A Lasting Legacy

Friends and colleagues of Kathy Bryan share stirring memories of her inspirational life and career. From managing a farm-scale ethanol plant in Minnesota to establishing the world's leading ethanol magazine and conference, Bryan's impact on the ethanol industry is deep and lasting.
By BBI Editorial Staff | September 15, 2009
In EPM's early years, press time the 24-hour period before a publication is sent to print became a production spectacle. Post-it notes, printouts, coffee cups and soda cans blanketed the magazine's tiny editorial office in Grand Forks, N.D., while an endless stream of facsimiles from the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Kathy Bryan, arrived late into the night. Tom Bryan, then managing editor of EPM, recalls the intense pressure of not just getting the magazine done, but getting it done right. "Early on, I wrote every story and Kathy edited each one of them, regardless of her schedule," he says. "I would e-mail Kathy a proof of the magazine and she would fax it back, marked up with edits cover to cover. It didn't matter where she was. She would send me faxes from her home office in Colorado or from crammed hotel business centers in China or Europe. She always came through."

As a leader in an industry defined by both quantity and quality, it was fitting that Kathy was a master of both. Her work ethic and attention to detail made her a great magazine editor, a proficient biofuels consultant and a masterful conference organizer. More importantly, her unique ability to connect with people made her a respected industry leader, a charismatic company president, a thoughtful colleague, a caring friend, a supportive parent and loving grandparent.

Kathy Bryan, president and co-founder of BBI International, died on July 11 in her Salida, Colo., home after a courageous 14-month battle with cancer. Kathy was the co-owner and principal visionary behind the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, the long-time editor-in-chief of EPM and the co-founder of the Energy Independent newsletter that preceded it. She contributed to the quality and integrity of BBI International's publications and conferences in innumerable ways. Her leadership, guidance and vast industry connections were invaluable to the success of her company and the development of the industries she served.

Kathy dedicated more than a quarter-century of her life to the ethanol movement. She ran a hands-on production facility on her Minnesota farm in the 1980s and helped pioneer the avant-garde concept of "a still on every hill." It was on that farm that some of today's ethanol industry veterans first met Kathy.

"Her family had a plant in Minnesota at the same time that my parents had a plant in Minnesota," says Poet LLC CEO Jeff Broin. "She was a true pioneer coming from the early, early days of the industry when the production process was close to non-existent. What she saw in her life was the evolution of the industry, literally from its roots from having one of the very first ethanol plants that was built to seeing ethanol become close to 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply."

Long-time industry veteran Larry Johnson, now the North American business developer for Inbicon A/S, remembers those early days in the business. Johnson says Kathy frequently joked about how they first met with Kathy emerging from a fermentation tank she was cleaning. "She always kidded me about that," he says.

Broin also first met Kathy on her Minnesota farm cleaning a fermentor. "It was more than 20 years ago when touring her ethanol plant during a college course," Broin says. "She was actually cleaning the inside of a fermentor with iodine. Of course, I had heard of her before but that's when I met her."

It was 1983 when Johnson first met Kathy, after bringing a load of damaged corn to her facility. Kathy was doing the bookkeeping for the ethanol plant and, after selling the spoiled corn, Johnson says he sat down with her and started complaining about the price of corn, eventually talking Kathy into writing a $35 check to join the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Industry veteran Keith Kor, general manager of Corn Plus LLLP, remembers Kathy from those old days too, when he managed a small plant in Houston, Minn. "She liked to call her plant the still on the hill,' so I told her my plant was the still in the valley,'" Kor says. "She was a strong advocate for the ethanol industry, even when ethanol wasn't cool."

Not long after Johnson and Kathy met, she joined him as a director of the MCGA. Because they lived only 30 miles apart, the two would drive to board meetings together. "That's when we would do our strategizing," Johnson recalls. "She was a great strategist, and she made a point to know everyone and know them all by name. She won over a lot of people."

Johnson recalls many ethanol promotional trips in his six-cylinder "ethanol answer van" with Kathy and others, handing out yellow nickels and key chains and pumping fuel. "She was such a natural for dealing in the political world," he says. "At that time, being a woman was different in that arena, also being her normal outlandish self with so much energy. She was always so believable. She was a great asset to policy issues both in Minnesota and nationally."

