Ethanol Ambassador Down Under

Former Fagen, Inc. executive Bill Wells, now living in Australia, hangs new shingle as CEO of Wells Enterprises International
By | February 01, 2002
55-year-old Bill Wells is today an international consultant living with his family in Sarina, Australia. He has worked in nearly every aspect of the ethanol industry, including marketing and sales, construction management and plant management. He is a member of the Renewable Fuels Association's Technical Subcommittee and a former board member of the American Coalition for Ethanol. He is also a founding member of the Oxygenated Fuels Association.

A single evening in Washington D.C., some 20 years ago during the Reagan administration, changed the way Bill Wells thought about renewable fuels and perhaps, determined the path of his important career in ethanol.

According the story, Boyden Gray, the Vice President's chief counsel at the time, invited Wells to dinner to discuss renewable fuels with a group of associates and staff. Wells was in his mid-30s at the time, and still unused to rubbing shoulders with powerful people in Washington. Maybe it was the nature of the discussion that evening, or the atmosphere in the room, but something was awakened in the young Wells.

"It was a marvelous experience, brilliant conversation, and a little heady for a boy from Goose Creek," Wells remembers. "There was a point when Boyden came around the table and individually served us fish from a pan onto our plates. At some point that night I realized two things: that public policy would drive the success or failure of alcohol fuels, and that I wanted to find my niche and be part of the good fight."

Texas Education
Wells is a Texan if anything; his parents were both from Baytown, Texas, the closest thing he had to a hometown growing up with a father in the Air Force, he said. The family lived in Idaho, Texas, Mississippi and Colorado before Wells was a teenager. When his father finally retired from the military, the family moved back to Baytown, where Bill attended junior high and high school.

"Going to high school in Baytown was a blessing because of the presence of Esso Research and Engineering at what is now the world's largest gasoline refinery," Wells said.

But it was not until he took chemistry, first in high school, and later at a local junior college, that Wells was convinced a career in chemistry was right for him.

Professor & military officer
In his early 20s, Wells attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a paid teaching assistant. (He eventually earned a Ph.D in Chemistry). "All the male grad students were disappearing in the (Vietnam) draft. As a regular TA, I could take classes, but the second year they promoted me to a teaching associate position, where I was a real teacher," he recalled.

Wells stayed on until the end of the year, then joined the army, enlisting into the Officers Candidate School. Infantry Officers Candidate School seemed at the time to be the hardest and most life-changing event Wells had ever experienced. He graduated very high in his class and was proud of his new achievement, even though he was apprehensive about his future, he said.

"Believe me, there is no motivation greater for learning a craft than the fear that poor performance in the future will lead to your death and the deaths of the men in your command."

As it was, Wells became a Rifle Platoon Leader in Panama, and while fully combat ready and "armed to the teeth," there was no action while he was there.

"All the fireworks came before and after my time," he said. "My greatest lessons there were from dealing with people and learning from them, especially the many decorated Viet Nam veterans in my platoon. Gaining their respect meant as much to me as anything else I have accomplished. Between the experiences in OCS and Panama, I can say that leadership and handling adversity under stressful conditions were the two greatest assets I picked up."

After three years, Wells returned to UT, where he was awarded a Robert A. Welch fellowship and finished his education. Interestingly, he said, his primary professor was George W. Watt, the Plutonium Recovery Group Leader on the Manhattan project.

Oxygenated fuels start

Wells started in the lab at Celanese Chemical Company (Dallas) and moved into field sales within three years, "exactly as Professor Watt predicted," he said.

"I wanted to see what was going on with the chemicals we were making." Celanese sold 41 different oxygenated chemicals, most made from natural gas as a raw material, some from butane. During his last three years with Celanese Chemical Company, Wells focused on methanol as part of a "fledgling" fuel methanol development unit.

"It was in this time that I became enmeshed in public policy aspects of alternative fuels and knew I was hooked," he recalls. "As I became aware of ethanol for fuel, I became intrigued with this product that the rest of my colleagues considered the "enemy". . . I was backing the wrong horse in this fight, and when an opportunity came to move into the ethanol camp, I took it."

Ethanol career begins
Wells had been involved with ethanol extensively since 1985, at Chemical Fuels Corporation and affiliate American Eagle Fuels, in Atlanta, where he did ETBE work and once briefed former President Bush.

He became president & director of marketing at Murex (Dallas) in 1990, and helped the company begin marketing ethanol in addition to MTBE. Today, ethanol marketing is among Murex's primary businesses.

