Wyrsch on Vestas' future, its Pearl HQ, and why she's staying in Portland

Vestas Americas President Martha Wyrsch will leave the company in December, but says she plans to stay in Portland to pursue other opportunities. 

The uncertain fate of the federal Production Tax Credit has slammed the breaks on Vestas' fastest growing market. The company is closing research and development centers across the U.S. It’s announced that thousands of layoffs are still to come next year.

Yet Martha Wyrsch, the outgoing president of Portland-based Vestas Americas, believes the Danish wind turbine giant will one day emerge from this economic malaise and have, in her words, a “bright future.”

Wyrsch will depart Vestas in December after arriving three and a half years ago from Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp. Portland, though, isn’t losing the energy industry veteran, who lives here now with her husband and 17-year-old daughter.

As she puts it: “We really love Portland.”

Erik Siemers: When you came to Vestas, the market was in flux, then returned, and now is in flux again. Now Vestas’ challenges appear even greater. Did this influence your decision to leave?

Martha Wyrsch: No, it really didn’t. The company has had an amazing run in North America over the last three years. I feel proud to be a part of it. We took advantage of opportunities out there. We built relationships with customers and focused on new products and put ourselves in a position to win a very significant piece of the market share.

That’s held us in very good stead.

I’ve been around the block a few times and companies go through ups and downs. This industry has been on a roller coast in many ways because the Production Tax Credit bringing such uncertainty to the equation. The extension of the credit, which has been a semi-annual event, has not lent itself to the business case certainty and decision making for customers.

We are going through a down cycle, there’s no doubt about it. This is an industry that’s been very resilient. When Vestas stepped back and looked at the landscape across the world, we saw a European economy that’s challenged, in the U.S. a relatively flat economy and uncertainty around decision making, we had to make some hard decisions that businesses need to make around our cost structure.

We significantly cut our costs and restructured our business. Certainly that restructuring gave me a chance to step back and see what I want to do next. That, more than anything, gave me the chance to step back and say, “What should I do?”

I accomplished nearly everything I set out to do with Vestas. The company was able to find a successor they feel is very strong. I haven’t met (new President Chris Brown, who arrives in December) yet and I’m looking forward to it.

We’ll have a chance to do a smooth handoff. That was important, not to leave things undone.

ES: What do you plan to do next?

MW: The first thing I did was promise my family I would take the month of December and take a little time off and enjoy the holidays.

I have a couple interesting opportunities I’m excited about and I can’t talk about them. Come early 2013 I’ll be pursuing those.

Our intent is to stay in Portland. We really love Portland. I have a sister who lives in Portland and brother up in Tacoma. It’s a real pleasure for us to be closer to family and living in such a beautiful and vibrant place.

ES: What would you describe as your biggest accomplishment in your three-and-a-half years with Vestas? How has the organization changed in that time?

MW: If you’ll allow me to, I’ll talk about three or four.

At the top of my list is safety. We focused very much on building a strong value system around a safe workplace around our employees helping each other be safe. We’ve seen a really fantastic turnaround in our safety record.

It wasn’t terrible when I came in, but it wasn’t great. People were getting hurt. I’m very gratified. These last two months we’ve had zero incidents or injuries. In the longer record, our incident and injury rates have come down dramatically in the last couple of years.

I would also say putting a strategic plan in place and executing it successfully. We sat down as a team four years ago and said we need to have a longer term view of this market and we’ve done that. Bringing a strategic mindset has been a real accomplishment and boost to the business. People think about what they do differently.

I would say as I look back and think about everything we’ve done in the business, our focus on customers and the relationships we’re building for the long term has made a difference. Work should be fun and people you work with should be people you care about.

The fourth is that new (Pearl District) building we were successful in getting built. The building itself is fantastic and it’s warm and inviting and a sunny, lighted space. It’s also a very collaborative space. In some ways it’s an emblem of what we’re trying to do, to create very cooperative and collaborative workforce here in North America. Being able to take this wonderful Portland icon of a building and turn it into a future high-tech home for Vestas was exciting and fun.

I look back and I’m so grateful to the team I work with and they’re top-notch people. Vestas is lucky to have such a strong, passionate team of people working in the city.

ES: With the change in leadership, the closing of R&D centers, and the announced layoffs, there will undoubtedly be questions about the fate of Vestas’ new Portland headquarters. As you prepare to leave the company, is there a reason for Portlanders to be worried about Vestas’ fate locally?

MW: Definitely, no. People need to know that Vestas is committed to North America. This is one of our largest markets and it really rivals Europe now in terms of overall revenue contribution we make to the bottom line for vestas.

We chose Portland with a purpose. It fits our personality, it’s a city that supports what we do and is supportive of what we believe in, and I think that’s important.

The company has had to pull in the reins a bit and be sure that we’re lean and managing costs deftly, but we’re here to stay and I think that’s important that people in Portland know that.

Our new president will be moving to Portland once his family finishes the school year in Detroit. I think that’s another strong signal to the community that we intend to be here for the long run.

We have a very bright future. We’re just in a really tough downturn as an industry. People need to be patient and stick with us.

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