Windfall

David and Jan Blittersdorf, owners of NRG Systems, sell wind-measuring equipment all over the world, but have a special interest in Vermont.

by Sean Toussaint

David and Jan Blittersdorf, owners of NRG Systems, sell wind-measuring equipment all over the world, but have a special interest in Vermont

David Blittersdorf was a senior at UVM in 1979 when he registered the business name NRG Systems Inc. with Vermont's secretary of state. ( NRG is a license-plate spelling of the word energy). This act wasn't just an excess of youthful confidence; the undergraduate had already designed and built a wind turbine that was operating on the UVM campus. Today, Blittersdorf and his wife, Jan, head a 20-year-old company that makes and sells wind energy assessment equipment with sales of more than $11 million last year.

Blittersdorf says he had been enthralled with wind as a child growing up in Pittsford, and developed an interest in alternative energy sources and particularly wind energy during the Arab oil embargo of the early '70s. When he started college, he was already considering a career in wind energy.

At UVM Blittersdorf encountered Charlie Farreira, a professor in the department of community relations and applied economics, who shared his interest in turbines and renewable energy. Farreira not only introduced the student to a number of contacts who knew about the technology, but also gave him access to a UVM lab where he could work on building his turbine.

"David was the kind of person who, if it doesn't come out right the first time, keeps doing it," Farreira says. "A lot of kids get discouraged if they don't get it, but David kept at it. If he didn't know the math, he learned the math. If he didn't know how to fiberglass, he learned how to fiberglass. His enthusiasm and focus overcame any shortfalls he might have had in not knowing how to do something."

After graduating with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, Blittersdorf worked for Elfin Corp., a wind energy company in southern Vermont. He and Jan, who was three years away from graduating from UVM with a major in human development and nursing, were living in Bristol. With the amount of time and money it took them to commute, they figured they were just about breaking even.

A year later, as the first wind farm in the United States was being erected in California in 1981, Bittersdorf quit his job and started making wind sensor equipment in his rented home. He wanted to make wind turbines but knew he didn't have the resources and thought there was room in the market for better measuring equipment.

Rudimentary wind sensors were being produced for personal use, he says, mostly for sailors, but a demand was growing for commercial wind sensors at home and abroad. Sensors are important in the wind energy industry because twice the amount of wind produces eight times the amount of energy.

"It's a lot like oil companies that need to go out and explore where the oil is before drilling," Blittersdorf says. "You need to find out where the wind is before setting up a turbine."

He has continued to work on the sensors he started making back then, improving their durability by installing hot coils to keep them from freezing, and by using Teflon to help maintain accurate measurements with little maintenance.

While still in Bristol he also began making data loggers, which collect information in the harshest conditions. Instead of the original loggers, which needed to be collected manually, NRG now sells loggers that use cellular and telephone lines to download information to computers.

The toughest part of the wind energy sensor system for Blittersdorf was the tower, which was needed to put the sensors 90 feet in the air. Today, NRG makes 200-foot towers. Because Blittersdorf was afraid of heights, he made tilt-up towers as opposed to the larger, conventional towers that were installed in one piece, rooted in concrete and ascended when there was a problem with the equipment.

By contrast, Blittersdorf's towers are fitted with sensors while still on the ground and can be tipped down when the equipment needs repair. They can also be moved around a site before deciding where the best location is.

The company was housed in Bristol for three years, during which time he and Jan were married. NRG was such a large part of their lives that they spent their honeymoon in Minneapolis at an international wind energy trade show. "We didn't have a lot of money, so we figured we could combine the two," Blittersdorf jokes. "I guess it paid off. We still have a company, and we're still married."

NRG Systems employs "lean" manufacturing to reduce waste, increase flexibility and decrease lead times. Ric Dewey (above) works on a data logger, and John Blittersdorf (below) makes heating coils for wind sensors.

NRG moved to Charlotte in 1983 around the same time the demand for wind turbines slowed in the United States. Because NRG sold systems around the world, it was easy to shift concentration overseas and await American demand to rebound. NRG's largest importers are companies in Japan and Spain, but there is a growing market in the states, driven by companies on the West Coast.

The company makes and distributes anemometers, wind direction vanes, temperature sensors, pyranometers (to measure direct and reflected solar radiation), barometric pressure sensors, rain gauges, and the towers to put them on. Data loggers and computer software complete the package. Towers can range from 32 to 200 feet, weigh up to about 2,000 pounds and be erected with an electric winch and ginpoles, which the company also sells. Prices range from $420 for the shortest tower to almost $6,000 for the tallest.

"We're like the McDonald's value meal," Blittersdorf says. "We can give you anything that fits your needs."

In 1989, NRG rented space in a building in Hinesburg at about one-tenth the size it is today. Over the years, it expanded into the entire building, and again is looking to grow.

"I remember sitting in the office when we started out, wondering how I was going to find out the best way to run the company, down to something as basic as accounts payable and receivable," says Jan, who started part-time on the administrative side. "There's no way to find out. You have to do it on your own, and learn as you go."

