While many firms have struggled and even folded during the global recession, Sustainable Energy Developments Inc. is weathering the storm, its leader says.
In fact, CEO Kevin Schulte says times have been good for SED, a company in Ontario, Wayne County, that he and several college buddies started.
The firm is a developer of decentralized wind energy projects throughout the northeastern United States. The economic downturn, coupled with skyrocketing energy prices, prompted energy users to look to firms like SED for alternative power sources.
SED’s sales pipeline is flowing freely, says Schulte, 31, and the firm is enjoying support from federal, state and local governments.
"Green power is expected to be one of the things that bring us out of the recession, and we’ve been looked at to do that," he says.
Schulte’s interest in wind energy began when he was an undergraduate at James Madison University in Virginia. During his sophomore year, Schulte traveled to Malta and studied wind power there. He quickly became enamored.
"First, it was the most cost-effective renewable energy at the time, and second, as a little kid, I loved building big things," he says.
Although he originally had wanted to be a physician and was drawn to the Virginia school by its biotechnology department, Schulte’s decision to pursue his interest in the environment was helped by James Winebrake, one of his professors.
Winebrake, who now is chairman of the department of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, describes his former student as a hard worker and says it was clear even when Schulte was an undergrad that he would succeed in business.
"He showed a dedication and passion for the renewable energy (sector) which I had never seen before in a student," Winebrake recalls.
Schulte was not the only James Madison student enthralled with wind power. He teamed up with classmates Loren Pruskowski and Scott Abbett to write a senior thesis on the topic. The three also shared a desire to do something different after graduation and discussed owning a business or starting a non-profit organization.
In 2000, Schulte received his bachelor’s degree in integrated science and technology, with a concentration in environmental engineering and energy systems design. The major also included studies in public policy as a way to advance developing technologies.
After graduation, the three friends went their separate ways. Schulte took a job with Renewable Energy Systems Inc., a British wind farm developer, owner and operator, and was based in Texas as a development manager. He worked on development teams for several utility-scale wind farms and was involved in designing the turbine layout.
Schulte was ready for a shift to a more entrepreneurial business environment and eager to leave Texas when he received a call from former classmate Pruskowski shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Pruskowski was working for a wind business in Albany, and he asked whether Schulte was ready to start a business.
Six months later, SED was formed.
The firm, which today employs 16 people, had humble beginnings: Its first office was a one-bedroom apartment near Schenectady. But soon Schulte and his partners moved SED to a location in Delanson, just west of Albany.
The firm was co-founded by Schulte and Pruskowski, now SED’s chief financial officer, along with James Madison buddies George McConochie, chief operations officer; Ernest Pritchard, director of small wind operations; and Joseph Swaha, director of construction. Later, Abbett and another college friend, David Strong, joined the venture as senior project managers.
SED develops distributed wind projects for businesses, municipalities, residences, schools and farms. It has developed projects ranging from 10 kilowatts to several megawatts. Staffers work with clients on issues such as determining the appropriate turbine layouts based on wind analysis, securing permits and regulatory approval, and overseeing construction and maintenance.
The firm has 26 residential turbines in New York and also develops and builds commercial turbines that directly power businesses. A recent focus has been community wind-small wind farms intended for local ownership.
Schulte, who stepped into the top job last fall, says his task is to provide the leadership, vision and passion that drive growth for the company.
With $2 million in sales last year, the business broke even, Schulte says. SED is starting to come into its own since breaking away from its original business model of supporting the large wind farm industry. He expects a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in sales this year.
Move to Ontario
SED moved to Ontario in July 2005 at the urging of Robert Bechtold, president of Harbec Plastics Inc., who is a well-known local supporter of alternative energy initiatives. The move was aided by a grant from the Wayne County Industrial Development Agency.
The firm’s arrival in Ontario came at a time of strong state and local support for wind power. That waned, however, and Massachusetts soon became the company’s strongest market.
Schulte managed the design and installation of SED’s first major project, a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Mass. The completion in July 2007 made Jiminy the first ski resort to produce electricity from wind.
Next, he managed the design and installation of a 600-kilowatt wind turbine project at Holy Name Junior/Senior Central Catholic High School in Worcester, Mass. The project, completed in October 2008, made the high school the first in the state to be 100 percent powered by the wind.
SED is heavily involved in the residential side of the wind business in New York, but the bulk of its work is in Massachusetts, where the company has an unstaffed office that Schulte expects to staff in the next 12 months. Commercial business represents 85 percent to 90 percent of the firm’s work.
Bechtold praises Schulte’s skill.
"He’s a combination of the vitality of youth and the wisdom of age in one person," Bechtold says. "Kevin has a great enthusiasm and a great passion for renewable energy and wants to do something to fix this mess we’re in."