Kathy chaired the Minnesota Ethanol Commission for five years in the late 1980s. She spent years lobbying for state and national programs and was a conduit for sharing information and keeping track of what was once a small group of people.

She was also a respected consultant and global ambassador for the biofuels industry. She played an integral role in the planning and facilitation of dozens of ethanol, biodiesel and biomass events around the world over the past two decades.

Kathy's passion and dedication did not go unnoticed over the years. For her tireless work, a "Kathy Bryan Day" was created by former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich when what became known as the "Minnesota Model" of ethanol production was under creation.

A Powerful Force with a Welcoming Smile
Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments Kathy bestowed upon the ethanol industry was the turning of a relatively small ethanol event started by her Gist-brocades colleague, Bob Sutthoff, into the industry's "must-attend" annual event the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2009. Her friends and loved ones say the size of the industry and the growth of the FEW continually amazed Kathy.

"With her enthusiastic flair, Kathy was the cement linking the scientific program with the business side of the FEW," says Mike Ingledew, scientific director of the Ethanol Technology Institute. "Her approach was very successful in attracting the producers, the vendors and the scientific community in all parts of the alcohol process to a meeting that grew and became second to none." Ingledew remembers how Kathy also took great care to organize and integrate students into the annual FEW program with scholarships and her communication with the selected students. "She always looked to the future," he says. "Kathy could never be replaced due to her great love for people and for our industry. We miss and will continue to miss her as a person and as a leader in our community." Less than a month before her death, Kathy received the FEW's 2009 High Octane Award, which Ingledew says was "a small reflection" of what her peers feel about the legacy she created.

Kathy's powerful presence in the business, combined with her ability to connect and relate to people, made her who she was a positive force with a welcoming smile. That's how Hosein Shapouri, senior agricultural economist for the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, remembers Kathy. "She believed in expanding the horizon and was a catalyst that energized the people around her, and led to creating an organization that was able to bring together experts from across the world," he says, adding that her departure leaves a personal and professional void in the industry. "She was a great force, and I remember her as a person who combined a sense of humor with intense energy and professionalism in her life and work."

"She had energy an energy that came from passion and a love of what she was doing," says Rick Handley, principal associate with Rick Handley & Associates. "It didn't matter what the venue was or how busy Kathy would be, she always would take time to stop and chat and say hi' to the people she knew and it wasn't just a polite hi' but a sincere interest in how you were. You could tell."

"Kathy was a true matriarch of her family and the whole ethanol family our family," says Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association. "She worked tirelessly but somehow kept a smile handy for others," he says. "She was smart and her presence raised our collective intelligence. She worked with a divergent group of people, yet made all of us feel included. Her time with us, while too short, will benefit us for a long, long time."

Pacific Ethanol Inc. CEO Neil Koehler says the FEW has been a focal point of exchange, growth and networking within the industry, which have all been critical components. "She was such a force in this business, but it wasn't just a business for her it was a mission," Koehler says. "And that spirit, optimism and heart she brought to the industry will be missed."

Kathy's passion for renewable fuels went beyond giving farmers new outlets for their crops, or creating jobs, or boosting the rural economy. Kathy's message was one of hope, changing the world and preserving the environment. Brandt Bensema, director of business development at InterSystems Inc., says, "Because of her belief in the cause,' she was able to communicate to others and gain worthwhile followers.

"I had never met a woman in the business world like her," Bensema says of their initial encounter. "Although my association with Kathy was mainly through the FEW events, I felt a bond to her. My family also became part of her spirit. My daughter had the unique opportunity to be a tour guide for Kathy during a trip to Japan several years ago. It just so happened that an environmental informational event was taking place in Tokyo that they were able to attend together. Kathy was a friend to many and through that, forged relationships that spanned many years in the industry. I'll miss Kathy's warm smile and the hug I always received when we greeted each other at the FEW."

