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Evansville
Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Comeback

The floor of the southwest corner of the former Whirlpool plant is uneven and cracked. The small, makeshift office near a retractable garage door is cold, cramped, and dusty. No heat, central air, or electricity exists in the room. Dan Oberle, whose company will one day fit inside this 45,000-square-foot space, spends most of his day in a Downtown office. He is one of two employees in the Evansville location of a Netherlands-based company, Global Blade Technology USA. Their goal: to turn a portion of a former refrigerator factory into a plant producing molds, tooling, and prototypes for wind turbine blades — and a few blades themselves — by April 2012.

Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels joined Oberle in the fall at the former Whirlpool plant, now known as Park41, to announce that goal to the community. Oberle, GBT USA’s general manager, informed media members that GBT executives were making a $3.5 million investment, and the plan is to create approximately 40 new jobs.

The company could have been anywhere in the United States. GBT already had operations in the Netherlands and India. GBT executives considered St. Louis, Nashville, and Cleveland for their American debut, so what made Evansville the right choice? The move didn’t surprise Joshua Pack or Christine Prior, who both spent three years working on Project Green, an effort aimed to bring jobs to the Tri-State. What they learned from the project was that Southwest Indiana’s workforce was ready for green technology manufacturing.

But GBT’s presence in Evansville almost never was.

For two years, Oberle’s home in Mount Vernon, Ind., was his office. It was an international destination of sorts for a Netherlands-based company started by GE Plastics alumnus Jan Willem van der Werff. Oberle, too, was a former GE Plastics employee in the Indiana city west of Evansville. That connection went a long way in 2007 when the two first met. Then, Oberle sold glass fiber, a material used in turbines, and he wanted Van der Werff, who worked at a wind turbine company, to buy his glass fiber.

A couple of years later, Van der Werff launched Global Blade Technology, an engineering company entrenched in all things wind turbines. He started a location in India and followed up with operations in America. He lured Oberle to the upstart company.

Oberle may have spent much of his career with an established plastics giant, but he came from a family of entrepreneurs. In the 1970s, his father Dick bought a bait and tackle shop and transformed it into a resort in the tourist-rich Lake Barkley area of western Kentucky. The opportunity to join an upcoming company fueled Oberle, who was genetically geared toward entrepreneurship. He knew the commitment and sacrifice needed to launch a business, so Oberle spent two years from his home working on phase one of the GBT plan.

The first phase — engineering, design, and consulting — spoke to Oberle’s college major. By education, Oberle is an engineer; he spent his career in sales, marketing, and business development. But his role at GBT was to grow the North American business, which involved blade design, developing materials, and manufacturing technology consulting for companies all over the globe, including China and Korea. This is “stuff that only requires brain power,” Oberle says. “It’s very little overhead and no assets to speak of.”

The second phase needed assets. It needed Evansville.

Molds, tooling, prototyping, and limited-series blade production — that’s the focus of GBT’s second phase that currently consumes Oberle’s life. It began in the Netherlands a year ago, India in April 2011, and Evansville in September. The plan: to build everything needed to produce a wind turbine blade.

Evansville was on a long list of American cities aimed at production. Certainly Oberle’s familiarity with Southwest Indiana put the River City on the list, but Van der Werff knew the area too. Van der Werff’s wife is a Cincinnati native, and Oberle’s GBT-issued cell phone has the Ohio city’s area code. Cleveland, St. Louis, Nashville, and southern Michigan were all contenders. “We were ready to go where it made the most sense,” Oberle says. “The fact that I live here was a bonus.”

Evansville is centrally located to the U.S. median population, and the Ohio River is big on barges — the most efficient method of transportation, according to the Indiana Corn Growers Association. Each year, six million tons of cargo pass through the state’s three ports. One gallon of gasoline used to haul one ton of goods on a trailer truck moves the shipment nearly 60 miles. By rail, one gallon takes one ton just over 200 miles, but on barge, one ton can travel on one gallon for 514 miles.

The wind turbine blades need barges. These are big devices — around 10 feet wide and 135 feet long for land-based blades. If GBT ventured into offshore blades, the size increases to nearly 200 feet long. “You can’t take those on the road,” Oberle says. “With offshore blades, the barge is the only way to do it.”

The human resources were just as important as the geography. Oberle worked closely with business incubators: Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville (GAGE), Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, and the Indiana Economic Development Cabinet. Or, as Oberle rattles off so easily, he worked with “Debbie, Debbie, Donna, and Dorrie.”

Debbie Dewey is the president of GAGE, and she works closely with the organization’s business development director Donna Crooks. Dorrie LoBue heads the southwest region of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. Debbie Bennett-Stearsman is the vice president of community development at the Economic Development Coalition.

Oberle found the resources complemented each other. When Oberle approached GAGE, he wanted to narrow his list of top cities. Dewey and Crooks presented him with area demographics, economic incentives, and local drivers in the community. Crooks credits Dewey for GAGE’s renewed spirit. Named the head of GAGE in September 2010, Dewey wants more business in Evansville. “We’re focusing our efforts on: ‘What do we need to do to help a company move here and be successful?’”

Crooks considers GAGE, the Economic Development Coalition, and the IEDC a team. “We bounce off each other,” she says. “We complement each other.” LoBue helped Oberle with state incentives, Bennett-Stearsman discovered funding opportunities and grants for Oberle, and Dewey and Crooks worked with Oberle on local issues. He found the process “seamless,” and Crooks couldn’t be more appreciative. “Having this type of business among our family of businesses,” Crooks says, “helps attract other companies.”

The Whirlpool facility wasn’t available when Oberle first began his search for a building. It was unclaimed until late 2010 when Ben Kunkel of the design-build company The Kunkel Group bought the property. Kunkel, featured in our June/July 2011 issue, envisioned a 1.2 million-square-foot space with multiple tenants. (He landed his first occupant, an upstart plastics company, in early 2011.) The property was the game changer for GBT. “I was very close to signing up with a place in Cleveland,” Oberle says, “and then this place came up out of the ashes. It was a stick save to keep us.”

When The Kunkel Group finishes construction by April 2012, Oberle and GBT officials will produce molds and parts to make blades as well as begin a limited-series blade production. They also will be one step closer to full-scale blade production, which is the third phase of the GBT business plan. That phase could mean a major job announcement, one that government officials couldn’t help hinting about at GBT’s September press conference. “When the governor and the mayor speak about 400-plus jobs,” Oberle says, “we are talking about that phase of the future.” That’s building one to two blades a day and shipping them throughout America. For now, though, “it’s a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Oberle says. “We’re putting all the pieces together.”

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