Burlington Makes, the World Takes: The Story of NRG Systems

A few days ago my wife and I were at a dinner at the public aquarium and science center on the waterfront of Lake Champlain in downtown Burlington, Vermont. The dinner was for a group called Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility -- in keeping with the town-meeting vibe possible in a small state like Vermont, a sign outside the aquarium announcing the dinner said "open to the public" -- and it was to honor the winner of this year's Terry Ehrich Award.  Terry Ehrich, who died a decade ago at age 60, had been the owner and publisher of the very successful Hemmings Motor News, based in southern Vermont. The award in his name is supposed to recognize socially responsible business practice. This year it went to Jan Blomstrann, owner and CEO of the NRG Systems company. You see her picture below and her company's headquarters and factory above.

I mention it now for several reasons, which I'll arrange in a convenient-at-the-moment Reverse-Order Timeline fashion:

Longer-term future:  That dinner with a sample of the business and political leadership of Burlington has stayed in my mind for its interesting parallels and differences with a comparable event we attended, along with the Marketplace team, last month in Sioux Falls. Drawing those out, and suggesting some of the similarities we've seen in otherwise very different locales like these two, is the ambition for an upcoming (longer-term future) posting.

Immediate future: On this afternoon's Marketplace, I'll be talking with Kai Ryssdal about NRG Systems and other business dramas that we have seen in Burlington. Marketplace has a great "so you think you know Vermont?" quiz up now.  

Ongoing present: I would be remiss not to underline how many of the business stories we saw in Vermont involve organizations run by women. Seven Days, the profitable newspaper I mentioned last week, is run by co-founders Paula Routly and Pamela Polston. Main Street Landing, a "not your typical development company" responsible for much of the town's waterfront, is run by its co-founders Melinda Moulton and Elizabeth Steele. At the VBSR dinner, one main speech was given by former governor Madeleine Kunin, and another by the local artist Sara-Lee Terrat, plus VBSR's Julie Lineberger, all in support of the honoree Jan Blomstrann. We met plenty of men, too -- from one-time mayor / current Senator Bernie Sanders, to the male halves of the married couples who run Burlington's successful independent Phoenix bookstore and the Alchemist brewery. But for whatever reason we noticed a larger number of visibly successful women business figures here.

Immediate past: The business for which Jan Blomstrann (and her colleagues) were being honored occupies a fascinating niche in the world's energy business ecosystem. It does not directly manufacture power-producing equipment -- turbine blades for wind mills, solar panels, etc. But it sells to customers across the United States and in more than other countries the measurement, calibration, maintenance, and other equipment that is needed to keep the turbines running -- and to make sure they go in the right place to begin with.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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