A great work ethic and a make-it-happen attitude are hallmarks of the team at POET’s Fostoria, Ohio biorefinery.
For decades, Midwesterners have migrated away from cold winters, corn fields and Rust Belt realities to the West Coast in search of “the good life.” So why would someone from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in sunny southern California migrate to Fostoria, Ohio?
“POET offered me this opportunity, which allowed me to build on my previous experience in the food industry,” says Art Thomas, POET Biorefining – Fostoria General Manager since 2012. “But the cultures are 180 degrees different. Here you’re not part of a metropolitan area of 5 million people. No more getting stuck in traffic for 2 ½ hours. You actually have space to breathe. It’s so refreshing!”
But Thomas found something even more refreshing in northwest Ohio – its fertile soil is so flat you can see the corn and soybean fields for miles, it’s dotted with mini-towns and salt-of-the-earth people who love their hunting, high school sports, and yes, their beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. Amidst that bucolic backdrop, he also found an engaged and enthusiastic work force.
“This is the first facility I’ve worked in where I never have to worry about people missing work or coming in late,” he says. “They have a great, rural work ethic with a ‘git-‘r-done’ attitude and a very entrepreneurial mindset – always looking for ways to improve the processes and make the business better, really taking ownership – which allows us to take things to a whole new level here.”
His workforce was not the only pleasant surprise that Thomas encountered. He knew he was coming into a green industry, but it was a whole lot greener than he could have imagined.
“In the food industry, we wound up putting vast amounts of food down the sewer – it really was a major deal,” he says. “But here, the only things that leave the plant are our products – ethanol, distillers dried grains (DDGs), corn oil and CO2. We really have no industrial waste here.”
The Fostoria plant was one of six, 68-million-gallon-per-year plants that came online in Indiana and Ohio in 2007 and 2008, as POET expanded to the eastern edge of the Eastern Corn Belt. All were state-of-the-art, and all have been looking for ways to improve on that status since day one.
“Since we opened we’ve added Total Water Recovery, corn oil separation and CO2 production, but we’re actually making some kind of tech upgrade all of the time,” says Thomas. “The only constant we really have here is change.”
One recent such upgrade was the installation of variable frequency drives (VFDs), which help to reduce electric consumption, on eight major pieces of equipment. Although not considered a “major” innovation, Thomas says it nevertheless saves the plant a significant amount annually in electricity costs.
The plant is active in the community, where it supports a wide range of area and youth endeavors. One new program is “Christmas with an Angel,” where team members helped to provide Christmas gifts to 28 needy kids in a local school.
But Thomas says some of the plant’s greatest impacts in the community and beyond are exactly what it was originally designed to do.
“Besides being green, we’re helping to reduce the amount of oil that America imports,” he says. “We also provide an additional market for farmers to be able to sell the corn, which pumps over $100 million into the local economy. I’d much rather pay farmers here to grow our fuel, than have our money go overseas.”
To say that Fostoria’s Commodity Supervisor, John Harpster, is very involved in the ethanol industry would be a considerable understatement. Besides supervising corn receiving and the shipping of the plant’s products at work, he also sells corn from his farm to the plant and buys DDGS to feed to his livestock.
“I was in the automotive supply industry, and actually took a pay cut to come here when the plant started because I wanted to work in ethanol,” he recalls. “I enjoy working in an ag-related occupation and it’s been a good experience for me. I’ve seen my skill set grow, and now I get to lead and train others. It’s been a fun ride.”
Off the job, Harpster enjoys playing with his grandkids and raising feeder cattle and lambs on his farm. But on the day this was written, he was ecstatic about another of his passions.
“It was absolutely wonderful seeing Ohio State win the football national championship last night,” he says. “There’s a bunch of us here at the plant who are Buckeyes through and through. I’ve always been a Buckeye fanatic.”
WORTH THE TRIP
Prior to POET, Boiler Technician Dan Fahler was working as a boiler and heating specialist for a large commercial greenhouse. He recalls how he came to work at POET Biorefining – Fostoria.
“One of our other boiler people left to go to work here at the biorefinery, then another,” he says. “So I decided I’d better check it out, and I’ve been here over four years now.”
The rub is that it’s about a 70-mile commute for Fahler, but he says it’s worth it.
“This is a nice, clean place to work and the money’s good,” he says. “Also, they have a profit-sharing plan here, and that was really helpful when my daughter was finishing college.”
Off the job, Fahler enjoys golfing, fishing and helping his son practice throwing the shot and discus for his high school track team. He likes that his work schedule gives him time to pursue his interests, and says his job keeps him challenged.
“It’s a mental job with some pretty complicated processes,” he says. “But if you bring your mind with you every day, it’s really a pretty good job.”
CHALLENGE EVERY DAY
Fellow Boiler Technician Scotty Salyers is a Fostoria native, and has been with the plant since August 2008, before it started production in September. He says it was a big change from working in the automotive industry.
“It was a lot different, definitely a learning experience,” he says. “But it sounded like a great opportunity, and I liked the thought of what POET was doing by increasing energy independence.”
Off the job, Salyers enjoys raising boxers, spending time with his family, and helping friends “work on their stuff.” And like most in the area, he follows high school football. But after more than six years on the job, he says he still enjoys it.
“Every day’s different,” he says. “And there’s a new challenge every day.”