A Lasting Legacy
Friends and colleagues of Kathy Bryan share stirring memories of her inspirational life and career.
Kathy dedicated more than a quarter century of her life to the ethanol movement. She ran a hands-on production facility on her Minnesota farm in the 1980s, and helped pioneer the avant-garde concept of "a still on every hill." It was on that farm that some of today's ethanol industry veterans first met Kathy.
"Her family had a plant in Minnesota at the same time that my parents had a plant in Minnesota," said Poet CEO Jeff Broin. "She was a true pioneer coming from the early, early days of the industry when the production process was close to non-existent. What she saw in her life was the evolution of the industry, literally from its roots-from having one of the very first ethanol plants that was built-to seeing ethanol become close to 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply."
Long-time industry veteran Larry Johnson, now the North American business developer for Inbicon, remembers those early days in the business. Johnson said Kathy frequently joked about how they first met-with Kathy emerging from a fermentation tank she was cleaning. "She always kidded me about that," he said.
Interestingly, Broin also first met Kathy on her Minnesota farm-cleaning a fermentor. "It was more than 20 years ago when touring her ethanol plant during a college course," Broin said. "She was actually cleaning the inside of a fermentor with iodine. Of course, I had heard of her before that but that's when I met her."
For Johnson it was 1983 when he first met Kathy, bringing a load of damaged corn to her husband Rudiger Graf. "He said he would give me 50 cents a bushel for it," Johnson said. Kathy was taking care of the bookkeeping for the ethanol plant and Johnson said he sat down with her once and started complaining about the price of corn, eventually talking Kathy into writing a check for $35 to join the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
Industry veteran Keith Kor, general manager of Corn Plus, said he remembers Kathy from those old days too, when he managed a small plant in Houston, Minn. "She liked to call her plant the ‘still on the hill,' so I kidded her and told her my plant was the ‘still in the valley,'" Kor said. "She was a strong advocate for the ethanol industry even when ethanol wasn't cool."
Not long after Johnson and Kathy met, she joined him as a director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Because they lived only 30 miles apart, the two would drive to board meetings together. "That's when we would do our strategizing," Johnson said. "She was a great strategist, and she made a point to know every one and know them all by name.
She won over a lot of people." She was named a director for the National Corn Growers Association.
"She was such a natural for dealing in the political world," Johnson said. "At that time, being a woman was different in that arena, also being her normal outlandish self with so much energy. She was always so believable. She was a great asset to policy issues both in Minnesota and nationally."
Johnson recalled many ethanol promotional trips in his six-cylinder "ethanol answer van" with Kathy and others, handing out yellow nickels and key chains, pumping fuel.
Kathy chaired the Minnesota Ethanol Commission for five years in the late 1980s. She spent years lobbying for state and national programs and has been a conduit for sharing information and keeping track of what was once a small group of people. It has been her practice to generate good will and camaraderie across the ethanol industry.
She was also a respected consultant and global ambassador to the biofuels industry. She played an integral role in the planning and facilitation of dozens of ethanol, biodiesel and biomass events around the world over the past two decades.
Kathy's passion and dedication did not go unnoticed over the years. For her tireless work, a "Kathy Bryan Day" was created by former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich in the early days of ethanol, when what became known as the Minnesota Model was under creation.
The Powerful Force with a Welcoming Smile
Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments or legacies Kathy bestowed onto the renewable fuels industries was the turning of a relatively small ethanol event, started by her Gist-brocades colleague Bob Sutthoff, into the industry's "must-attend" annual event-the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo. In 2009, the FEW celebrated its 25th anniversary. Kathy's name has almost become synonymous with this event. Her friends and loved ones say the size of the industry and the growth of the FEW continually amazed Kathy, and she helped develop the FEW into a compass pointing directly to the ethanol industry's future.
"With her enthusiastic flair, Kathy was the cement linking the scientific program with the business side of the FEW," said Mike Ingledew, scientific director of the Ethanol Technology Institute. "Her approach was very successful in attracting the producers, the vendors and the scientific community in all parts of the alcohol process to a meeting that grew and became second to none." Ingledew remembered how Kathy also took great care to organize and integrate students into the annual FEW program with scholarships and her communication with the selected students. "She always looked to the future," he said. "Kathy could never be replaced due to her great love for people and for our industry. We have and will continue to miss her as a person and as a leader in our community." Kathy won the High Octane Award in 2009, which Ingledew called "a small reflection" of what her peers feel about the legacy she leaves behind.
