Editor’s Note-Indiscreet Charm

Editor’s Note-Indiscreet Charm

When hunting elephants, watch where you step.

Before returning to this magazine six years ago, I spent more than two years as a banker with a regional investment banking company—Miller Johnson & Kuehn, later known as MJSK.

Fueled by hubris, I immediately went “elephant hunting”—pursuing audaciously large debt-underwriting agreements. Within weeks, I was chasing after two international alternative-energy projects. One was a wind-power project that a Minnesota engineering company proposed to build in Dalian in northeastern China. The second was a proposed $200 million central-Minnesota power plant that would burn turkey litter as fuel. At the time, they would have represented our firm’s two largest-ever underwritings and its first forays into international financing.

The Dalian project blew up quickly. Observing that it might be cumbersome to repossess collateral on land controlled by the Dalian Municipal People’s Government, our bond traders said that the interest on bonds used to finance the project would have to be more than 20 percent, a figure the client rejected only after he was assured we weren’t joking. The litter-burning plant, described this month in writer Jack Gordon’s feature story “Beyond Ethanol,” went into operation in Benson, Minnesota, last May, more than eight years after I learned that Fibrowatt UK had proposed building it.

After a series of visits to Meeker and Kandiyohi counties, which were vying to be home to the plant, I accompanied a small group of civic leaders from central Minnesota on a mid-1999 trip to England—dubbed the “manure tour”—to inspect litter-burning plants that Fibrowatt UK had built in the cities of Thetford and Eye, and to meet Simon Fraser, Fibrowatt’s avuncular, grey-haired founder, who described with a Scottish accent how he got into the business of manure burning.

He said that he owned hardwood forests and chicken farms near the site of a well-known distiller of Scotch whisky. After contracting for a few years to provide the distiller with steam, he began to mix chicken litter in the wood that he was burning to produce it. Steam is merely vaporized water, and the quality of the steam that Foster was piping 300 meters into the distillery was unchanged by the fuel used to produce it.

As I remember Fraser telling us, “I let on to them what I was doing, and they had to labor to get their words out: ‘Do (huff) you (puff) know (deep breath) . . . how much . . . we spend . . . for marketing? And you . . . associate us . . . with chicken shit?’ So I had to find another use for my manure.”

If the name Simon Fraser sounds familiar, you might at some time have visited the Tower of London, where England’s crown jewels are viewed by countless tourists. Another Tower of London attraction is “Simon’s Block,” the chopping block used for England’s last execution by beheading—that of another Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat, who met his death in April 1747, following the Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Simon Fraser of Fibrowatt appeared to enjoy informing us that he was an ancestor of the beheaded Simon.

“I thought those whisky makers might want my head,” he added.

Later that day, I told Simon’s son, Rupert Fraser, that my wife had purchased a silver bracelet charm of Simon’s Block during a visit to London—a small, silver rendering of a block of wood embedded with a tiny ax.

He looked stricken.

“A charm?”

“Yes,” I said, “for a bracelet.”

Of a beheading block?

“A souvenir,” I said. “They don’t sell them back home.”

He took a breath—and changed the subject. “Yes,” he said. “Minnesota. Shall we talk about the availability of fuel?” By fuel, he meant poultry manure.

“I think you’ll have an ample supply,” I assured him.

If I hadn’t returned to publishing, I think I might still have had a shot at the underwriting.

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