Kelly Davis is impassioned about ethanol

CVEC Quality Manager has worked in ethanol production for 19 year
By Tom Bryan | July 01, 2002
Kelly Davis has been involved with the grain processing industry in ethanol production for the past 19 years. Prior to joining Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company (CVEC) in Benson, Minn., she worked at the 65 mmgy South Point Ethanol plant in southern Ohio. Before converting to ethanol fuels she held various lab tech positions in the petrochemical industry with Ashland Oil Inc. Kelly worked 13 years for Ashland at the South Point Ethanol plant as the Lab Supervisor. She has also been chairperson of the research committee of the trade association Distillers Feed Research Council and currently enjoys working with the expanded uses team of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. As Quality Manager of CVEC she is responsible for assuring valid data from the lab operations and quality of products as well as duties in safety and environmental compliance. Kelly grew up in Huntington, West Virginia and graduated from Marshall University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, with minors in Math and Physics. She is married and raising two sons. The family resides in Starbuck, Minn.

Considering how Kelly Davis ended up at Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, it's fitting that she has once again landed in the pages of our publication.

In 1996, after Ashland Oil Inc. closed South Point Ethanol in Ohio, where Kelly had been a longtime lab supervisor, she reluctantly considered leaving the ethanol industry and returning to petrochemicals. It was a difficult decision, to say the least. After 13 years in the ethanol busin
ess, Kelly was torn between an industry she revered, and a respected company she had been with since college.

"I was a young chemist who had become very fond of the ethanol industry. That's what ethanol does to people," Kelly said. "It's natural to have a lot of passion and enthusiasm for this business."

Kelly said it was BBI International's Kathy Bryan who encouraged her to stay with ethanol for the long haul. Courageously, Kelly agreed.

"Kathy encouraged me to place a classified ad in the Energy Independent newsletter (now Ethanol Producer Magazine)," Kelly said. "I was one of the first classified ads in the publication, and it helped me stay in ethanol."

Kelly landed a job at CVEC as a lab supervisor (operator). During those early days in Benson, she worked under veteran ethanol industry chemist Jim Reynolds, someone she today considers a career mentor.

Today, as Quality Manager at CVEC, Kelly has a diverse set of responsibilities. In addition to overseeing lab operations and product quality, she also administers safety and environmental compliance at the plant, which is currently undergoing an expansion to double capacity from 20 mmgy to 40 mmgy.

Kelly considers herself a "technical trouble-shooter" with "analytical roots."

"I am expected to be a technical information resource at CVEC," she said. "And that allows me to take part in the research and technical world. I end up wearing a lot of hats."

Kelly has also been chairperson of the research committee of the trade association Distillers Feed Research Council and works with the expanded uses team of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

"I think I have really become a liaison between the politics and technical aspects of ethanol production," she said. "Any one of these things can encompass my thoughts on any given day."

The career she wanted?
"I don't think that I could be doing more for America right now. I have made some big moves for someone who wasn't going to leave her hometown," Kelly said. "I'm a city girl who thought corn was grown at the Chicago Board of Trade.

"I always thought I'd be a scientist, and I am," she said. "But my career is an enhanced version of what I thought It would be. It's a mix of science, politics and the art of making ethanol, and I really enjoy it. Ethanol production is not like other chemical manufacturing processes: it's not one-plus-one-equals-two all the time. It's not that simple because you're dealing with living micro-organisms. It keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.

"I have always been a person who liked to get out of the lab. I have a strong background in DDGS - and I'm really tied to it now. Through distillers grains research and marketing efforts, I have met many of the people that I know today in the industry."

Her vision for the industry
Kelly said she believes the ethanol industry will continue to grow on the back of rural economic development issues. And that is something she is impassioned about.

"I want to see the industry grow with farmer-owned groups, rather than corporate growth and consolidation," she said. "The little guy does not have that big corporate voice. And I enjoy helping them find a louder voice. . . I want to see the ethanol industry grow, but I don't want to see the industry become three huge ethanol producers."

During her 19 years in ethanol production, Kelly has seen the industry grow from 350 million gallons a year, to more than 2 billion gallons a year.

"I think it will grow at an even faster rate in the near future," she said. "But the growth will come in conjunction with marketing the product to the consumer and develop the rural economy at the same time. I also think cellulose to ethanol will take place on a commercial scale if enough money is thrown at it. Corn is king, but things will eventually change. Corn plants will need to be flexible.

"The cellulose plants will be strategically located, and the corn plants will be located where there is corn - they will locate away from each other - it's really all too easy.