In a state new to ethanol, POET’s Alexandria, Indiana biorefinery has shown itself not only to be a valued business partner, but an excellent corporate citizen as well.
In the second half of this decade POET was expanding east. After establishing a solid base in the western Corn Belt, the company was following the supply of corn into Indiana and Ohio.
“Indiana’s the fifth-largest corn-producing state,” explains POET Biorefining – Alexandria General Manager Dave Hudak. “Plus the governor (Mitch Daniels) has been very positive toward attracting new business, especially agribusiness.”
However, there were some noticeable differences between POET’s western plants and the new ones springing up in Indiana and Ohio. While many of the western plants are in very small communities surrounded by farms, the area around Alexandria, Indiana is a mix of rural and urban.
Another difference was communities’ lack of experience with ethanol. While people in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota knew well the benefits an ethanol plant could bring to an area, Indiana really hadn’t experienced that yet, with only one older-generation facility in the state. Although the ethanol industry offered the promise of new jobs and revenue for local communities, it also represented change – which was a concern for some people.
As plants were contemplated across the state, their merits were roundly (and sometimes heatedly) debated in meetings and newspapers. Frequent comments or questions included things like: “What about the smell?” “Will it lower my property values?” “I heard they cause pollution.” “What if the plant blows up?” “Someone said it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get from it.” And so on.
While in hindsight, such reactions may seem far-fetched, the fears at the time were real – either from lack of direct experience or in some cases, deliberate misinformation.
“A lot of the challenges we experienced early in the process were fear of the unknown,” says Hudak. “Change is often difficult.”
Despite the fears of some in the community, POET Biorefining-Alexandria began grinding corn on April 22, 2008. It was POET’s second plant in Indiana and its 23rd overall. In the three years since, the plant has not only shown itself to be an excellent business addition to the community, but an exemplary corporate citizen as well.
Getting Acquainted, Getting Involved
Hudak began his POET responsibilities on September 17, 2007, as construction on the plant neared the halfway point. His first duty was to start building a team, and he intentionally hired people predominantly from the area. He considers himself fortunate, not only to be able to select all the new team members, but also in the quality of those members.
“They’re typical Hoosiers – willing to do whatever needs done, so friendly – the best people I’ve ever been associated with,” says Hudak. “No one asks, ‘Why do I have to do that?’ and that’s an attitude you just can’t teach.”
A close second on Hudak’s to-do list was getting to know the community and the people, and seeing how POET was perceived. In doing so, he talked to anyone who was willing to listen, and listened to anyone who had something to say, ranging from civic groups to spending time at local diners. To those who had concerns, the message was consistent – “We’re going to be a good neighbor and responsible community people.”
As he made his rounds, Hudak encountered one group that had very few concerns – farmers. Mike Shuter is a grain and livestock producer from nearby Frankton. He sells corn to POET Biorefining – Alexandria and feeds DDGS to his cattle and hogs. He’s also the current president of the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, which had worked hard for years to attract ethanol plants to the state.
“The plant’s been a real plus for the ag community,” says Shuter, who altered his corn-soybean rotation to include some corn after corn, to better capitalize on his corn’s potential. “They’ve helped our local basis tremendously and have brought more competition to the area. They’re very good people to work with.”
Also early on, POET went to work investing itself in charitable and community projects. The list of sponsorships and other forms of support is considerable – teen organizations, the county chaplaincy department, local high school baseball and basketball teams and other student activities, a transitional home for women, an Arbor Day celebration with fifth graders from local school systems, projects within the Alexandria Downtown Revitalization Program, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation charity walk, local volunteer fire departments, donating Christmas toys and gifts to underprivileged families, and much more.
Adrienne Wise, an elementary school social worker with Alexandria Community Schools, sees the devastation first hand in a town especially hard hit when large auto parts manufacturers left the area a few years ago. Each year she coordinates a Christmas assistance program for underprivileged families, and in POET she has found a willing supporter.
“They’ve adopted 15 kids in the program and they go all out,” says Wise. “Besides the money they put into it, they also do all the shopping and wrapping. I’m very happy to have them as a partner. They’re very generous, caring people.”
As the people of the community came to know POET better, many of those who had initially had concerns began to see things differently. Hudak says he started to see a change in perception one day after speaking to a Chamber meeting. He had pointed out that the plant annually spends $80 million on corn, most of which farmers reinvest in local businesses.
Afterward, a woman came up to Hudak and said “I live near the plant and was one of those who called and complained about its coming. But now I’m glad you’re here.”
