Family Name: Blattner
What it does: Construction for renewable energy products
Type of ownership: Private
Principal owners: John Blattner, Scott Blattner, Chris Blattner, Dave Blattner, Tom Blattner, Henry Blattner
Number of employees: More than 1,500
Number of family members in the business: 6
Number of family members on the board: 3
Avon, a small town west of St. Cloud, might seem an unlikely home for one of Minnesota’s largest private companies. But for more than 40 years, Avon has been the headquarters of a powerhouse contractor in the renewable energy industry. Blattner Energy, which posted revenue of more than $1.2 billion in 2012, is involved in the construction of wind, solar, and transmission projects across the United States and Canada.
Just 15 years ago, it might have seemed unlikely that the company would still be in business at all. “Frankly, we had financial issues,” recalls Scott Blattner, the company’s president since 1997. “We were trying to keep the lights on.”
It would have been a sad end to the company that his great-grandfather, David Henry Blattner, founded in 1907 in Sauk Rapids as a railroad construction business. One of its early customers was James J. Hill’s Great Northern, although by the 1930s, the company had shifted largely to road construction; in time, it also added mining construction work. And during the 1990s, it even found new opportunities in railroad construction.
David Henry Blattner founds D.H. Blattner & Company Railway Contractors in Sauk Rapids.
Company renamed D.H. Blattner & Sons.
Company founder David Henry Blattner dies.
D.H. Blattner & Sons lands its first interstate highway project, ushering in an era of freeway work for the company.
Company relocates to Avon, near St. Cloud.
D.H. Blattner & Sons wins the contract for the Lake Avenue Bridge project over Interstate 35 in downtown Duluth.
Company performs road and foundation work for its first wind power project, in southern Minnesota.
Revenue reaches $126 million.
Company enters Canadian market with Borea Construction, a joint venture with Canadian company Pomerleau.
Revenue hits $622 million.
Company created Blattner Energy to reflect its focus on renewable energy.
Revenue tops $1.2 billion.
Still, by the mid-1990s, the company then known as D.H. Blattner & Sons found that its construction business was crumbling. “We had a lot of customers that were not paying their bills and owed us a tremendous amount of money,” Scott Blattner recalls. Things began to look grim.
“When you’re doing about $80 million a year and you have five executives sitting around a table discussing whether they should go and borrow money against their 401(k)s so they can make payroll on Friday–I think that’s getting pretty close,” Blattner adds. “We never had to do that. But we had the discussion more than once.”
“It wasn’t unusual for all of us to lock ourselves in the meeting room for hours and order pizza and stay late at night and do what we had to do,” recalls John Blattner, the company’s CFO and Scott Blattner’s cousin. “Although maybe one of the items on the agenda was, ‘Do we fold the tent or not?’, really, nobody was comfortable with that. Nobody wanted to throw in the towel. We wanted to keep this going.”
What saved the company was a fresh opportunity: wind farm construction. It began with a single project in southern Minnesota in 1997, where D.H. Blattner built roads and foundations for a wind farm. At first, it seemed like just another job.
“We were looking for good opportunities that were short term,” Scott Blattner says. “As we more clearly evaluated the business and where we thought we could be successful, it became more and more clear to us that we believed a path would be in the energy market. Wind energy at the time, it was not a market that you could look out and see that there were many, many projects to bid.”
That soon would change. But first, D.H. Blattner found that it needed to trim staff. “We became a smaller company in order to improve our position,” Scott Blattner says. “We had to create a more solid foundation for ourselves in the face of that turmoil.”
By 2001, thanks to its new direction, revenue had risen to $126 million. Then the wind really got behind the company’s sails. By 2008, revenue had climbed to $622 million. That nearly doubled to $1.24 billion in 2012. To date, the Blattner family business has built more than 135 wind farm projects totaling more than 20,000 megawatts of installed power capacity in North America, including the five largest wind farms in the United States. In 2007, the company expanded to Canada with the creation of Borea Construction, a joint venture with Quebec-based Pomerleau. Borea focuses on Canadian wind farm projects.
Two years after co-founding Borea, the family business renamed itself Blattner Energy to reflect its new focus. D.H. Blattner & Sons, which handles mining projects, is now the name of one of several operating companies under the Blattner Energy umbrella. The company as a whole hasn’t been involved in road construction for about 10 years.
One of Blattner Energy’s larger clients is New York-based Terra-Gen Power LLC. Blattner has built eight projects so far and has two more under construction at the Alta Wind Energy Center in California, the largest wind farm in the world, which Terra-Gen Power is developing.
“They have done excellent work,” says Felipe Uscategui, vice president of construction for Terra-Gen Power, which has been working with Blattner Energy since 2010. “They have delivered every year on tough deadlines,” he adds. “They pull it off every time.” Uscategui says that Blattner Energy is widely respected within the renewable energy industry: “They’re a very well-known contractor in the wind business. They’re very professional and dependable. That’s worth a lot for a developer like us.”
As Blattner Energy’s prominence in the renewable energy industry rises, one might wonder: Does it still make sense for the company to remain based in a town of 1,400 people? Scott Blattner says that the family seriously considered a move to the Twin Cities. “We kept coming back to the fact that our success hinged very heavily on the people who worked both in the Avon office and out on our projects,” he says. “We looked at the convenience of living here versus living in the Twin Cities,” he says. “In the end, we decided we’ll keep making that little drive down to the Twin Cities. It’s not that inconvenient. We like living out in the country.”
Scott and John are two of the six Blattner family members who own the majority of the company. (Blattner Energy also has some nonfamily shareholders.) Though the firm’s new direction has been very successful, Scott Blattner believes that it stuck with old lines of business for too long. “We were going to figure it out one way or the other,” he says. “And unfortunately, we went through 15, 20 years of not making any money in it because we were too stubborn about it.”
Blattner credits his parents’ generation with helping instill a willingness to test new directions. “They always accepted the reality that markets were going to change, so you had to be looking for new opportunities,” he says. “As we look at the last generation, they saw the highway market come to an end, and so they started looking at a lot of different opportunities.”
It’s a legacy that has paid off for their children. “We grew up in that environment,” Scott Blattner says. “So that was kind of the incubator for us to not necessarily be scared and feel like we had to keep doing the same thing that we’d done when we grew up. We knew that the greater fear was for us to stay where we were and not make the necessary changes.”