At 22, Jeff Broin was just six months out of college and getting started in the banking industry when his family turned to him for help.
His father was scrambling to figure out a way to save the 130-year-old Minnesota corn farm that Broin and his siblings grew up on.”As a teen, growing up in the 1980s, there was an agricultural crisis in the United States, which pushed down corn prices to very low levels,” recalled Broin. “The government was paying farmers to keep 20% of their land idle.”POET, a family-owned business, is the largest producer of ethanol in the world.Broin’s father knew of a few farms that were making biofuel from their excess corn crop. “So he built a small-scale ethanol plant on our farm,” Broin said.Eager to make the plant more productive, Broin and his father hunted for better equipment. “There were quite a few ethanol plants at the time that had gone out of business because of poor technology in the early years of the industry,” he said. “We would go to auctions at these plants and score deals on parts.”Read More
"I had a lot of motivation to succeed with that first plant. If I had failed, we would have lost our farm."
In 1987, they were attending an auction at a foreclosed ethanol plant in Scotland, South Dakota. This time, instead of only buying equipment, his father mortgaged the 1,200-acre family farm and bought the whole plant for $72,000.”My father now owned this inoperable plant that needed a lot of work,” said Broin. “But I’ve always been a big-picture guy and I saw the potential.”So at 22, Broin took over the task of renovating it. “It took eight months. There was a period of time I lived in it, but we got it started back up in less than a year,” he said.Jeff Broin stands in front of the ethanol plant in Scotland, South Dakota.This single refinery became the flagship location for the Broin Companies. In a few years, the Scotland plant was producing a million gallons of ethanol per year. “We tripled the size of the plant in three years and then doubled it again,” said Broin. Within seven years, production had reached 10 million gallons a year.In 2007, the business was renamed POET. Broin said he wanted to pick an unusual name that would stand out and be memorable. How he got 200,000 people to buy ugly fruits and vegetablesPOET is now the world’s largest producer of biofuels, with $8 billion in annual revenue. The family-owned company, now headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, operates 28 refineries in seven states and produces more than two billion gallons of biofuel annually. Broin and father Lowell Broin.”We started with 13 employees and now we have more than 2,000 team members,” said Broin, who serves as POET’s CEO. Besides ethanol, POET also produces 600 million pounds of corn oil, and 10 billion pounds of distillers grain (a byproduct of the ethanol production used as high protein livestock feed) annually. “I had a lot of motivation to succeed with that first plant,” said Broin, now 53. “If I had failed, we would have lost our farm.” Today, his father is still managing the family farm.An obligation to help others”Jeff likes to explain that when he first started at the Scotland plant, his goal was to feed his family. He’s still a man of vision. But now his mission is to save the world,” said Jeff Lautt, POET’s chief operating officer and Broin’s longtime friend.Every year, POET holds an auction, during which employees can bid for items like tickets to a Minnesota Vikings game or the Indianapolis 500. “It’s a fun event with a purpose,” said Jim Woster, a retired livestock salesperson from South Dakota who has conducted a few of the auctions.POET operates 28 biofuel refineries in seven states.Woster said the proceeds are put toward an annual humanitarian outreach mission trip to Africa that Broin takes with his family and employees. The trips started when one of Jeff’s daughters wanted to attend a mission trip through their church. The whole family decided to go and they have been returning ever since.”Despite Jeff’s success, there’s a deep-seated spirituality that runs through him and the whole family,” said Woster. “I’ve heard him say many times, ‘We’ve been blessed so we have an obligation to help others.'”Broin with farmers in Kenya. Part of his nonprofit’s mission is to teach better farming techniques to developing communities.The company’s nonprofit, Seeds of Change, which operates separately from POET, is among those efforts. The organization has adopted various projects in the developing world, such as teaching better farming methods to farmers in Africa, and building a school for disadvantaged girls in Kenya. “In Nairobi, we are working with a school for the deaf to build staff housing,” said Lautt. Another initiative is to provide ethanol cooking stoves to communities that use fuels like charcoal and wood that can lead to respiratory diseases and smoke inhalation-related deaths.While philanthropy has increasingly become important to Broin, so has climate change. “We all need to park our ego at the door and make life better for our kids and grandkids,” said Broin.More from Success
“Biofuel — like ethanol — is one of the answers to significantly reducing climate change,” said Broin. “We need to stop sourcing energy from beneath the Earth’s surface.” Ethanol is nontoxic and biodegradable. However, producing ethanol does result in emission of carbon dioxide. But the impact of increased ethanol use on net carbon dioxide emissions depends on how the ethanol is made.If it’s made from crops like corn and sugarcane, the impact is considered carbon neutral because those crops absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, which may offset the gas produced when the ethanol is burned, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The agency conducts independent research and analysis on energy sources and their impact on the economy and the environment.POET’s in-house lab works on developing better plant-based alternatives to chemical-based products.At the same time, the agency acknowledges that growing plants for fuel has generated a great deal of debate about whether the land, fertilizers, and energy used to grow biofuel crops should be used to grow food instead.Still, Broin considers the Trump administration’s recent approval of year-round ethanol fuel use to be a promising development.In May, the US Environmental Protection Agency waived restrictions on the sale of gasoline blended with up to 15% ethanol from May through September. “It’s a big win in this David versus Goliath battle of the biofuels industry against Big Oil,” said Broin. “At the end of the day, I want to be able to leave the planet better than we found it.”