Hudak also hosted a tour for the Chamber board soon after the plant opened. Although the Chamber had been supportive from the start, board support was not unanimous. But after seeing the plant first hand and recognizing many of the workers, Hudak received a couple of nearly identical calls soon afterward.
“I was wrong,” said one member. “Now that I’ve seen what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it, I’m OK with it.”
Making a Difference
As a former Chamber board member and a neighbor of the plant, Don Swegman has a dual perspective on the coming and establishment of POET in the Alexandria community. Looking back on that process, he feels that the plant has not only proved itself to be a good neighbor, but has won over many of its earlier critics.
“I think they’re a terrific neighbor, and have changed the perception of 90 percent of the community,” says Swegman. “They help out with all kinds of causes, both financially and with their time. But they’re not flashy. A lot of what they do in the community isn’t that well known. But for those of us who do know, we’re very happy they’re here.”
He gives much of the credit to Hudak for being a good ambassador. For his part, Hudak feels the effort has had some of its own rewards.
“Last year I got a thank-you note from the mother of one of the families we’d helped at Christmas saying that it was the best Christmas they’d ever had,” says Hudak. “But she also added that someday she hoped they could repay that. Those kinds of things keep you going – knowing that somewhere down the line, they’ll be passing it on. Yes, we’re a business, but we’re in this business to make a difference. We believe we can.”
Learned About Helping Early
As one of seven children growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, POET Biorefining – Alexandria General Manager Dave Hudak learned early many lessons that stuck with him. One was the value of helping others.
“My dad was very big on helping people,” says Hudak. “I remember helping him take boxes of food to needy people at Thanksgiving.”
Other lessons included hard work and perseverance. These have served him well in a managerial career in which he has worked for four companies that closed their doors. But he doesn’t expect that to happen with his current position.
“This situation and culture is a perfect fit for me and my personality,” says Hudak, a devout Cleveland Indians and Browns fan who is married to his college sweetheart and the father of two adult children. “POET gives you the tools to be successful and lets you be yourself – you don’t have to pretend or be something you’re not. Ethanol is a dynamic industry with new challenges almost daily. But something tells me that when the dust settles, POET will still be standing.”
As the Quality Manager for POET Biorefining – Alexandria, Kari Cook is in charge of the plant’s lab, testing, and data review. Off the job, she enjoys landscaping and doing other projects in her yard. But some time ago, she felt the need to do something more.
“I was looking for something to do in my free time as a way to give back,” says Cook.
While looking at various opportunities, she came across a program called “Beauty for Ashes,” a faith-based transitional home for women in Alexandria and thought it sounded interesting. She volunteered a couple of times and quickly became hooked. She now serves on the program’s fund-raising committee and works on a number of other projects at the home.
As Cook became more deeply involved in the program, she also saw many needs with which the home needed assistance. Her passion for helping the home’s clients carried over into her work at the plant, where she told others, including Dave Hudak, about some of those needs. Soon POET Biorefining – Alexandria became a sponsor for the ministry and other team members also began volunteering.
Of her volunteer work at Beauty for Ashes, Cook says, “There’s a real satisfaction in helping someone get back on their feet so they can have a second chance. That’s a very nice feeling.”
Five years ago, if someone had told Ron Vehikite that one day he’d be a supervisor in an ethanol plant, he wouldn’t have believed them. Vehikite was then working as a forklift driver, but had experience as a heavy equipment operator, and was recruited by a POET Design and Construction supervisor to help with construction at the Alexandria site.
“I came out to the site and it all looked very interesting, so I accepted,” says Vehikite.
As the plant began to take shape, Vehikite got to know Dave Hudak, who eventually began to talk to him about staying on after the plant opened in a permanent role.
“I’d just figured I’d go back to construction,” says Vehikite. “But this seemed like it would be a good thing for my family, so I stayed.”
Vehikite describes the training he received prior to start-up as “grueling,” but essential.
“That was an exciting time,” recalls Vehikite. “To see the plant go up and then run was a lot of fun.”
Now that he’s worked at POET for some time, Vehikite says he loves its culture – teamwork, overcommunicating, parking egos at the door – and feels that attitude filters its way down from the top throughout the organization. He says that allows the facility to “run real well.”
Another aspect of the culture that he’s pleased to be a part of is serving in the community. Vehikite volunteers at Beauty for Ashes when they need furniture moved or heavy lifting done, and likes the feeling he gets from helping others.
In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, and playing the guitar. He says going to work for the plant has turned out to be a smart decision.
“POET’s been a blessing in my life, and I’m glad to be able to work for them,” he says.