2.14.2017 | printed in the Fall 2016 issue of VITAL magazine
Broin Companies had already attained in 2007 what had seemed impossible two decades prior – they had grown from producing a mere 1 million gallons of ethanol per year, to a grand total of 1 billion gallons.
By implementing great people and embracing the right kinds of change at the right time, the company continually widened the competitive gap in the biorefining industry. At the same time, the oil industry started to take the ethanol industry more seriously and view ethanol as a threat to their own industry.
Through many changes over the years, Broin Companies paved the way as leaders in biorefining. While the Broin name served well during the first 20 years, it was now time for a new name. The time had come to retire the name from service and enter into a new era. The time had come for a fresh identity to unify all the companies and teams under one united brand.
In March 2007, team members in Sioux Falls had been buzzing for weeks with rumors of a big change, with no idea as to what the change may be. Founder and CEO Jeff Broin invited employees and their spouses to an evening at the Washington Pavilion for what was soon to be one of the greatest announcements to date.
Antje Skiff, a Broin mechanical engineer, remembers “being pretty excited going into it. There was a lot of speculation going on at the time, a lot of anticipation.”
On the evening of March 29, 2007, from behind an illuminated green podium, Broin took the stage and talked about the company’s ability to successfully adapt and accept change.
“We chose to lead. We chose to embrace the right changes at the right times,” said Broin. “Through these changes, we must lead. And we will lead – and to do so, we must welcome change. Tonight, we’re making a big change. Friends, tonight, we are changing our name.”
Changing the name of a 20-year old company certainly wasn’t an easy task, and one Broin took seriously. “We’ve been working on this change for about a year, and it’s been difficult, because when we decided to unify our brands and change our name, we knew we couldn’t have just any name,” said Broin.
He went on to list examples of other companies who chose a name entirely unrelated to their industry that are now great leaders. He named companies such as Apple and Yahoo, and the memorable pace that was set when they elected to identify themselves in an entirely different way than expected.
Broin explained that the companies needed to be unified because of the challenges that were ahead and the company’s unique ability to meet those challenges. “We need to move into new technologies, like cellulosic ethanol. And who’s there blazing the path? We are.”
He continued, “I’d like to remind you of a great challenge laid out to our nation only a few decades ago. A challenge that, at the time, seemed impossible.”
A large video screen overhead then projected black and white film of President John Kennedy in 1962. He declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard. Because that challenge is one we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…and one we intend to win.”
The next clip was of a rocket blazing for takeoff. “T-minus 15 seconds…12, 11, 10…ignition sequence start…3, 2, 1, 0… Liftoff! Liftoff on Apollo 11!”
Then the screen changed to the first moon landing on July 20, 1969 and a man’s voice, “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The spotlight shifted back to the podium and Jeff stated, “I’d like to introduce you to someone who knows about challenge. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome,” he paused, “Mr. Neil Armstrong.”
An audible gasp rippled through the crowd as a silver-haired man made his way onstage to take Jeff’s place behind the green glow – Neil Armstrong himself. At the sight of him, everyone jumped to their feet in an immediate standing ovation.
Armstrong spoke of his paralleled history of fuel evolution for a much different means of transportation – rockets. This knowledge grew as he did from model airplanes powered by alcohol as a teenager, to full-sized planes as a pilot, to the eventual invention and operation of liquid rockets. The 20th century was filled with unimaginable scientific and technical progress, highlighted with breakthroughs such as the splitting of the atom, the development of the computer and the exploration of space.
“And the remarkable thing about all these developments is that they were not predicted,” Armstrong stated. “Good ideas are the result of human curiosity and a creative mind, and endless trial and error. A very well respected and pragmatic President Calvin Coolidge once said, ‘Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Genius will not. Perseverance and determination are omnipotent.’”
Armstrong recounted the extraordinary history of the Space Race era between the 1950s and 1960s. After experiencing success with initial launches, both Soviets and Americans became obsessed with getting a man into space, but flying to the moon required enormous advancements in flight science in a very short amount of time.
“The entire Apollo team was inspired. They were motivated to succeed. The moon was the challenge of history, and now we all face another challenge,” Armstrong said.
