By Amy Berry
Last April, amid a freezing cold rain and intermittent snow showers, more than 600 people stood in and around a tent to hear Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm celebrate the opening of the Windspire wind turbine factory in Manistee, MI. The crowd cheered as Granholm and Windspire parent company Mariah Power’s CEO Mike Hess spoke of the transformation of the facility: from manufacturer of automation equipment for the automotive industry to near closure and then finally now to the manufacturing of small wind turbines. The hero of the day was the factory’s general manager John Holcomb, who received the loudest cheers from the Michigan crowd when he challenged businesses across the state and country to think bigger about what is possible.
A veteran of the automotive industry, Holcomb’s business was devastated by the automotive industry’s crisis. His clients, all of the major car makers, stopped ordering equipment. He was forced to lay off almost his entire staff. Working with local community entities, Holcomb convinced Mariah Power that his team could make the Windspire wind turbines for a cost that was competitive with overseas manufacturers and with far better quality. The facility was retrofit with new machinery and the laid off workers were rehired to start building the Windspire turbines.
In honor of Labor Day, John Holcomb answered some of our questions about his new green job:
Amy Berry: What does it mean for you to have a “green job”?
John Holcomb: It means that I’m doing my part for my grandchildren and their children and for the future of the planet.
AB: Did you ever think you would do anything but automotive?
JH: Not really, no.
AB: Was it easy or hard for you to go from auto to wind power?
JH: It’s a hard thing to do. It takes the ability to rethink what you have always considered to be standing operating procedures. You have to look at the world with a different pair of eyes. Reorient yourself as goal oriented instead of pay check oriented. That means that you’re working for something bigger and greater than just a pay check; you are working to make a difference. A difference in the world, how you perceive the world and how the world perceives you, and what you envision the world will be 50 years from now.
AB: What is your biggest lesson learned from your transformation experience?
JH: American workers are ready for change and they are resilient. Given the opportunity, they want to make a difference in the environment around them.
AB: What is your best piece of advice for someone else in your prior situation?
JH: Find the single thing that you do best or that your factory does best and then determine why that skill or skill set sets you apart from everyone else and then market it.
AB: Why will green businesses survive or not?
JH: Green businesses will survive if they do their engineering and the products they develop are based on sound economic principles. The ones that won’t survive are the ones only built on hope and a whim or just an idea that doesn’t bring value to the end user.
AB: Does building wind turbines make you rethink some of your habits?
JH: Makes me rethink how I approach the next twenty years and what I do to not only curb my energy use but to try to supplement my energy use with renewable energy use. It resets my goals for the future.
AB: What is your favorite thing about having a “green job”?
JH: The satisfaction that comes from knowing that we are bringing to the forefront the need for change in our energy habits and where we get our energy from.
AB: What do your grandchildren think of your new green job?
JH: I think they are very proud of me. They were at the opening, and one shook the Governor’s hand and went home and said she was never going to wash it again. My grandson comes over to mow the lawn outside the plant because he wants to feel like he is a part of it.
(Mike Hess, John Holcomb & Michigan Gov Jennifer Granholm)
Amy Berry also enjoys her green job as the manager of corporate communications at Mariah Power. She has seen firsthand the awesome transformation and inspiration of the ex-autoworkers in Manistee. She tweets all things wind and green @wind2power
Here’s an outstanding video showing a little more about how it all came together.