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Its in the wind

Fri, Feb 14th, 2003
Posted in Features

After selling his truck manufacturing business in 1998 to Oshkosh Truck, Garwin McNeilus of Dodge Center has concentrated his attention on wind energy and church related philanthropy.

The McNeilus name has been on concrete trucks since 1976 and on garbage trucks since 1990. Garwin McNeilus high standards resulted in his company ranking Number One in the garbage/concrete truck industry when he sold it in 1998 to Oshkosh Truck.

Garwin is one of those people who uses his success to help others. Over the years he has sponsored hundreds of orphanages around the world, especially in Africa and Asia. In 2002 he was responsible for the construction of 370 churches, orphanages and schools in Burma. "Its about giving children a chance," he said as we sat and talked in his Dodge Center office.

Now Garwin is attaching his name to another venture that reaches even higher. Hes reaching out, using, then, letting go of a never-ending resourcethe wind. With thirty-four 950 kW turbines he will generate clean, renewable electricity for approximately 13,600 homes.

I found it interesting that Garwin once lived in Fillmore County. As a young boy his family lived on a farm near The Old Barn northeast of Preston. Garwin attended the long-gone #53 country school called Clear Grit.

Garwin reflected back on his youth, "We were poor," he said. "Dad was a junk man. As a kid Id go around with him to buy scrap iron piles. I learned how to envision what was in those piles. I learned how to value stuff and how to work hard. I remember one time when Dad underestimated the value of what he had bought. I witnessed him going back and giving the farmer some more money. Thats how Dad taught me about integrity."

Garwin graduated from Oak Park Academy in Nevada, Iowa in 1957. Not long after graduation he was walking past a construction site in Rochester, "I stopped and asked the boss for a job. I ran a jack hammer, dug footings, became a bookkeeper, then worked as a dispatcher," he recalled. In 1964 he started his own ready mix concrete business and needed to buy an additional truck. "I went to an auction at the St. Charles quarry and they had three trucks for sale. I bought them all, sold two and ended up with one for a good price. I then went into the used concrete truck business."

It didnt take long until he started buying new trucks and installing Smith Mixers. "One time there was confusion over an order and 90 trucks were delivered at one time. That was a problem because I was on a 60-day contract with the mixer people and they couldnt fill my order. When they challenged me to build my own, I accepted and started manufacturing mixers."

Garwins success stems from his emphasis on being totally committed to service and to high quality. "The customer is the boss," he said strongly. His business practices include; avoiding debt, having as modern a factory as possible and selling direct. He was also the first to get into leasing concrete and garbage trucks.

After selling his business he built a new office just south of Dodge Center. "I put up a flag pole and by the end of the first month the flag had shredded," his eyes twinkled and he smiled. "I put another flag up and again it shredded. Thats when my light bulb turned onits the wind!" He leaned forward and rested his hands on the conference table, "Wind is non-ending, clean and once youve got the towers up, its practically free. What more could anyone want?"

He sat back in the chair, lowered his eyes and tilted his head down, "Im deeply concerned about the environment, our balance of payments and our dependency on foreign oil. These things will continue to affect our quality of life." Garwin looked out the window, "Since September 11th Ive thought about our vulnerability. If the plane that went down in Pennsylvania had hit a nuclear plant, the East Coast would have been destroyed. If terrorists would have taken out a nuclear plant in Minnesota, it would take the Mississippi River a thousand years to recover."

He paused, "People should realize the real cost of oil. We are on the edge. We have to make thoughtful, universally responsible and respectable choices."

Some people talk and some people act--Garwin is a man of action and he is making an impressive statement with his 700-acre wind farm. He has a 25-year contract with Xcel for the electricity his NEG Micon turbines produce. "I chose the Micon brand because the company provides good service and thats very important," he stated.

In addition to tending his wind farm, Garwin plans on manufacturing three turbines; a 10 kilowatt for homeowners, a 40 kilowatt for farmers and a 225 kilowatt commercial unit. His turn-key turbine packages will require no maintenance, will be hooked up to the meter and back-fed to the electric company. His 10kW will have an estimated price tag of about $10,000. "The average household uses about 5 kilowatts per hour," Garwin said.

"Does this mean that the tables will turn and electric companies will be sending checks to turbine owners?" I asked. He smiled. With Garwins successful track record and his ability to seize opportunity, I think its a good idea to pay attention to what this man is doing. "Sign me up," I said. "I want one of your wind turbines."

"Would you like to take a closer look at the turbines?" Garwin offered, and in a few minutes I was with one of his employees, Clinton Horsman, taking a tour of his wind farm. As we watched a gigantic Manitowoc crane lift a 56,000 pound, 12 by 16 by 10 foot generator cell up 236 feet to the towers top, Clinton explained that each tower rests on top a 48-foot square, 8-foot deep cement foundation. "Each foundation is like a house basement," he said. "At the bottom, the steel tower base is 16 feet across and tapers up to 8 feet at the top." He pointed at the cell, "It is so tight inside that you cant even stand up. The technicians have to crawl around."

"Those blades are huge," I remarked.

"Each blade is 85-feet long. They are manufactured in Fargo. The towers made in Grand Forks and the generator is from Denmark," Clinton added.

"This is incredible," I said.

"You should see it at night," Clinton said softly. "Each tower has a red and a green light and the field kind of looks like a floating runway."

Many questions raced through my mind as I drove home. "Why dont people step out and make a political statement by turning to embrace the wind? Arent self-sufficiency and independence desirable goals? As a people, how can we make this transition in our thinking? When will we realize that wind power could be a gift to the whole world? And why is it that when I engage in conversations with people about wind energy they always want the economics to pay out? When someone buys a new car or truck, do they ask if it will pay for itself as they dish out $30 or $40,000? The truth is that wind turbines will ultimately pay for themselves, make their owners money and reduce our vulnerability to rising energy costs. Plus they are environmentally sound and make a statement we can be proud of."

"How was your meeting with Garwin?" my husband asked as I hung up my coat.

"He is a man with a sense of purpose," I replied as we sat down to share a pot of hot tea. "Not only does he have compassion for human suffering, he has combined his passion with a long-sighted plan to make wind energy a reality for everyone by manufacturing turbines that will be within everyones grasp."

My husband smiled, "Well, did you buy one?"

"Its on my list," I said and smiled back. "Think about it this way. How much would you be willing to pay to never have the world experience another oil slick?"

"A lot," he said.

I sipped some tea, "Wouldnt it be great to never again feel guilty about leaving a light on or turning up the heat?"

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