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Zap native retires after lengthy 3M career: Vickie Batroot closes book on 37 years with global company

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — Vickie Batroot’s introduction to 3M-Cottage Grove came not as site director but as college intern.

In 1977, Batroot was a University of North Dakota chemical engineering student on a one-year internship at 3M headquarters in Maplewood. She spent a quarter of the year in each of four areas: research and development; marketing; product development; and production.

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The production portion of her internship brought her to 3M’s Cottage Grove campus.

“It was a great experience,” she recalled. “I just loved it.”

Batroot returned to UND to finish two years of chemical engineering before embarking on a long career with 3M. Her upward path through corporate ranks concluded with a lengthy stint as executive at the sprawling Cottage Grove facility during a time in which growth in the business operation coincided with controversies that strained the relationship between the company and its host community. Batroot formally retires on Tuesday after nearly 37 years with 3M.

Batroot’s career path might have been hard to predict when she was growing up in the small farming community of Zap, about 85 miles northwest of Bismarck. The family farmhouse did not have hot water or indoor toilets during her childhood; a trip to Fargo might have been considered a vacation; and she was one of seven in her 1974 high school graduating class.

However, Batroot said her parents and one teacher, in particular, encouraged her interest in math and science. She said she can still picture doing her homework while helping her father as he operated a combine in the field.

“I did trigonometry during harvest season,” she said.

Batroot spent the first roughly 21 years of her 3M career based at company headquarters, all within manufacturing. In 2000, she took a job overseeing a health care product manufacturing plant in Brookings, S.D. She enjoyed the work.

“I can get more jazzed about seeing a wound dressing as a result of my efforts than I can a sheet of sandpaper,” she admitted.

She returned to headquarters in 2003 to participate in an initiative called “Six Sigma,” which focused on cutting costs by reducing waste and improving business processes. Her successor at 3M-Cottage Grove, Mike Bahma, also spent time working in the Six Sigma program.

Batroot moved to a new position in 2005-06: corporate safety director. She traveled globally, visiting 3M facilities in Europe, South America, Asia and elsewhere, and leading company safety initiatives.

That experience, along with her manufacturing background, put her in a position to lead the Cottage Grove facility.

Batroot carefully described the local plant as having a “sizeable footprint with risk.” The 740-employee facility has more than 110 buildings and operations in over 35 of them. There are five manufacturing divisions and seven pilot plants that serve as a manufacturing intermediary between research and development and full-scale production.

It’s one of the largest 3M plants in the world; it’s a chemical plant; it operates a hazardous waste incinerator; and it’s on a major waterway — the Mississippi River.

“Risk is everywhere,” Batroot said, “but we manage it.”

Perception problems

When Batroot came to Cottage Grove in 2007, 3M already had agreed with state health officials on a remediation plan for the company’s perfluorochemical pollution that contaminated drinking water in the east metro.

Batroot had a behind-the-scenes role in that issue, saying she made sure resources were available at the facility so “corporate folks could do their jobs” to fulfill remediation obligations.

As the state’s research into PFC contamination continues, Batroot said she is confident in the company’s handling of the remediation.

“I know 3M has done everything it’s been asked to do, and is doing everything it needs to do,” she said. “We are determined to be a good corporate citizen and a good community neighbor.”

The company’s relationship with Cottage Grove was put to a difficult test when 3M sought state permitting to expand the fuel source for its hazardous waste incinerator. The company had reduced its own waste stream and was buying natural gas to supplement material burned by the incinerator. It wanted to open the incinerator to non-3M-generated waste.

State officials in 2012 concluded that 3M’s plan to burn certain outside would only minimally increase air pollution levels, but some local residents and city leaders were strongly against the plan. Citizens organized to lobby against the permit and protested 3M’s request at city and state meetings.

“We saw the opportunity to do something good for the environment and it was difficult to get that understood by most people,” Batroot said of the company’s reduced use of chemical solvents and ability to provide a disposal alternative for non-3M waste.

Batroot said she learned the importance of communication during the incinerator debate. If people have questions and the company does not effectively answer them, she said, some people will make their own conclusions.

“People were concerned, and I totally got that,” she said.

The debate also exposed a perception problem: There was a belief that the 1,700-acre site was off limits to the public and its operations were a mystery to some.

Batroot said she worked to make it more open and transparent, including by offering more public tours of the facility. Those tours are still offered.

‘She helped work through those issues’

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said Batroot was forthcoming with city officials on the PFC and incinerator issues and maintained a level-headed response while 3M was getting “attacked” by people skeptical of the company’s incinerator plan.

“There was a lot of animosity between the citizens and the city and 3M,” Bailey said, who was among opponents of the initial incinerator proposal. “With her help we worked through those issues.”

Bailey said Batroot helped to establish an agreement with the city on an air monitoring policy, beyond what the company was required to do. Early results of that monitoring have not raised concerns about pollutant levels leaving the incinerator.

“Now that we’ve had data come back that supports that fears were unfounded, I think that’s helped stem some of the fears,” he said.

Bailey said the relationship between the community and 3M has improved and was guardedly optimistic about the future.

“Our relationship is good, but we always want to make sure we have good checks and balances in place as we move forward,” he said.

Batroot said she chose to retire now because she has completed some multi-year projects at the facility. She doesn’t foresee more work in her future. She plans a quiet retirement with her husband, Gregg, at their home in Baytown Township near Stillwater.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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