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Staff photo by Don Himsel

Dr. Carl Rick Schwerdtfeger, left, and Dr. Kedar Gupta talk with President Barack Obama during his visit to ARC Energy in Nashua Tuesday, February 2, 2010.Staff photo by Don Himsel

President Obama, Nashua, February 2, 2010Staff file photo by Don Himsel

Dr. Rick Schwerdtfeger, left, and Dr. Kedar Gupta met with President Barack Obama during his stop at ARC Energy in Nashua Tuesday, February 2, 2010.
Thursday, February 4, 2010

A day like no other for ARC, workers

NASHUA – If Kedar Gupta kept a journal, here’s what Tuesday’s entry might look like:

“Met the president of the United States. Bent his ear about the importance of small business. Even hitched a ride in the motorcade!”

Not bad for a day’s work.

Tuesday was indeed a special day for Gupta, co-founder of ARC Energy LLC in Nashua, a 2-year-old company that specializes in innovative ways to grow crystals for energy-efficient light systems.

Gupta, perhaps best-known for having founded GT Solar in Merrimack, may have surpassed that distinction this week as ARC was chosen for a visit by President Barack Obama, who swept in en route to Nashua High School North for a town hall-style meeting to tout plans related to his budget.

So out of the hundreds of possible companies, how did ARC get the call?

It all started Jan. 25, when Gupta was in the Netherlands on business. Actually, because it was midnight, he was in the Netherlands sleeping when his BlackBerry sounded.

The caller was from the White House.

‘I said, ‘What?’ ” Gupta recalled with a laugh, noting his groggy state.

The White House staffer informed Gupta that ARC Energy was being considered as a stopping point for “a high-level person.” Gupta was given few other details, so he connected the staffer to those holding down the fort at home.

“We weren’t sure who the high-level person could be,” Gupta said. After all, there were plenty of possibilities: Cabinet members, senators, secretaries and the like.

In the middle of last week, Rick Schwerdtfeger, ARC’s chief technology officer, welcomed the first wave of federal officials to the plant on Route 101A – about 10 people from the advance team and communications staff, Secret Service and military personnel.

That group swept through the 7,000-square-foot building for security issues and other questions about the company’s operations.

The next day, they came back. By then, Gupta said, the 12 ARC Energy folks suspected the “high-level person” could be the leader of the free world.

“We started getting our hopes up,” he said, adding that he believes the company was recommended by local small-business organizations and state representatives.

In the meantime, with the company’s support, the federal team camped out in a conference room and continued with logistics: parking, identifying proper entrances and exits, background checking employees, examining ARC’s equipment for potential hazards, installing a secure phone line and designating a room for emergencies, and checking roof access – just in case snipers were needed, Schwerdtfeger said.

“They were very thorough, but very courteous and professional. Very accommodating, but they meant business,” Gupta said. “There was no display of undue power.”

By Friday, ARC officials knew they’d definitely been selected to host the “high-level person” – still unidentified.

But after having watched Obama’s State of the Union address days earlier, which focused on creating jobs, exporting goods and energy efficiency, Gupta was even more convinced the visitor would be the president.

“We fit all the ingredients he had in the State of the Union message, so we started feeling more comfortable it was him,” Gupta said.

On Monday, the hunch was at last confirmed. The White House staffers provided an exact schedule: Obama would arrive and check out the plant with just Gupta, Schwerdtfeger and the Secret Service. The press would come in, shoot footage and leave. ARC employees would be ushered in to meet Obama. The end.

“Every minute was mapped out,” Gupta said, adding that they were instructed to keep the visit quiet.

Finally, after a week of planning, Tuesday arrived. The advance team blocked off part of the parking lot. A bomb-sniffing dog swept the building., Employees were body-searched and instructed not to leave. Staffers kept in contact with the presidential motorcade.

“We knew within a 15-minute range where he was, and when he’d be arriving,” Gupta said.

Neither he nor Schwerdtfeger could see Obama’s car pull up because a tent had been put up at the back door, and the building’s windows were blocked off.

Then, Obama was suddenly inside, shaking their hands.

“It was surreal – the only word that comes to mind,” Schwerdtfeger said. “He’s the most powerful, influential man on the face of the world, and here he is walking through the doors of a 2½-year-old company with 10 or 12 employees. … I mean, I’m just a humble little farm boy from Illinois. It was like, ‘Holy cow.’ ”

Gupta shook Obama’s hand and welcomed him.

“He was so casual,” Gupta said, recalling Obama’s words as, “ ‘Tell me what you’re doing, I’m so excited to learn about it.’ Immediately, he became like a friend, rather than being like a president.”

The pair took Obama around the manufacturing part of the plant and talked shop as the press snapped photos and stuck microphone booms above their heads.

Schwerdtfeger called Obama “a good listener” who asked clarifying questions to make sure he understood.

The press recorded the tour and conversation and then was ushered out.

The employees were then ushered in. Obama shook everyone’s hand before the group assembled under a welcome banner for a photo.

Renu Gupta, Kedar’s wife who also works at ARC, had a camera. Obama then asked White House photographer Pete Sousa to use it for a photograph.

After Sousa snapped one, Renu Gupta asked him to take a second, just in case.

“It was kind of funny because the president said, ‘He’s a pretty good photographer. I’m pretty sure he got it on the first try,’ ” Schwerdtfeger said, with a laugh.

Obama and the White House team presented certificates of appreciation to the staff and then hustled out the door.

In all, the whole visit lasted about 20 minutes.

“How it passed, don’t ask me,” Gupta said. “It flew by like a second. …I don’t know what I said. The only way I found out was from when I saw the news clips.”

Gupta and Schwerdtfeger’s adventure continued, though, as they were whisked into an SUV and joined the motorcade to Nashua North High School.

“That was a great experience,” Gupta said. “All the roads were closed. They were traveling on both sides of the lane. Every intersection was blocked. It was like going in an ambulance.”

“That was almost my favorite part,” agreed Schwerdtfeger, who remembered traveling behind a vehicle with an open hatch, revealing some machinegun-toting personnel. A helicopter led the way.

Things had a hard time settling down at ARC, even Wednesday.

“We’re still mesmerized and still in a different world,” Gupta said.

Schwerdtfeger reported that the phone was busy all day with congratulations from vendors, people wanting to invest and even people looking for jobs.

“We’re honored as a small company, just really humbled and grateful for the opportunity,” Schwerdtfeger said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

And as if the day couldn’t get more exciting, ARC Energy also secured a $10 million capital venture investment Tuesday, which will accelerate their development.

Schwerdtfeger asked, “How do you top that?”

Karen Lovett can be reached at 594-6402 or klovett@nashuatelegraph.com.