Kathy's powerful presence in the business, combined with her ability to connect and relate to people, made her who she was-a positive force with a welcoming smile. That's how Hosein Shapouri, senior agricultural economist for the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, remembers Kathy. "She believed in expanding the horizon and was a catalyst that energized the people around her, and led to creating an organization that was able to bring together experts from across the world," he said, adding that her departure leaves a personal and professional void in the industry. "She was a great force, and I remember her as a person who combined a sense of humor with intense energy and professionalism in her life and work."
"She had energy-an energy that came from passion and a love of what she was doing," said Rick Handley, principal associate with Rick Handley & Associates. "Attend any one of the many meetings that BBI would host, and it didn't matter what the venue or how busy Kathy would be, she always would take time to stop and chat and say ‘hi' to the people she knew-and it wasn't just a polite ‘hi' but a sincere interest in how you were. You could tell."
Kathy was a true "Matriarch" of her family and the whole ethanol family-"our family," said Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association. "She worked tirelessly but somehow kept a smile handy for others," he said. "She was smart and fortunately her presence raised our collective intelligence. She worked with a divergent group of people yet made all of us feel included. Her time with us, while too short, will benefit us for a long, long time."
Pacific Ethanol CEO Neil Koehler said the FEW has been a focal point of exchange, growth and networking within the industry, which have all been critical components. "She was such a force in this business, but it wasn't just a business for her-it was a mission," Koehler said. "And that spirit, optimism and heart she brought to the industry will be missed."
Kathy's passion for renewable fuels went beyond giving farmers new outlets for their crops, or creating jobs, or boosting the rural economy. Kathy's message was one of hope, changing the world and preserving the environment. Brandt Bensema, director of business development at InterSystems, said, "Because of her belief in the ‘cause' she was able to communicate to others and gain worthwhile followers." Bensema said he was proud to be one of Kathy's many "followers."
"I had never met a woman in the business world like her," Bensema said of their initial encounter. "Although my association with Kathy was mainly through the FEW events, I felt a bond to her and I soon became a ‘follower.' My family also became part of her spirit. My daughter had the unique opportunity to be a tour guide for Kathy during a trip to Japan several years ago. It just so happened that an environmental informational event was taking place in Tokyo that they were able to attend together. Kathy was a friend to many and through that, forged relationships that spanned many years in the industry. I'll miss Kathy's warm smile and the hug I always received when we greeted each other at the FEW."
Truly an international ambassador for the biofuels industries is how Kurt Markam, director of the Agricultural Marketing Services Division of the Minnesota ag department, remembers Kathy. "I enjoyed the cooperation our agency had with Kathy in developing the three symposiums in Beijing," he said. "She had a remarkable networking talent that extends all over Asia." Interestingly, Markham said he never saw Kathy meet a stranger. "Everyone seemed to know her, and be drawn to her energy, enthusiasm and optimism," he said. "In many ways Kathy was the heart of our industry."
The venerable Ron Fagen said Kathy always had a great smile. "When you would see her coming with a smile on her face, it made you smile," Fagen said. "Kathy was a very upbeat and positive person, a great mother and a personal friend. She was a true pioneer in the ethanol industry, and she will surely be missed."
Senior marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Ralph Groschen-who presented and hand delivered the High Octane Award to Kathy less than a month before her passing-said perhaps Kathy's biggest contribution of all was her ability to communicate. "She was so warm," he said. "She befriended people in about three seconds.
She talked to people who were for and violently against ethanol and seemed to be able to get on a level with 99 percent of them. That is an extraordinary talent."
Were it not for the great communication skills Kathy possessed, Groschen said the grassroots ethanol effort in Minnesota and its subsequent aggressive biofuels program would have quite possibly turned out differently. Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, said, "The passion and love that Kathy inspired in others for her fledgling industry led to the creation of the landmark legislation that formed Minnesota's program," a program known around the world, according to Doyal. He added, "Kathy took her passion to a national stage and helped foster the growth of the industry."
Groschen recalled, "It was her ability to walk into an office in a non-threatening manner, conveying that message and doing it very professionally-sometimes with great vigor and other times with just the right amount of finesse. She's a unique soul-she's one in a million, or maybe 10 million."