He referenced Broin’s opening remarks about the energy crisis surrounding the United States, with particular emphasis on the deemed sevenfold increase in the nation’s production of ethanol. This included the need to unlock power of cellulosic ethanol, to achieve commercial production and pioneer the next generation of renewable fuels.
“This is the spice that makes life worth living. Conquering adversity is mandatory for success. There is little satisfaction in completing easy goals…Accept those problems. Accept those opportunities,” Armstrong continued. He empowered the crowd by stating like Apollo, they had a national goal. Like Apollo, they had a very tough challenge. Like Apollo, they had skills and determination.
“But, do you have the PERSEVERANCE?” Armstrong gripped each side of the podium and leaned in as he emphasized each word. “CAN YOU DO IT?”
The audience responded with a vibrant round of applause.
“Alright! Go to it then!” Armstrong concluded, which earned him another standing ovation as he thanked everyone and exited the stage.
“If you want to get a bunch of scientists and engineers on board with anything, that’s the perfect way to do it,” Skiff says of Armstrong’s presence. “It was a special moment. It filled you with pride and hope for the future.”
In the midst of the charged atmosphere, Broin returned to introduce what everyone had been eagerly waiting for. “I think now is the perfect time to tell you what our new name is. It’s a name that represents who we are, one that honors the creativity and wonder you deliver to the world every day. My friends, we are now POET.”
This was followed by the third and final standing ovation of the night.
WHERE POET BEGAN
The time for a distinction began the previous year when Broin acquired the interests of his family in the businesses they had built over the previous two decades. Within a few months, the decision was made to bring all the companies under one unified name, one that was no longer driven by the Broin name, one that would add tremendous value moving forward. The company had always put the focus on their people, a team of highly trained and highly motivated professionals poised to change the world.
“One of the strengths of our culture is the steadfast belief that we’re strongest when we leave our egos at the door,” Broin stated during his speech. “That being said, I think it’s the perfect time for me to take my name off the door.”
A vertically integrated model throughout multiple entities – spanning design and construction, management, production, marketing and research – differentiated the Broin companies from day one. They had their hands in the entire process and managed it every step of the way. They were, and remain to be, the only company of their kind in the industry. The unification of all the businesses would give the company as a whole world-class technology, market leverage, advanced competitive advantage and stronger brand and political recognition on a national and global scale.
Thus began the process of discovering the perfect name.
Breukelman Kubista Group (BKG), a Sioux Falls marketing firm that worked with rebranding a number of companies, was tasked with the responsibility of determining that new name. Greg Breukelman, a BKG partner at the time, carried an interesting perspective on the process, since at the time, Breukelman was unaware he would later become part of the Broin team. Initially, BKG came highly recommended to Broin through Jeff Lautt, now POET President and COO, who worked with the firm back when he was president of a fire truck production company that was transformed through their efforts.
“The first meeting felt like a complete failure,” Breukelman remembers. “When we left, we thought they didn’t like any of the names we showed them.” Surprisingly enough, POET was the least favorite name suggestion and not selected. What many don’t know is that when POET was originally presented, the name was accompanied by the same logo that remains unchanged to
As the months went on and the process continued, POET was the name that continually stuck in everyone’s minds. As those involved pitched various name ideas to team members, friends and family, they realized POET stood out, and the more they talked about it, the more comfortable they became. Intuitively, it would seem the proper way to name a company is to describe what the company does. A better approach, according to Breukelman, is to find a name that evokes the sense of emotion a company wants to convey.
“The more I worked with this organization, the more I felt a strong passion, belief and higher purpose for what they were doing,” recalls Breukelman. “Even though there was a lot of science involved, it seemed like there was an art to it.”
So why POET? How does it relate to ethanol?
Breukelman and his team explained that the name itself was evocative and short. It stirred emotion in people and caused them to think deeper into the meaning. At the 11th hour during the final stages of the selection process, Broin recalls the name standing out as the boldest choice and the most abstract, while still maintaining the most relevance. And just as a poet takes simple, everyday words and gives them a new meaning, POET takes goods and natural resources and makes them valuable by using the creativity that comes from common sense to leave the Earth better than it was found.