A true international ambassador for the biofuels industries is how Kurt Markam, director of the Minnesota Agricultural Marketing Services Division, remembers Kathy. "I enjoyed the cooperation our agency had with Kathy in developing the three symposiums in Beijing," he says. "She had a remarkable networking talent that extends all over Asia." Markham says he never saw Kathy meet a stranger. "Everyone seemed to know her, and be drawn to her energy, enthusiasm and optimism," he says. "In many ways Kathy was the heart of our industry."

Fagen Inc. CEO Ron Fagen says Kathy always had a great smile. "When you would see her coming with a smile on her face, it made you smile," Fagen says. "Kathy was a very upbeat and positive person, a great mother and a personal friend. She was a true pioneer in the ethanol industry, and she will surely be missed."

Senior marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Ralph Groschen who presented and hand delivered the High Octane Award to Kathy less than a month before her passing says perhaps Kathy's biggest contribution of all was her ability to communicate. "She was so warm," he says. "She befriended people in about three seconds.

She talked to people who were for and violently against ethanol and seemed to be able to get on a level with 99 percent of them. That is an extraordinary talent."

Were it not for the great communication skills Kathy possessed, Groschen says the grassroots ethanol effort in Minnesota and its subsequent aggressive biofuels program would have quite possibly turned out differently. Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, says, "The passion and love that Kathy inspired in others for her fledgling industry led to the creation of the landmark legislation that formed Minnesota's program," a program known around the world, according to Doyal. He adds, "Kathy took her passion to a national stage and helped foster the growth of the industry."

Groschen recalls, "It was her ability to walk into an office in a non-threatening manner, conveying that message and doing it very professionally sometimes with great vigor and other times with just the right amount of finesse. She's a unique soul she's one in a million, maybe 10 million."

Proving Herself in a Male-Dominated Business
Kathy was a powerful woman in an industry largely dominated by men. Shirley Ball, chairman of Ethanol Producers and Consumers, recalls her 1987 meeting with Kathy. Ball served on a USDA panel examining the cost effectiveness of ethanol, which met several times over a period of months before issuing a report that put ethanol in a positive light. "Kathy came to every one of those meetings and always had input," Ball says. "I admired her knowledge. She knew everybody and was so aware of the industry, and understood it." Throughout their years promoting biofuels, the two industry pioneers often spoke at each others' conferences. "We'll certainly miss her," Ball says. "She was the inspiration behind all the workshops BBI did she knew all the people."

Another influential woman in the business, Kelly Davis, who is now the director of customer and technical services for Hawkeye Gold, says although she originally met Kathy in the 1980s, it was a decade later when her most important contact with Kathy occurred.

"I was thinking about leaving the industry," Davis says. "But Kathy called me up and said that she would post a classified ad for me in the [Ethanol Independent] newsletter if I would consider staying involved with ethanol. Well, I agreed and ended up going to work at the time in Minnesota for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, so Kathy has had a huge impact on me and my career."

Lucy Norton, managing director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says, "The word no' was not in Kathy's vocabulary. She was a positive, can-do person. And although a rare treasure has left us, she still gives us all hope and courage to carry on."

Norton recalls her first meeting with Kathy at an ethanol meeting hosted by the National Corn Growers Association. "Kathy was asked by the meeting chair to give a brief report following the break," Norton remembers. "Kathy smiled, gave a little giggle and said she'd be happy to. So while everyone went for coffee, Kathy stayed behind to make some notes. Through her creativity and humor she came up with an analogy that compared the fledgling ethanol industry to a recently planted tree with young roots. The audience was captivated, hanging on her every word."

Renewable Fuels Association president and Kathy's longtime personal friend, Bob Dinneen says, "Kathy was the very first person I met in the ethanol industry. She has been a mentor, a confidante and a friend for more than 20 years. I will miss her greatly.

"The thing about Kathy that will always be with me, however, is her indomitable spirit. Kathy was an indefatigable optimist and her confidence that ethanol would succeed was never shaken by misinformed detractors or volatile market conditions. She knew ethanol would prevail because it was the right thing to do for farmers, for the environment and for national security. It is no exaggeration that the U.S. ethanol industry would not be what it is today without Kathy's passion and perseverance." EP
She will be missed.

This article was compiled by the BBI
International editorial team.