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.
For instance: you're on some wind-blasted plain in China or Patagonia and you want to know whether it has enough wind to make a turbine worthwhile. NRG ships out its tower, up to 90 meters tall, and all associated equipment to tell you. Plus, the electronic brains of the turbine once it's built, to keep it running at the right times, predict maintenance problems, and so on, all of which is built in the factory in Hinesburg just outside Burlington. "It's a hard engineering challenge, to make these readings robust through extreme cold," Barry King, a senior engineer at NRG, told us at the factory. "It's technically very challenging to heat them without degrading accuracy. You had to do this in the Vermont mountains" -- where America's first wind turbines were installed -- "and it turns out to be important in many other areas, like northeastern China."
Longer-term past: Why Vermont, for this kind of business? Away from traditional manufacturing centers, and tech-world complexes, and even easy transport routes? The cold mountains and the early wind turbines are a sort-of explanation. Plus, as I heard, a 19th-century-onward heritage of precision machine production in the area. But there were two elements of the "why here? why now?" story I found provocative for further discussion.
One was the long ripple effects of major R&D investments. Back in the 1960s, IBM decided to put a major chip plant next door to Burlington, in Essex Junction. At its peak, it employed more than 10,000 people; now it's closer to half that size. But we kept running into people whose parents had come to the area to work for IBM, and we kept hearing that this was one of the "everything was different after that ... " watershed events for local economy, even beyond the direct payroll effect. After that: the schools got better, the universities got better, there was a different talent pool, and a different sense of plausible businesses to be startup up and run in Burlington.