In addition to his knowledge of wind power and alternative energy, Bechtold notes, Schulte is well-versed in the politics of wind power development, from regulations to ordinances.
Bechtold calls SED a breath of fresh air.
"I’ve seen a lot of storytellers and smoke sellers in this business over the years," he says. "(SED) is an incredible group of none of that."
Bechtold also is impressed with SED’s push into community wind, something that has been successful outside the United States.
Development and engineering offices occupy most of SED’s 6,000-square-foot headquarters. The firm is in one of the first structures built at Wayne Industrial Sustainability Park, and Bechtold’s Harbec Plastics is next door. The park is designed to be powered by alternative energy.
Building the market
In addition to being CEO, Schulte is responsible for the business development group-encompassing sales, marketing, public relations, policy and technology selection-as well as providing technical guidance and financing expertise on all projects. Schulte spends half of his time on the road, meeting customers and dealing with policy issues.
"A big part of my time is building the market," he says, adding that he has the car mileage to prove it. His 2-year-old car has logged roughly 150,000 miles.
When he is in the office, Schulte’s chief role is to offer guidance.
"My goal is to push everyone else in the company forward and let their projects move forward," he says. "With everything that’s going on in the country right now, there’s no reason this business doesn’t continue to move and grow."
Schulte moved into his office six weeks ago, and it remains sparsely decorated. A few miniature replicas of wind turbines line the windowsill, and public policy books line Schulte’s shelf. His black lab, Frankie, wanders in and out.
Pruskowski says Schulte’s communication skills are an asset in his role as CEO.
"He likes to talk and knows how to engage people and draw them in," Pruskow-ski says, adding that Schulte’s business skills also serve him well. "He has a presence in a meeting."
Schulte says he is a better leader than manager, with his job being to promote the collective vision of the company and put the pieces in place to move the business forward.
"I’m here to inspire, to be a resource for employees," he says. "I’m not a micromanager."
As for his leadership style, Schulte says he is just one of the guys. Though he is SED’s top executive, he says the firm operates by making group decisions.
"I truly believe that we are a company that is founded in the principle that no one person is more important than the others," he says.
He is focused on educating the public about SED and explaining how SED-branded wind power is more valuable to the region than other wind power.
Schulte serves as vice chairman of the Small Wind Committee for the American Wind Energy Association. This year, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior formed the 25x’25 Alliance and asked Schulte to sit on its steering committee. The organization’s goal is to get 25 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable resources like wind, solar and biofuels by 2025.
Wind power projects often generate strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Schulte relishes the challenge of explaining SED’s community wind model to a well-informed opposition, although he says it rarely comes up because the firm’s projects are designed to maximize local economic benefits rather than put profits in well-lined corporate pockets.
Schulte says most objections to wind power projects can be resolved by careful turbine placement.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing to know about wind power is that everything is scientific, except for whether or not you want to look at it," Schulte says. "That’s a perception issue, and I can’t cure a perception issue."
RIT’s Winebrake admires Schulte’s character and willingness to take professional risks, such as moving toward the community wind model.
"He has always shown a willingness to go out on a limb, take a risk and do things others would be afraid to try," Winebrake says.
He believes Schulte’s vision and passion for wind energy make him a pioneer in the field and foster creativity at SED.
Despite his professional focus, Winebrake says, Schulte is fun to be around and has the ability to add humor and perspective to his work.
"He knows when it’s time to not take himself seriously and when he should," Winebrake says. "Being able to distinguish between the two has served him well."
Schulte comes from an Irish Catholic family and is the third of four children. His youngest sister, Meaghann, serves as SED’s director of marketing and public relations.
When he is not working, the single Schulte enjoys hanging out at a small farm he owns with McConochie and Strong. The three own 20-plus acres in Sodus where they tend roughly 80 apple trees. Schulte enjoys being outdoors, is a fan of hiking with his girlfriend and plays some golf. He is also an avid fan of all Philadelphia sports teams.
Professionally, Schulte expects SED to remain locally based and sees growth coming from new offices in markets where the firm is active.
He believes it is important to cultivate SED’s family dynamic and thinks working with close friends and sharing ideas is the key to success.
"Back at college I knew I was around brilliant people, and when that happens, you just want to keep that brilliance around you," he says.
Position: Co-founder and CEO, Sustainable Energy Developments Inc.
Education: B.S., integrated science and technology, James Madison University in Virginia, 2000
Residence: Sodus, Wayne County
Outside activities: Being outdoors, hiking, spending time with friends and girlfriend, golf
Quote: "At the end of the day, the most important thing to know about wind power is that everything is scientific, except for whether or not you want to look at it. That’s a perception issue, and I can’t cure a perception issue."
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08/28/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.