thompson says. “If you’re involved in the industry, you have to believe in the industry and you have to have a passion for it. Our board has always been engaged in industry events. We’re very active in Renewable Fuels Association and American Coalition of Ethanol events.”

The board consists of nine members, each serving three-year terms and eligible for reelection after those three years are up. Most are also serving on boards of other companies and organizations.
“The CVEC board is very engaged and active,” Friese says. “They participate on other boards, have strong business knowledge and maintain an awareness of new technologies, investments, policies and politics that may influence decisions at a rural cooperative.

“The board is very supportive and is a true extension of the team approach at CVEC,” he adds. “Management spends a lot of time looking forward and gathering information and opportunities. The board reviews and audits those thoughts and ideas and handles them with a real-world collaborative efficiency.”

Thompson says CVEC was one of the earliest in the industry to separate corn oil and to market E85, and is always looking for new ways to increase efficiency. But, humbly, he adds, “I don’t know that we’re more deserving than a lot of other plants. I expect many plants are able to increase efficiency in their own ways.”

WORKPLACE OF THE YEAR
Outstanding Employment and Management Practices
Midwest AgEnergy
Midwest AgEnergy, the parent company of Dakota Spirit AgEnergy in Spiritwood, North Dakota, and Blue Flint Ethanol in Underwood, North Dakota, has a focus on peer-to-peer communication, cooperative problem solving and overall wellness.

Midwest AgEnergy recently provided a behavioral training course to help drive peer-to-peer feedback, effective communication and employee engagement, says Cindy Griffin, director of human resources and corporate services. The course teaches nonconfrontational inquiring skills that employees can use with each other to help solve issues on the job. “Everyone is engaged and holding each other accountable,” she says.

Similarly, the company employs the Kaizen Process, a concept that uses crossfunctional focus teams to address setbacks and opportunities for improvement. Those team members can be anyone in any position up the ladder. “These people come together and say, ‘What can we learn from this?’ And they work together to fix it,” Griffin says. “We empower our newest individuals, up to our senior people. Everyone has a say in their work.”

Those communication skills show in the plants’ safety records, she says. Blue Flint, which began operating in 2007, has achieved 11 years with no lost-time accidents and Dakota Spirit, which started up in 2015, recently marked three.

Midwest AgEnergy contracts a third party to lead the communication initiative, providing training, developing action plans and evaluating the results. Additional coaching and leadership seminars are offered for managers. “It’s a big investment but it’s something our CEO is committed to doing,” Griffin says of CEO Jeff Zueger.

Brian Markegard, engineer at Dakota Spirit, says he has always felt valued as an employee of Midwest AgEnergy. “Management continues to show a commitment to the employees and the culture of valuing each individual,” he says. “Employee appreciation is definitely a part of the culture at Midwest AgEnergy.”

Beyond its dedication to communication and engagement, Midwest AgEnergy encourages and offers training on wellness—physical, financial and mental. The company has offered depression management, financial and tax planning, and spine health presentations, among others. And Midwest AgEnergy’s wellness benefits program reimburses employees and spouses up to $175 per year for activities including gym memberships and massages.

About a year and a half ago, the company boosted its 401k employer contribution to allow up to a 4 percent dollar-for-dollar match, and added an additional nonelective 4 percent contribution, for an employer total of 8 percent.

“There are many great benefits of working at Dakota Spirit other than the work environment,” Markegard says. “We are provided with great insurance options and a wellness program, as well as an excellent retirement plan. The company also values giving back to the communities that we live in and has developed a program that encourages volunteering, without taking time off from work.”
Markegard adds Midwest AgEnergy is a great company to work for, where employees feel heard and are given opportunities to grow and develop.

PROJECT OF THE YEAR
Overall Scale, Complexity and Impact   
Homeland Energy Solutions LLC, Lawler, Iowa
At the end of November 2017, a $42.5 million, 35 MMgy expansion was commissioned at Homeland Energy Solutions. It was on budget and six weeks ahead of schedule, despite the fact that it was done on an operating facility that maintained expected production and efficiencies during construction. The only shutdown, according to Plant Manager Kevin Howes, was for 15 days in late September and early October, when required tie-ins and revamping of the distillation system were completed.