“Really good marketing makes people feel a little uncomfortable at first,” states Breukelman. “Although it took a lot of time, money and effort through the discovery process, it took more guts to pick the name than to come up with it.”
With the right name selection, he predicted within six months, people wouldn’t remember it was ever anything else.
MAKING POET A REALITY
Once the name was chosen and agreed upon, the team moved ahead to plan the name change event. It was about this time in early 2007 when Breukelman sold his portion of BKG to join the business he had gotten to know so well, which meant he would be part of seeing the entire transition through. Even in initial planning stages, it became clear it was important to end the old and embrace the new identity, and to make the change a definitive one felt throughout the company.
“One thing about Jeff, when he decides on something, that’s his decision and there’s no looking back,” says Breukelman.
This led to the question of the best way to leave the strongest impact and truly make it a night to remember, while also keeping everything about the launch a complete secret. When selecting a keynote speaker, they tried to find a true American icon – a hero.
Neil Armstrong was the perfect man for the job. He rarely took speaking engagements, but recognized the correlation between what the company wanted to do and what he had done, so he accepted the task.
Breukelman and Broin also put together a presentation to convince all 26 plant boards to convert their names to POET at the annual Board Summit. With a sense of pride and wonder still in his voice, Broin recalls how 23 of the 26 boards agreed in writing to the new name at that meeting. The other three accepted within the next couple weeks.
“I really applaud the plant boards’ vision and foresight of where we were headed as an industry,” Breukelman recalls with a similar sense of awe.
Additional division names were created, including POET Ethanol Products, POET Nutrition, POET Design & Construction, among others.
Kelly Kjelden has been General Manager of the James Valley ethanol plant in Groton, SD since its opening in 2003. Like the directors and employees at all Broin locations, the team members at James Valley were invested in a name that was personal to them, according to Kjelden.
Following the evening at the Washington Pavilion, all the plants became POET Biorefining, plus the name of the location they represent.
Within weeks, Broin and Breukelman traveled to all 26 ethanol plants to introduce the new name, greet team members and answer their questions.
“You don’t see the CEO of a company this size talking one-on-one with team members,” says Kjelden. “It really helped the person making ethanol in the control room with the ‘why’ behind it and understand where it was going to take us.” Broin emphasized the name would grow on them, and Kjelden remembers coming away from the gathering with a renewed sense of passion.
“It really made people realize we were working for the right company, a company that would look under every rock for improved technology.”
As Broin announced the new name POET, the curtains behind him lifted to reveal an entire stage filled with tables piled high with food and drinks. In the center of each table was a colored Styrofoam POET leaf. Two-story high banners with the name POET hung from the ceiling, and there was even an ice sculpture carved to spell out the new name. Everyone in the audience was invited to join in the celebration and a celebration it was!
Armstrong even stuck around for a couple hours afterward, which was not typical of him. According to Broin, when he asked Armstrong why he stayed, his response was, “Your people are genuine. They truly cared about what I had to say and listened to my responses when they asked questions.” Put simply, the newly named POET team members inspired Armstrong.
As everyone left that evening, they received a duffle bag full of POET-branded items. When team members arrived at work the next morning, the logo behind the front desk had already been changed. In addition, all the old business cards on every single desk were replaced with POET cards, the mouse pads were all traded out for new POET ones and the screen savers switched to a newly branded POET background.
Within a couple days, the signs at all locations were replaced, along with newly-branded billboards all over town and a big announcement in the newspaper. It was literally an overnight change, all orchestrated by Breukelman and his team.
Since it was introduced, POET has become more than a name.
“It works. It’s who we are, and when you tell somebody who you work for, they automatically know who that is – especially in agriculture,” Kjelden reflects.
It is a name that has served the company extremely well over the past decade, and it will only continue to do so. With all 30 companies in the organization joining together to form a common identity, POET has become a force in the marketplace and a brand to reckon with.
“Always keep in mind where we’ve been,” says Broin. “It is important to remember the thought, time and process that went into a name that, today, is commonplace – something we don’t think about. Without POET, there’s no way we would be where we are today.”
Other Stories in this collection:
The History of POET: A New Name for a New Era
by Peter Harriman and Alyssa Broin