From construction to production, Richard Hanson has built an interesting ethanol career

By Tom Bryan | September 01, 2002
After 20 years in corn processing, including 13 years in the ethanol business, Richard Hanson is a professional at the top of his game.

Today, Hanson is plant manager at Badger State Ethanol, LLC, a 40 mmgy ethanol plant recently unveiled in Monroe, Wis. (see full story about Badger State Ethanol on page 7). After 10 months in Monroe, working for ICM, Inc. on the plant's construction design and startup with ethanol plant builder Fagen Inc, Richard smoothly transitioned back into the operations side of ethanol production in August.

Hanson told Ethanol Producer Magazine "the ethanol industry will take you somewhere if you let it," and his career is proof of those encouraging words. The veteran plant manager has worked in nearly every type of ethanol production facility in the U.S., including wet-milling, dry-milling, small and large ethanol plants in both urban and rural areas, and in facilities relying on a wide array of process technologies and management styles.

Hanson's career has taken him all over the Midwest - from Nebraska to Wisconsin and everywhere in between - but it all began near his hometown of Montevideo, Minn., where he spent 11 summers of his youth working on a family farm.

"That's where the corn bug bit me," he said. "I was a town kid who worked and grew up on a farm in the summers."

Those summers on the family farm directed Hanson toward a career in ag-processing, which began at the Minnesota Corn Processors (MCP) corn wet-milling plant in Marshall, Minn., in 1983.

Just 20 years old when he joined MCP, Hanson quickly rose to the level of operator (one of four original ethanol plant operators at MCP) when the facility began producing ethanol in 1989. He stayed at the Marshall plant through 1992, during which time he played an important role in helping the plant through three expansions.

That year, MCP moved Hanson to Columbus, Neb., to help facilitate the design and construction of the company's new wet-mill at that location. Much like his dual roles at Badger State Ethanol, Hanson moved into operations at MCP's Columbus plant when the construction was finished. He remained at the faciltiy, under the title of Ethanol Coordinator/Ethanol Area Manager until May of 1994.

That spring, Richard took advantage of an opportunity to work on a project in York, Neb., where the unique High Plains (Abengoa) plant was being assembled. After about a year at the York plant, Hanson and others were suddenly looking elswhere for work when high corn prices temporarily shut down the plant in for about six months in 1995.

"So I went to work for Ron Fagen (Fagen, Inc., of Granite Falls, Minn.)," Hanson recalls.

With Fagen, Hanson was stationed for about six months in Whapeton, N.D., where he consulted the builders and helped coordinate Fagen's role in the construction (mostly electrical work) of the ProGold corn processing plant (not an ethanol faciltiy).

"By 1997, I had really gotten away from production and had become a part of the construction side (of the ag-processing industry)," Hanson said.

The ethanol plant construction business was picking up and Hanson stayed with Fagen during the construction of the Broin-managed Agri-Energy, in Luverne, Minn., where he helped oversee certain aspects of construction and also handled warehouse purchasing. It was rewarding work but in 1998, Hanson said, he was ready to return to the production side of ethanol.

After working as an operations manager for Broin & Associates at Agri-Energy for about 18 months, Hanson made another move in 2000, relocating to St. Paul, Minn., to work at the "nation's first urban ethanol plant," Gopher State Ethanol. Hanson came on board - again as plant manager - about six months into the construction (retrofit) of the plant at the old St. Paul brewery.

The challenges encountered at Gopher State, of course, have been well-documented by the media, and Hanson was there during some of the most difficult times. Still, he says, he has nothing negative to say about his time in St. Paul.

"What happened at Gopher State has changed the industry," he said. "The industry operates differently today because of what that plant has been through. Think about, for example, the popularity of thermal oxidizers that resulted after Gopher State had to install one. . . That facility changed the industry, and to some degree, I think we have changed for the better."

Hanson remained at Gopher State just shy of two years, departing less than a year ago for the job at Badger State.

His reason for leaving was simple: "I really just wanted to get back to a larger facility," he said.

His industry forcast
"I think as an industry, we are hitting a growth phase again. The 90s growth phase died off. Now we are talking about doubling and tippling the size of produiction, Hanson said. "I really can't predict where this is headed but I have a very good feeling about the industry today."

Are all ethanol production plants too strong to fade away?

"It depends on the technology that a plant uses," he said. "The most technologically advanced, energy efficient plants will survive and do very well because they can weather out higher corn prices (like today's prices).

Industry changed, people stayed the same
The ethanol industry, on the whole, is a tight knit familiy. You attend industry gatherings like the Fuel Ethanol Workshop (& Tradeshow) and you see old friends and catch up on what everyone is up to these days," he said. "It's always been different from other industries. Of course, things are changing - we are getting bigger as an industry, but I think that family atmosphere will remain with us for a long time yet."

His advice for young operators that may follow Richard's path. . .
Hang-on, stick with it, because if you enjoy the work, it can be the ride of a lifetime - the industry is growing by leaps and bounds . This industry will take you somewhere if you let it."