Interview: Algenol CEO Paul Woods
He defends his company.
In response to what he characterizes as attacks from a Lee County commissioner, Algenol CEO Paul Woods invited members of the local media to tour his 30-acre headquarters and meet his employees.
Woods, who has built a reputation for outspoken bluntness, said he was “exceptionally disappointed” at Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass for questioning how many jobs the biotechnology company has created in Lee County.
“Cecil’s going to have to defend himself in court because I’m taking legal action,” Woods said. “It’s not right.”
Algenol, a company that grows algae and converts it to biofuels such as ethanol, has to create 108 jobs by the end of February as part of a $10 million economic incentive agreement it inked with the county.
During a commission meeting last week, Pendergrass asked county staff how many jobs Algenol has created to date. When county staff members did not have an answer for him, Pendergrass asked them to find out.
“I have a pretty clear suspicion there are not 108 jobs there,” Pendergrass told staff then.
Monday, Woods shared copies of the company’s fourth quarter 2013 ADP payroll report that states Algenol has 127 employees as of January.
But Pendergrass already should know that because the commissioner toured the facility last October, Woods said.
And that could be the last visit Pendergrass makes to Algenol for a while.
“Cecil is not welcome here,” Woods said.
Pendergrass said “it’s amazing” Woods is reacting “the way that he is.”
“I am the gatekeeper to this $10 million,” Pendergrass said, wondering why Woods is “defensive.” “I have the right to ask the question. ... I think it’s insulting this guy would act so rude.”
Algenol has plans to create a manufacturing facility in addition to its Fort Myers headquarters. That facility would require an investment that could be in excess of $40 million and would create more than 2,000 jobs, Woods said.
Right now, Lee is out of the running as a potential site because of Pendergrass’ comments and because the rest of Lee’s commission has failed to speak up in defense of Algenol, the CEO said.
“I’ll take it to a county that wants us,” Woods said.
This is not the first time Woods has threatened to change his expansion plans.
Last year, he chastised Gov. Rick Scott for signing a bill repealing a state requirement for 10 percent ethanol in gasoline. Woods said then that he started searching for sites outside of Florida.
All seems well now, though. In January, Scott awarded Algenol with a 2013 Governor’s Innovators in Business award for major market innovation and entrepreneurship. Woods, who showcased the award to reporters Monday, praised Scott for recognizing Algenol’s contributions.
The company has received nearly $10 million in taxpayer money from the county’s Financial Incentives for Recruiting Strategic Targets program, a $25 million fund created in 2008 to lure high-wage businesses to Lee County.
Rick Michael, director of Lee County’s Economic Development Office, said Algenol has met its requirements.
“There’s no question there’s people working here,” Michael said, who attended Monday’s press event.
The economic incentive benchmarks are typically covered in reports filed with the Economic Development Office on an agreed-to schedule, Michael said.
Algenol’s most recent report to the county, received June 26 by the Economic Development Office, states the company had created 108 jobs with an average base salary of $96,622 as of Feb. 28, 2013.
For a closer look at the company’s job creation numbers, the county will probably review the unemployment compensation records that Algenol has turned into the state, Michael said.
“I don’t see a problem with the company right now, but we’ll complete our review and we’ll report that back to the board of county commissioners,” he said.
Florida Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, who was also at the event, believes Algenol has complied, but doesn’t blame Pendergrass for asking questions.
Another company that received almost $4.7 million in FIRST funds has been under scrutiny. VR Laboratories, LLC has created just two of the 208 jobs it promised Lee County by 2017, according to the company’s own tally.
“Everyone is hypervigilant in guarding the use of funds in Lee County,” Fitzenhagen said. “I cannot ever fault a commissioner for trying to safeguard the county’s finances.”
She wants Algenol’s manufacturing facility to be built in Lee County and promised to do what she can to make it happen.
The county’s Economic Development Office also plans to help smooth things over with Woods.
“It’s our desire not only for the company to grow here, but it’s also our interest and desire to see the company expand here as well,” Michael said.
Each of Algenol’s employees wore white collared company shirts and numbered name tags. They met for a staff meeting, which featured a lunch that included hamburgers, hot dogs and soft drinks.
Ken Walters, who said he has been with Algenol since December 2011 and works in shipping and receiving, said there are definitely 127 employees at Algenol.
“It’s pretty obvious when you look and see, we are not a scam,” Walters said. “We are very passionate about what we are doing.”
Algenol only has trade secrets to hide, but he understands the county commissioner has a responsibility to perform, Walters said.
“The whole county got burned on the VR Labs deal,” Walters said. “I think we’ve brought in above and beyond what (our) contract was, and we’ll continue to grow.”
Tabitha Amendolara, senior lab technician who started working at Algenol a month before Walters, said she moved from New Jersey to Southwest Florida specifically for that job.
“We have a great company. It’s a great place to work,” she said.
When asked by a reporter if she was a paid actress, she laughed.
“I’m a real scientist,” Amendolara said.