Started from the bottom: An Iowa story of wind energy entrepreneurship

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.

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Chief Executive magazine: Iowa has a top 6 workforce

Chief Executive asked more than 500 CEOs to rank states they are familiar with by the quality of their workforces, and Iowa came in at #6.

Ask any Iowa CEO and they’ll tell you: Iowans are good workers. We’re also well-educated workers. We have the highest public high school graduation rate in the country, world class universities and an extensive community college network.

But we’re not satisfied with being #6, either. That’s why we have a STEM education program in place that’s already reached more than 100,000 students in our schools.

When you add in Iowa’s transportation infrastructure (highway, rail, airport and barge), and high quality of life, it’s clear the Hawkeye state should be in consideration for any business expansion or relocation.

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Ames is an animal health research hub

Ames, Iowa, is “the epicenter for animal health research in the country” according to Dr. Albrecht Kissel, president and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. (BIVI), a global leader in the animal health industry. That’s why his company just opened a $22 million, 52,000-square foot, state-of-the-art research center at the Iowa State University Research Park.

In addition to being home to one of the nation’s premiere agricultural universities, Ames is the headquarters of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Disease Center. Animal science companies benefit from the incredible technological infrastructure and talent pool in Ames, as well as the state of Iowa’s commitment to growing its research community. In fact, Iowa is one of only a few states to offer refundable research activities tax credits, which companies like BIVI have used to expand their Iowa operations and employ Iowans in high quality jobs.

For more information on Iowa’s Research Activities Tax Credit program, you can download our fact sheet  and contact the Iowa Economic Development Authority at