Business faculty go on the road to get firsthand look at innovation

About a dozen faculty members from the College of Business and Entrepreneurship made a road trip Monday to the new Fort Hays State University wind turbines and further away to the city of Greensburg, which was wiped out by a tornado in 2007.

Called the Energy and Innovation Tour, Mark Bannister, dean of the business college, said the goal was to visit businesses that would help faculty connect rural Kansas to their classrooms.

"I want faculty to know what innovative businesses are doing and that those businesses are seeking FHSU graduates," Bannister said. "They need to know the skill sets required for prospective employees. We saw on the tour how critical community leadership is and that there are very exciting career opportunities in rural Kansas settings."

The tour began on campus with a presentation by Mike Steinke, executive managing partner of Enid-based WECC LLC, the consultant for the FHSU wind project. Steinke said the two 2.0-MW turbines, manufactured by Vestas, together with existing diesel generators, create a micro grid that can supply most of FHSU's electricity needs most of the time. He said the two wind generators would be operational by mid to late September.

"This is really a beautiful project," he said. "With an educational component and payback in just nine years, it will provide benefits to FHSU students who are not even born yet."

Steinke led the business faculty to the next stop on the tour, which was a visit to the site of the new turbines just over three miles west of the campus. Faculty went inside one of the towers and agreed it was exciting to see them up-close.

"This is a good example of how FHSU is forward-thinking," said Jon Tholstrup, instructor of informatics. "We will use the wind turbines to drive down costs."

Next the business delegation re-boarded vans for the nearly 100-mile drive south to Greensburg. They were greeted by Mayor Bob Dixson, who ushered them around the community to see the progress that had been made since the devastating tornado that destroyed 950 homes and every business on Main Street.

The first stop was at BTI, a John Deere dealership that also has stores in Bucklin, Ness City and Pratt.

BTI President Kelly Estes said Fort Hays State had been a great partner with Greensburg, sending down volunteers to help right after the storm. "When you lose a whole town, where do you start?" he asked. And yet, he described how BTI immediately bought the John Deere dealership in nearby Pratt to provide a base of operations for its Greensburg employees. The company has since expanded to $150 million in annual sales and 160 employees.

Because there was no service from the electric grid while they were building a new dealership in Greensburg, they temporarily generated electricity from a donated wind turbine. Seeing the potential, BTI created a subsidiary -- Harvest the Wind -- and began selling and servicing wind generators. BTI provided the Vestas wind generators for the FHSU wind project.

Kent Kirk, manager of integrated solutions for BTI, said the growing company was always looking for new employees.

"We need employees with an aptitude for technology, agronomic skills, business skills and communication skills," Kirk said. "And they need to know something about everything," he added, emphasizing the need for a well-rounded education.

Brad Estes, who heads up the Kansas division of Harvest the Wind, said FHSU was well equipped to provide the education those new employees need. "For a kid from western Kansas, there is an opportunity in this industry to see the entire globe as your workplace," he said.

Bannister said it was exciting to see what BTI was doing. "Its growth and innovative approaches are remarkable," he said. "BTI is expanding with an international footprint that reinforces the FHSU model of being world-ready."

Kevin Shaffer, associate professor of informatics, said he was impressed that after years of entertaining visitors from places far and wide, the people of Greensburg were still willing to take time to give tours.

In addition to BTI and Harvest the Wind, the business faculty visited the new Kiowa County schools, the City of Greensburg SunChips Business Incubator, and the Kiowa County Commons, which includes the public library, a media center, a museum and soda fountain, a state-of-the-art broadcast studio, and the K-State Research and Extension Office.

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