Family still has big role in ethanol fuel business

? David VanderGriend remembers well the day in 1978 when his brother, Dennis, came home to Sheldon, Iowa, for a visit from South Dakota State University.

“David,” Dennis said, “We’re going to build a still.”

“Well, OK,” David answered. “Why are we going to build a still?”

“Because my professor wants one,” said Dennis, then a mechanical engineering student. “We’re going to do research on making fuel alcohol.”

So they built it.

In 1979, the VanderGriend distillation unit became Serial Number 0001 on the records of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the first exclusive fuel alcohol still in the United States.

From those humble beginnings, the ethanol industry has come a long way. And so has the VanderGriend family role in the industry.

Today, David VanderGriend is chief executive of Colwich-based ICM, North America’s leading designer of ethanol plants. His brother Dennis is ICM’s senior process engineer.

The company, which employs about 250 people, designed and built the three newest ethanol plants in Kansas and is building the only Kansas ethanol plant under construction. ICM recently expanded its headquarters in Colwich and has an entire department devoted to research and development.

It’s the people who work for him that deserve the credit for ICM’s success, VanderGriend insists. He’s “just a welder,” he says.

Make that a welder who just happens to have a good head for business, a knack for getting things done and more experience in making ethanol than most engineers have, says Rodney Simms, an ICM contract engineer.

Simms, who works 45 or 50 hours a week for VanderGriend, said one thing that stands out about ICM’s chief executive is his belief in, and loyalty to, the industry.

“I’ve seen him do things that hurt his own company in order to do what was best for the industry as a whole,” Simms said. “We have literally stopped work on our own stuff to help somebody else in the industry. I don’t know many businessmen who would do that.”

VanderGriend does it, he says, because of a deep love for American agriculture and a conviction that ethanol is “the best thing to happen to farmers since the invention of the combine.”

He understands farmers better than many people at the corporate executive level. He’s the third child in a farm family of six children and his father still farms in northern Iowa.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to farm,” he said. “The result is now they don’t need our corn; they can grow their own. We need new markets. This (ethanol) is a big one. And a domestic one. This works for everybody. It reduces our dependence on imports, and it pays our farmers.”

Today’s ethanol plants produce about 4 billion gallons of ethanol a year. That is set to double by 2007 to meet the requirements of the renewable-fuels standard of the energy bill passed this year by Congress.

ICM is the designer or builder of more than 70 percent of the plants under construction in North America. And ICM has about 80 other projects under development around the world.

When VanderGriend first began building ethanol plants in 1979, he said, the industry was running on emotion.

“We were coming off the energy crisis of the 1970s, and everyone was excited about alternative fuel,” he said. “We built a lot of what I call farmyard ethanol plants. Then in 1982, Congress killed the tax breaks and the industry folded. I went broke.”

In 1985, he moved to Wichita, drawn by a job offer to see whether he could revive the High Plains ethanol plant at Colwich, which had been shut down for almost a year.

For 10 years, he worked for High Plains, improving the processing system, perfecting the grain dryers and learning ethanol plants from the ground up.

When High Plains asked for his help in building a huge new plant at York, Neb., VanderGriend hired the engineer he knew best to help: his brother Dennis.

In 1995, David VanderGriend bought the engineering and marketing divisions of High Plains and formed his own private company, ICM, taking 20 High Plains employees with him.

Six years later, High Plains sold its operations to Spanish ethanol manufacturing giant Abengoa, which continues to operate all three former High Plains plants.

Since buying High Plains’ engineering and marketing business, ICM improved the grain drying process and created a process water recycling system, which has helped set the company apart from its competition.

In 2000, ICM built the first of what VanderGriend calls the “new generation” of ethanol plants – the U. S. Energy Partners plant at Russell.

ICM’s research focuses on improving plant efficiency, developing energy systems to burn coal and biomass, creating new feedstocks, including cellulose, and adding value to byproducts.