ASHLAND, Ky. — Craig Bouchard has only to look outside the window of his downtown office in this northeastern Kentucky city for motivation.
Ashland is a shell of what it used to be. But if Bouchard has his way, that will change.
Bouchard, chairman and CEO of Braidy Industries, is leading an ambitious initiative to build a $1.3 billion state-of-the-art aluminum rolling mill in an area that hasn’t had positive economic news in almost 30 years. In less than two months, Braidy plans to break ground on a greenfield rolling mill that is named after one of Bouchard’s six children.
For people in the northeastern Kentucky area, news of hundreds of high-paying jobs has restored hope.
“We chose here because of these families,” Bouchard said. “We’re taking on that job and I think we’re going to succeed. These people have been pushed around long enough. I feel the weight of these 10,000 families on my shoulders every day. This crowd in Ashland, they'll do it."
Bouchard’s sparkling new office, located on the refurbished third floor of a bank building, already has some local roots in it. A print given to him by Gov. Matt Bevin hangs on one wall. A photo of Greenup County High School’s national championship cheerleaders is framed on a shelf along with books from local authors.
Before he knew much about the area, he heard of the 16-time national championship squad and decided, if the people there have that kind of discipline and determination, they have what it takes to succeed.
And there’s this: his wife, Melissa, is a former tennis player for the University of Kentucky. So, some Big Blue is in the family, too.
Bouchard immediately got everyone’s attention when he announced that the plant would hire 550 workers with starting pay of between $50,000 to $70,000 annually - about twice the median income in the area - with benefits, a fitness facility and a day care. As of last week, 5,500 people had filled out applications, some coming with personal appeals, including one from a grandmother pleading to know how her grandson could become an employee.
Another 1,000 local laborers are expected to be part of the plant construction over the next two years. Braidy hopes to be running by 2020 and have already sold 160 percent of the product, which will take them into phase two of a plant that will eventually produce more than 900,000 tons of aluminum annually.
But Bouchard, 64, said his plant’s employment won’t be the end of it. Other satellite companies – at least 10 – are already talking about coming, he said. The ripple effect could create thousands of additional jobs in an area that has taken some punches.
Once an employment hub, the Ashland area has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, especially in the last 20 years. In 1998, Ashland Oil relocated to northern Kentucky. Two years ago, AK Steel laid off 600 workers. Last year, CSX Railroad sliced 100 jobs because of reduced traffic from the coal mines.
Last March, during the final hours of the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers approved the Bevin administration’s request for a $15 million incentive for what was described at the time as a mystery economic development project.
About a month later, Bevin announced Braidy Industries would be building the massive aluminum rolling mill. The $15 million was transferred to Commonwealth Seed Capital, a limited liability company that’s owned by the state and is listed as one of the shareholders. Commonwealth Seed Capital invested the money in Braidy Industries but has the option to sell its shares back to Braidy if the company fails to start building the mill by June 30, 2018, or if Braidy doesn’t invest a minimum of $1 billion in the mill by June 30, 2020.
Northeastern Kentucky competed with 23 others for the rolling mill and the logistics favored Ashland, largely because of its skilled workforce, and Kentucky’s tax incentives along with low-cost electricity. But if Gov. Bevin had not signed right-to-work legislation in January 2017, the plant would have gone to someone else, Bouchard said.
The state has agreed to potentially provide more than $12 million in tax incentives to the company. Up to $10 million of those incentives are tied to hitting job numbers and wage targets over a 15-year period. The other $2.5 million in incentives is meant to offset taxes on construction materials.
It would not be wise to confuse Bouchard’s affable personality with his business persona. He likes to say kindness doesn’t mean weakness.
"Some people try to take advantage of me because I like to say yes and I like to help," Bouchard said. "But it's the wrong image in my opinion that I'm a very kind person. But as the general (Blaine Holt) would tell you, you shouldn't confuse kindness with weakness because I'm not a very weak person in business."