Wells made another change in 1992, taking a job with Heartland Grain Fuels, in Aberdeen, S.D. "I deliberately looked for a GM job in the manufacturing side of ethanol," he said. He came on six months before construction was finished, helped the Farmland project manager get the job done, hired all the employees, started up the plant and set all the procedures in place.

"Back then, there was no networking possible among other co-op plants, we were pretty much on our own.," he remembers. "We stabilized production, made some improvements and got production up 25% in two years, and I left as they were in the midst of a highly profitable year. I was very involved in the local community as I never have been before or since, and I really loved that aspect. (He even performed a bit of stand-up comedy at a local night club on occasion. . . I bet you didn't know that).

Selling & building
In 1994, Bill moved to Delta-T Corporation, as vice president of marketing, just as the "Minnesota Model" was taking shape.
"I was in Minnesota for five months while we finished construction and started up the Winnebago (Corn Plus) plant, and then we moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Not too long thereafter, we did the Benson (Minn.) plant."

With Delta-T, Wells traveled the country selling the company's plant technology and he got to know many farmer groups as the modern method of plant ownership evolved, he said. He also traveled to South America and Asia, and so widened his contacts and perspective on ethanol even further.

"I took my first of three trips to Asia for the U.S. Grains Council with Mike Bryan during this period, I guess we were sort of Ethanol Ambassadors for America in Taiwan on that trip. It was an experience Mike and I will never forget."

The Fagen Inc. years
In 1998, Wells became Fagen Inc.'s VP of Industrial Development, a position he would stay at until he departed for Australia.

"The lure of the Midwest ethanol industry is strong, and once again I came back, this time from Virginia to Minnesota, right in middle of the biggest expansion our industry had seen to that time. I had never worked for a construction company before, but their reputation was sterling and they were playing in fertile ground. I mostly did what I like to do best, working with farmer groups who organized to build ethanol plants. I took great pride in working for a company where, when I made a promise to the farmers, Fagen could and did deliver," Wells said, adding, "Ron Fagen has done things for so many of these groups that has gone far beyond business, he has stuck his neck out, and put his company on the line, to share in their dreams and help them get into business, and it has never backfired. The people there had excellent instincts for what was a good project and the will to push it over the line. The resources were there to get the job done, and as I left we had projects ongoing and stacked up in line as this new wave of plant building broke. I guess you could say I left on the crest of a wave of plant building, and Fagen got an excellent share of that business. I am proud to have been a part of that effort."

New beginning Down Under
Wells said he moved to Australia, in part, because his wife Robyn Wells (a New Zealand citizen) is managing the largest ethanol plant in Australia, the CSR Distillery in Sarina. He is also excited about all the current ethanol developments in Australia.

"As part of my new business, Wells Enterprises International, I am working with a firm wishing to enter the fuel ethanol business, but who needs help countering resistance from oil companies and some negative public sentiment. Sounds familiar? All the same things being said that we had to counter all those years ago (in the U.S.), but now we are armed with so much more good information."

Wells took off his first three months in Australia to manage the house and kids, and to get acclimated to the culture and climate, he said.

"We have cockatoos and fruit bats in our yard trees, and some of the most beautiful beaches you have ever seen 10 miles from our house," he explains. "I miss some things about the U.S., especially my friends, relatives, and cold weather at Christmas, but not so that it really bothers me. I am really excited about our lifestyle and prospects for my business."

On the industry's future
"I believe that U.S. fuel ethanol will continue to grow very strongly, as it has in the past; that is, in a series of "grow and plateau" cycles as events occur that drive new demand. I am unaware of any industry that has grown as sharply as ethanol has in the past two decades, especially in the Midwest," Wells explained. "Because of the size of the U.S. gasoline market, there is still great room for further ethanol expansion. The reasons this growth may not be as fast as some would like are various, but they all center around MTBE and related ethers.

"It looks to me that fuel ethers are not dying quietly, and maybe that is as it should be."

As for technology, Wells said he thinks the industry will move toward gasification-reforming-Fischer Tropsch synthesis.

"This does not mean that corn kernels, as they are used today, will fall out of favor. It is my opinion that that is the perfect biomass for ethanol feedstock, primarily because of the excellent logistics network that has been developed in terms of harvest, storage and transportation. It is my opinion that corn is indeed the bridge to biomass, but the surprise is that the most successful form of biomass will be corn itself," he said. n