POET Design and Construction leverages expertise to external clients
Many people know POET as the largest biofuel producer in the world.
What many people don’t know is that much of the company’s early success through the 1990s was as a design and construction firm, building bioethanol plants for companies who saw the Broins turn a mothballed building into a profitable enterprise in Scotland, South Dakota.
That early expertise has been developed over the years into today’s POET Design and Construction (PDC), the arm of POET that has built its entire network of 28 facilities across the Midwest.
And now for the second time, they’re setting their sights outside POET’s walls, making their army of engineers and project managers available to external clients. With an expanded focus, POET Design and Construction took on six outside projects in 2020 and is looking to grow in 2021 and beyond.
A Drive for Efficiency, Growth
There were two reasons PDC expanded its focus last year, says Rod Pierson, Senior Vice President of PDC.
The first has to do with managing the ebb and flow of engineering and construction work. With only one customer – POET – there were times when work slowed down. They knew they had the bandwidth to branch out.
“It happens in any company in the construction industry,” Pierson says. “There’s up and down times. On the down times we weren’t busy, so it was ‘What can we do to fill those down times with external work?’”
The second reason is growth. POET seeks opportunities to grow its existing business and branch out into areas that make sense. This was a clear opportunity.
“We’ve got a very experienced, talented workforce here that could do more, and so the real objective is to take advantage of that,” Pierson says. “The main thing is this opportunity to grow, to utilize this experience to become more.”
Unlike the 1990s, POET Design and Construction does not build bioethanol bioprocessing facilities for external clients, nor will they work on commercial construction or assembly manufacturing. Instead, they are focused on industrial production and projects such as loading and transport, cereal grain processing, sustainability and efficiency.
Pierson says their clients must fit POET’s mission in being a “friend to the environment.” Along those lines, environmental work is one area in which PDC excels.
“We’re trying to identify opportunities to do combined heat and power projects or water conservation, those are things that we have experience with and can help others with,” Pierson says.
A key part of the value proposition PDC provides is what Director of Project Management Ron Steffen calls “one-roof continuity.” They have engineers and project experts in multiple disciplines working together under one roof.
“If our project manager needs to go talk to the structural engineer or the structural engineer needs to collaborate with somebody in mechanical, they can do that in the same building,” he says.
That efficiency reaps rewards throughout the process.
“There’s a lot of continuity to design, which translates over to the construction site, limiting change orders, eliminating collisions in the field, things like that,” he says. “That’s a huge benefit I don’t think many people understand.”
“It speeds things up,” he says. “So if people want to get in the ground, if they have a deadline, if they have investor pressure, or if they have economic pressure due to the calendar year. Speed to design, speed to shovel-ready is something we’re really good at.”
Adam Hass, PDC’s Director of Engineering, says they have many advantages entering the marketplace. Most companies starting out don’t have the breadth of services PDC has at its disposal, he says. In addition, PDC has the advantages of a large company, but it operates with the efficiency of a smaller firm.
“We’re big, and we’ve got a lot of people, but we’re not so big that we’ve got a lot of segregation of our duties and engineers,” Hass says. “I think our customers to date have been really appreciative of the fact that we’ll have, for instance, weekly phone calls where we have the whole project team on the phone with the customer going through design. That’s unique in itself.”
New Challenges are Nothing New
The PDC team is used to new challenges. They’re used to tough timelines. They’re experts in creative and efficient solutions to capture new opportunities.
One such opportunity last year within the POET network was producing alcohol for hand sanitizers. The COVID crisis created new, immediate demand for a product that POET was well-positioned to provide.
However, fuel-grade bioethanol is not the same as the purified bioethanol used to make hand sanitizer. The PDC team had to engineer a process while every day that passed meant another missed opportunity to capture consumer demand.
Pierson said they had investigated purified alcohol in the past, and that knowledge helped them move quickly. “When COVID came along and the need came along, we were able to use the base knowledge we had of what the process for purified alcohol looks like to come up with a way to retrofit our current facilities,” he says. “At the same time, we decided to move forward with the full-scale purified alcohol projects and had to move quickly to try to get in front of everybody else to build them.”
Steffen said they put together a plan with an 11-month timeframe to completion. That wasn’t fast enough, so they reworked the designs and shaved off three months.
He’s proud of what they accomplished.
“It’s been incredibly fast, and it looks great,” he says. “The team just worked incredibly efficiently to get this done.”
The industrial alcohol facility in Leipsic, Ohio, is opening soon, with another in Alexandria, Indiana scheduled for startup in May.
Dunning Express, headquartered in Elwood, Kansas, provides transloading for bulk solids and liquids. They reached out last year to PDC for help designing a new rail transloading/servicing facility in St. Joseph, Missouri on the site of an old city waterworks plant.
Owner and President Mike Dunning said PDCs experience with biofuel facilities, which includes traffic flow, loading and storage among other things, made them an ideal company to tackle the project.
He took some of the PDC members on a visit in August to look at the site, which included “old basins and weird old buildings.”
“A lot of people would have turned around and run when they first saw the site,” Dunning said. “When we went down there and I explained what I wanted to do, they got it. They understood.”
PDC’s experience is their biggest advantage, says Todd Gee, Operations Manager for Dunning Express.
“They have knowledge of the process and overall layout,” he says. “Obviously they’re pulling from how many plants they’ve built and pieces of those plants that they like or don’t like as far as the flow of the facility. They have direct experience.”
Traffic flow is an important area that can often be overlooked, Dunning says.
“It kind of comes in waves, and if you’ve got a big wave, you’ve got to have a place to put the trucks, and you need to have a plan to get them processed through there in a hurry,” he says.
“There was definitely a direct experience there that anybody else we could’ve hired probably wouldn’t have had,” Gee says.
Steffen at PDC says Dunning Express knew how to leverage that experience to their benefit.
“They really leaned on us hard for ideas and thoughts,” he says. “‘Here’s what we want to do, how would you guys do this?’ I think that’s a really insightful question.”
Benefits to POET’s Team
PDC offers a breadth of experience to external clients. But the variety of work is also adding new experience to POET’s own team.
Hass said that’s a win for POET and a win for the team members’ own professional development.
“We’ve been pushed into lots of new technology areas,” he says. “On the one hand that’s great for POET. It’s also just really great for our engineers. They love jumping into something new and learning about it, so it helps with motivation and stokes the fire a little bit.”
Hass said the work has been useful for POET in assessing its own competency. They knew they had a strong team at PDC, but unless you go after contracts in the wider market, you don’t really know how competitive you are.
They’ve discovered that not only are they competitive, they have distinct advantages in competing against companies that often don’t have access to the breadth of experience at PDC.
“As we learned more, it became apparent that we have a lot to offer in this space,” Hass says.
More to Come
The group is poised for new growth. Despite the challenges in marketing a new business during COVID quarantines, they now have a solid year to build on. PDC is adding a business development position to increase marketing efforts in 2021, and they have met with a number of potential clients for future work.
The transition to working on external projects has been a learning experience, but they’ve been able to take these new challenges in stride.
Steffen is not surprised.
“We’re somewhat new to external work,” he said. “But we’re not new to work.”