CEO Talk

Paul Sukut

A year later, stronger and leaner to serve our purpose

by Paul Sukut

One year ago, our urea production facility produced its first granules of fertilizer.

The plant was doing what it was built to do, and our employees at Dakota Gas were running on adrenaline and anticipation. We’d been working hard for the day this would happen, and it was finally here.

Dale Johnson, our plant manager there, had the presence of mind to collect a bunch of the urea granules in little jars, and we printed labels that said “This urea sample was collected on Jan. 19, 2018, in commemoration of the first day of urea production at the Great Plains Synfuels Plant” on them.

Employees told me as the plant was producing urea for the first time, the feeling was indescribable. There were so many shake-ups and rough moments along the way, and what they had been working toward since 2014 was finally happening. The plant was on its way to once again becoming an asset for our membership.

I still have that jar of urea granules sitting on my desk. When visitors pick up the jar to look at it and shake it around, I have the tendency to tell them the production wasn’t “on spec” yet then, meaning the granules weren’t yet of a consistent size, shape, and color.

Within a few short days, the urea was “on spec.” I can hardly believe it’s only been one year since that time. Since then, the plant has had normal ups and downs of a first year of production. We had a couple of external experts come in to watch how we’re operating, including Stamicarbon, the manufacturer of the urea production equipment.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you have somebody come in to assess how you’re doing, but the feedback we received was reassuring. They told us the hiccups we were having were normal. Overall, they were impressed with how well we had been operating, and the speed with which we were learning from our mistakes. The plant is built to produce 1,100 tons per day of urea, and many times, we were running above capacity.

This brings us to mid-November, when our longest stretch of successful production to-date began. We had 35 straight days of urea production, a record for our plant. In December, we ran at 98.7 percent capacity.

I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of our employees who have gone through all these ups and downs to come out stronger, more efficient, and productive on the other side.

These employees should be applauded for their diligence and commitment, especially in the midst of a year that was difficult in other ways, as well. The cooperative-wide reduction in force, while a necessary step we needed to take to keep the cooperative stable for our membership, resulted in people losing their colleagues, many of whom had a lot of experience.

As I’m looking forward to 2019, I am seeing good things – the Great Plains Synfuels Plant is not only producing urea, but also diesel exhaust fluid, and liquid carbon dioxide, in addition to the many other products it has been producing for years.

Our marketing partnership with OCI N.V., N-7, is showing some incredible returns. The entity is developing relationships to sell diesel exhaust fluid as far as California, opening up our markets and ensuring we get the best value for our product.

Beyond Dakota Gas, members of our board of directors held their first strategic planning session of 2019. This day-and-a-half intensive look at how we do business now and into the future is invigorating. The board has identified “stability” as our over-arching goal, and the objectives, initiatives, and plans we develop are leading us to that. Within the next several months, our senior staff members will be sharing their departments’ initiatives with them, giving employees a clear path toward helping the cooperative reach our goals.

Our newest member load forecast, approved by our board in January, shows growth above the national average (1.16 percent among Basin Electric members vs. .64 percent nationwide). Much of that growth continues to occur in the Bakken oil field of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. As always, we will serve this load with the most economical and reliable options we find.

It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in the past year. I look forward to celebrating more milestones in 2019.

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