Proving Herself in a Male-Dominated Business
Kathy was a powerful woman in an industry largely dominated by men. Shirley Ball, chairman of Ethanol Producers and Consumers, recalled her 1987 meeting with Kathy. Ball served on a USDA panel examining the cost effectiveness of ethanol, which met several times over a period of months before issuing a report that put ethanol in a positive light. "Kathy came to every one of those meetings and always had input," Ball said. "I admired her knowledge. She knew everybody and was so aware of the industry, and understood it." Through the years in promoting biofuels, the two industry pioneers often spoke at each others' conferences. "We'll certainly miss her," Ball said. "She was the inspiration behind all the workshops BBI did-she knew all the people."
Another influential woman in the business is Kelly Davis, who is now the director of customer and technical services for Hawkeye Gold. Davis said although she originally met Kathy in the 1980s, it was a decade later in the mid 1990s as Kathy and Mike were starting Bryan & Bryan Inc. (BBI International), when her most important contact with Kathy occurred.
The industry was going through tough times and was actually shrinking. The Energy Independent newsletter, which would later become Ethanol Producer Magazine, had a classified section. "I was thinking about leaving the industry," Davis said. "But Kathy called me up and said that she would post an ad for me in the newsletter if I would consider staying involved with ethanol. Well, I agreed and ended up going to work at the time in Minnesota for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, so Kathy has had a huge impact on me and my career."
As Tom Bryan, BBI vice president of content and communications, puts it, "good enough" was never good enough for Kathy. "As our editor-in-chief [of Ethanol Producer Magazine] Kathy never settled for a story being ‘just OK,'" he said. "She always made sure we got it right. She would stay up late into the night proofing every issue and faxing her meticulous notes back to us. Getting the details right was not an elective thing in Kathy's mind. It was an obligation."
Kathy was also an eternal optimist. Following her passing, Renewable Fuels Association President and Kathy's long time personal friend Bob Dinneen said, "Kathy was the very first person I met in the ethanol industry. She has been a mentor, a confidante and a friend for more than 20 years. I will miss her greatly.
"The thing about Kathy that will always be with me, however, is her indomitable spirit. Kathy was an indefatigable optimist and her confidence that ethanol would succeed was never shaken by misinformed detractors or volatile market conditions. She knew ethanol would prevail because it was the right thing to do for farmers, for the environment and for national security. It is no exaggeration that the U.S. ethanol industry would not be what it is today without Kathy's passion and perseverance."
Sue Conroe, Kathy's longtime executive assistant, echoed Dinneen's sentiments about Kathy's mission to help reinvigorate rural America with value-added operations like ethanol and biodiesel production. "Kathy's generosity and drive reached so many levels but I think what she loved most about the ethanol industry was that it brought good, solid jobs into rural communities across the country."
Lucy Norton, managing director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says, "The word ‘No' was not in Kathy's vocabulary. She was a positive, can-do person. "And although a rare treasure has left us, she still gives us all hope and courage to carry on."
Norton recalled her first meeting with Kathy at an ethanol meeting hosted by the National Corn Growers Association. "Kathy was asked by the meeting chair to give a brief report following the break," Norton remembered. "Kathy smiled, gave a little giggle and said she'd be happy to. So while everyone went for coffee, Kathy stayed behind to make some notes. Through her creativity and humor she came up with an analogy that compared the fledgling ethanol industry to a recently planted tree with young roots. The audience was captivated, hanging on her every word."
While much of Kathy's life work was related to ethanol, her loss will be deeply felt throughout all bioenergy sectors. National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe said, "Kathy was a highly respected leader in the biofuels arena. She was known for hard work, intelligence and spirit. Her pioneering work to launch Biodiesel Magazine has done much to help shape the biodiesel industry. She was strong and kind, always a professional, and always had a smile. She has left a mark on our industry and our memories."
What some people may not know about Kathy is that she is probably one of the industry's best historians-and evidently, by the volume of her life's work, she made history as much as she admired it. She had an invaluable knowledge of the ethanol industry's development and has shared much of what she knows with thousands of people across the world-always spreading the word about ethanol, always doing things for the good of the industry.
She will be missed.
To read Kathy Bryan's obituary, please visit http://biodieselmagazine.com/article.jsp?article_id=3585.