In 1984, Craig Upton had just been laid off. Today, he is leading a company that has more than 100 employees, earned more than $30m in revenue last year and is helping change Iowa’s energy future.
Craig makes wooden components for wind turbines. Those big, white blades you see on flatbed trucks may appear to be mostly metal, but actually they’re primarily composed of flexible and lightweight balsa wood, which is honed in Burlington, Iowa, at Craig’s company, KPI Concepts.
Iowa is a good place to be in the wind energy business. More than 31 percent of Iowa’s power generation is from wind – a figure which leads the nation. Recently, Iowa’s largest electrical utility announced a $3.6 billion investment in new wind generation.
Our state’s leadership in wind energy is enabled in part by Iowa’s robust advanced manufacturing industry – the state’s largest business sector. The turbine components KPI Concepts manufactures in Burlington sometimes never leave the state. They are shipped to Siemens and TPI Composites facilities in Iowa, where they are assembled into blades. From there they can be used in construction of the windmill-like structures springing up in farm fields across the state.
Thirty years ago, Craig Upton was not dreaming about those wind turbines. He had been laid off, and was building cabinets in his garage.
Other than lessons from his dad, Craig didn’t have any formal carpentry training. Still, his work impressed his early customers. Soon he was supplying commercial cabinetry to several local businesses in Burlington. Within two years, he was able to open a workshop and hire an employee.
Then, the grocery store ALDI, which at the time was just beginning to enter the U.S. market, brought him in to do a small project at a local store. After completing the project, he convinced an ALDI executive that he could build better shelves than what the store was using. Today, KPI Concepts supplies store fixtures like shelves and checklanes to ALDIs across the Midwest and the West Coast, and also works with a number of other major retailers.
For 20 years, KPI Concepts grew steadily manufacturing store fixtures. The company had several expansions and added a second facility.
Then, in 2008, an executive with Siemens called Craig and asked if he could manufacture components for wind turbine blades. Craig said if they were made of wood, he could do it. Today, half of his Burlington facility is dedicated to crafting blade components, using a few machines that Craig designed himself.
KPI Concepts grew because of Craig’s instincts, hard work and talent. While those attributes are difficult to quantify, they’re qualities that seem to be abundant among Iowans. It’s why a 2016 Chief Executive magazine survey found Iowa to have one of the best workforces in the nation.