Palace City Profile: Life is POETry for the Waugh family
Palace City Profiles is an ongoing series of community members' stories, introducing us to the people and the possibilities that reside in our region. Know someone that has found their palace in the Mitchell area? Contact Jacki Miskimins with suggestions at 996-1140.
Growing up in Blair, Nebraska, Nick Waugh never thought much about the local manufacturing plant.
"It was an enormous facility in town, but I didn't know what happened there," he recalls.
Yet, he eventually found his way to working in manufacturing himself — right in Mitchell, where he is the Plant Manager for POET Biorefining.
In high school, Waugh enjoyed advanced math and science classes — particularly chemistry. His chemistry instructor encouraged him to pursue engineering, and he ultimately enrolled at Iowa State University to study Chemical Engineering.
In 2007, he interned for a natural gas company that looked at infrastructure, pipelines and how to detect corrosion.
"I worked a lot with people from all over, from Texas to Wisconsin," Waugh said. "And it was an interesting job. I learned a lot, but I worked in a cubicle, a five-by-five little world. And I thought, I just don't know if I want to do this."
The next year he accepted a different internship, this time with POET in Sioux Falls. There, he worked with plant management learning how the biorefining process works, traveling to several plants, and working with plant operators. "It really showed me the scope of plant management, and I realized it was actually a lot of teaching — how do you take this highly scientific process, and teach it to those who need to actually run the machinery to make it happen?" Waugh recalls.
He was hooked. "It didn't feel like work. It was rewarding, and fun and challenging," Waugh said. On the last week of his internship, POET offered him a full-time job as a process engineer — and he hasn't looked back.
In the middle of an ice storm in January, he and his now-wife Katie moved to Sioux Falls. "I didn't know much about South Dakota, but the people I encountered were very nice," Waugh said.
The next few years were a whirlwind of learning, tackling large projects, and a series of quick promotions. Meanwhile, he and Katie married, purchased a home, and welcomed two children, son Avery, 5, and daughter Lexi, 4.
"It was very busy," Waugh said. "It was a lot of traveling to work on these big projects. Four days on, four days off, for nine months. Katie was working too, and we had two little kids at home, so the travel was really hard on the family."
He heard of an opening in the Mitchell facility that would require less travel, and "jumped on it," he said. "I knew some of the Mitchell team and knew it was a good team environment. And we were already three hours away from our families, so we figured another hour wasn't that bad," he laughed.
In June of 2015, the family moved to town and Nick started as the plant's process engineer, gaining location-specific knowledge and experience in management. In February he was promoted to Plant manager, where he oversees both the day-to-day operations as well as various improvement projects that last anywhere from two weeks to eight months.
He works closely with operators to make sure they have what they need, and communicates often with corporate headquarters in Sioux Falls to ensure the plant is running smoothly and secures support when needed.
He's been surprised at what he's come to enjoy most about the job.
"I really enjoy the teaching part of it. It's really rewarding, and I wasn't expecting that, going into this career; I thought I'd be a nerdy guy sitting behind a phone," Waugh said.
As it is, though, he describes the role as half-office, half-plant: "I always have the option to go out and physically touch something we're working on."
At 31, Nick finds it strange to think back on how far his career has already come.
"It's hard to believe I've been with POET for nine years," he said. At 31, "It doesn't feel like I should be the old, wise engineer. So that's kind of weird." At the same time, however, he notes that it's not uncommon to advance so rapidly in manufacturing careers.
The move to Mitchell has been good for his family. Katie found a position at Wells Fargo, and the kids settled into their new routines attending Mitchell Christian Pre-K program. "We like the town; we can see ourselves here a long time. It seems like there are a lot of young families in town, and our kids are already involved in activities. Everything is in Mitchell that we need."
And this time, he knows what happens at the local manufacturing plant.