Howes says the expansion touched all areas of the plant. It included: 7,700 feet of track to add a rail loop; a 1.2 million-bushel Sukup grain bin and updated reclaim system; two additional hammermills, feed system and flour conveyor; an additional three-cell, two-pump cooling tower; two additional fermenters; a third beer/mash train and ferm fill booster pumps; two additional evaporators; an energy center consisting of two new dryers, three decanter centrifuges, RTO and boiler; an upgraded sieve vaporizer; a complete overhaul of the beer column and rectifier system; and installation of six larger pumps and several hundred feet of upsized piping and instrumentation to handle higher flows. More than 10 engineering firms, construction companies and contractors assisted in the project.

But before all that work was done, planning included a corn origination study to estimate what percentage of corn in the plant’s draw area was being contracted, Howes says. “The study showed the area could support an additional draw of 11.5 million to 12 million bushels with only a $0.01-per-bushel impact on basis,” Howes says. “The extra profit from the additional gallons would more than offset this.”

In addition, Homeland Energy contracted a plant debottlenecking study. “Each main part of our operation was examined to determine what areas needed to be expanded to meet the additional production,” Howes says. “Based on the results, preliminary project scope items were identified and further evaluations were completed to determine what all was going to be needed.”

The purpose of the expansion was to make Homeland Energy, which is farmer-owned, a low-cost producer of ethanol, which gives shareholders the greatest return on their investment, he says.

 Howes says the biggest lesson learned is to make sure to check out all the contractors who will be involved in a large project. “Don’t just use their list of references. Check within your network of people also.”

And he has some advice for other ethanol plants looking at enormous expansions:

• “Make sure your corn draw area can support the additional gallons.”

• “Don’t be hesitant to use multiple general contractors for various parts of the project. We had many different companies working side by side with no issues.”

• “You could spend months evaluating what to do, but there comes a time where you just need to move forward with what you have. We live in a commodity market, and sometimes a few-month delay could make a huge difference on your ROI.”

He adds that the economics in this commodity industry will dictate any future plans.

COLLABORATION OF THE YEAR
Technology Advancement through Partnership
Al-Corn Clean Fuel, Claremont, Minnesota; Karges-Faulconbridge Inc., St. Paul, Minnesota; and McGough Construction, St. Paul
Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, says the company has two important beliefs: “They believe that there is always a better way, and you work better by working together with others.” The concept is dubbed “Constant Improvement and Collaboration.”

Al-Corn has a 20-year collaboration history with engineering firm Karges-Faulconbridge Inc., increasing efficiencies and an original 10 MMgy capacity to 50 MMgy. Because KFI works closely with McGough Construction, Al-Corn has enlisted McGough’s services many times, also.

Most recently, the three collaborated on the 70 MMgy expansion at Al-Corn, boosting the plant’s capacity to 120 MMgy.

“McGough management brought real-world experience and advice to the project, helping Al-Corn make good decisions about design and desires that would bring the project to completion within the budget provided,” Doyal says. “It was very much a joint effort between Al-Corn staff, KFI engineers and McGough management teams to work through design, bidding, contractor and vendor selection, and contracting.”

The expansion was finished on budget, three months ahead of schedule and with no unplanned shutdowns. Tim Dunnwald, executive vice president and project principal for McGough, attributes that to clear and effective communication within the team. “The core of our teamwork’s success stems from the mutual trust and respect instilled in each of our companies’ cultures,” he says. “Continuous communication, honest feedback, transparency—there was a clear understanding from the get-go of the roles and responsibilities of each team member on this project.”

Doyal agrees. “For collaboration to work, you have to be willing to share your ideas freely,” he says. “You have to be willing to hear why your favorite idea is a bad one. You have to have some humility and be gracious to the ideas of others. But most important is to make sure you invest the time to create a relationship that can stand the trials and tensions that come when you face serious problems that need serious solutions. Investing your time, investing yourself in building a relationship is basic to getting to a deep collaborative association.

“The reason collaboration is important is because you are never as smart as you think you are,” he adds. “You can fall in love with your own ideas but still be completely wrong.”

Respect for the knowledge and viewpoints of all the collaborators is a must, says James Faulconbridge, president of KFI. “Our joint commitment to continuously push the reliability, efficiency and capacity of the plant drives everything. When you couple that with having respect for everyone’s knowledge and input, and accepting that no one has all the answers or is perfect, great things begin to happen. They know they can call us anytime with a question or an idea. We know we can do the same with them.”


Author: Lisa Gibson
Managing Editor
Ethanol Producer Magazine
701.738.4920
lgibson@bbiinternational.com