Some of the most progressive and efficacious lessons the Blittersdorfs learned were from the "lean" manufacturing program at the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC).

Lean manufacturers seek to reduce waste, increase flexibility and decrease lead times without sacrificing the quality of the product or customer service. The most visible example of this practice is the colored bins in the electronics assembly area. Different colors are for different products visual indicators of what needs to be built. Employees build about four products at a time, which is the most that will fit in a bin, when in the past they used to build up to 50 or 100. "Of course when you aren't shipping anything until you're done with a batch," Jan says, "you're not shipping anything until you have 50 or so products."

"NRG is an outstanding example of lean manufacturing," says Paul Demers, VMEC manufacturing business adviser. "This is a business that has quadrupled over the last four years in the same space, with the same number of employees. When you walk through the plant you sense every worker is making a contribution, they know what their job is, and they like the way the system works."

Contented employees are important to the Blittersdorfs, who encourage workers to express ideas on improving the process during weekly and monthly meetings. "That's one of the great things about running a smaller company," Jan says. "If someone raises a suggestion, we can try it the next day. If it works, that 's great. If it doesn't, then we can go back to the way we were doing it before or we can try something else."

That doesn't mean the Blittersdorfs try things on a whim. They spent a year in research before installing the company's profit-sharing program, which allows the 30 employees to be involved with the growth of the company.

Once a month, employees receive a check in relation to how much profit the company made that period. For a company that grew about 40 percent last year, that check can amount to almost half of what workers make in a month.

"Profit-sharing allows employees to benefit from our success without falling into the trap of employee stock ownership," Jan says. "It's important for us to keep control of the company and not fall into having a meeting with shareholders every time we want to do something."

For profit-sharing to affect all employees, salespeople do not work on commission, and employees who work overtime get a bigger stake of the profit because, as Blittersdorf says, "You can sell it, but if you don't have someone working to get it out the door, it doesn't matter."

As the company has grown and becomes more established, Blittersdorf finds himself in a different position compared to 20 years ago. He has shifted most of the day-to-day responsibilities to Jan. That freedom has allowed him to get out of the office more.

He is president of the American Wind Energy Association, of which he's been a member since the early '80s. With the precarious Middle East situation and U.S. dependence on that region's oil , and the California energy crisis, the renewable energy market is on the rise. "Wind energy is really taking off right now," Blittersdorf says. "It's nice to be president (of the American Wind Energy Association) when things are going well. It wasn't like that 10 years ago."

While Blittersdorf benefits from his role on the national level, such as being involved with writing industry standards, he sees Vermont as a firm place to expand the use of wind energy.

An NRG tower on the roof of the company's Hinesburg location measures wind speed and direction, temperature, solar radiation, humidity, barometric pressure and power curves for wind turbines.

Blittersdorf says despite the state's independent and environment-friendly stance, Vermont imports 90 percent of its energy while it has the potential to make 50 percent from wind. "It's one of our only natural resources," Blittersdorf says. "We don't have fossil fuels, but we do have renewables. The problem with Vermont is we talk the talk, but we're not walking the walk."

Another problem is the size of the market. Because a lot of the technology is relatively new and people are just opening up to renewable energy, many consumers don't see the cost-efficiency of the industry, especially with wind energy, since it has a high capital cost. It's also one of the cheapest to maintain and provides energy without the monthly bill.

To spread awareness of the benefits of renewable energy, Blittersdorf helped start Renewable Energy Vermont, an organization in Montpelier that seeks to shift dependence from foreign fossil fuels to local renewable energy.

Andy Perchlik, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, worked for the Vermont Department of Public Service and a number of Vermont renewable energy companies before being wooed by Blittersdorf over to the non-profit agency that is interested in everything from solar power to mass transit.

"David was really the driving force behind Renewable Energy Vermont," Perchlik says. "I was asking around about getting involved in a project that promotes renewable energy, but Blittersdorf was the one who pushed for us to become a trade association.

"He said at the beginning that NRG is going to put up $5,000 and asked other companies what they were willing to do. If he had tried to get involved five years ago, he wouldn't have had the time, but now he has the time, he has the dedication, the expertise, and he cares about Vermont. He knows a lot about the worldwide energy environment and wants to do something about it."

The effort seems to be paying off. He is now referred to as "that wind guy" by Gov. Howard Dean, and it seems as though more people are looking to become involved in the wind energy industry from both sides.

"I get a lot of resumes from people who say they don't know what they can offer, but they like the idea of renewable energy and want to work for us," Jan says. "They like what we do here."

Selling the concept has become a lot easier, too. Blittersdorf isn't met with as much resistance as he once was, and instead of being asked if he really makes a living at what he does, people are more interested in how it works.

"Wind energy is no longer seen as hippie power," Blittersdorf says. "It's a $4 billion industry. We have a future in a lot of people's eyes." •

Originally published in December 2001 Business People-Vermont