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Monday, 21 May 2012 11:12

Global solar business blooms in Holland

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Global solar business blooms in Holland Courtesy photo
HOLLAND — A small, but growing West Michigan-based solar lighting company has found its products in demand not so much in its backyard, but in developing foreign markets. 

Solar Street Lights USA's big ambitions are akin to the size of the shop's mascot, a 160-pound St. Bernard named Guess.

The growing husband and wife operation of Craig Brumels and Lynn Truhn operate from a 15,000-square-foot industrial warehouse with five employees, and on occasion some temporary workers when large orders need to be filled.

The crew regularly works seven days a week filling orders from clients that are sometimes thousands of miles away.

In its 3.5-year existence, Solar Street Lights USA went from a shaky start-up to a growing company with five patents and its completely American made products, which it has sold in faraway developing countries including Guam, Nepal, and Trinidad.

Before starting Solar Streets Lights USA, Brumels traveled constantly installing solar powered equipment throughout the U.S., Caribbean and Canada. Brumels was a marine electrician and briefly taught wind and solar technology classes at the now closed Jordan Energy Institute. After 20 years of working in the field, Brumels decided he was done traveling and began pulling together the pieces for the Solar Street Lights USA.

"I just got tired of traveling so much, so I stood back and looked at all my different areas I had experience in, and looked at what I thought the market could use and jumped into the solar lighting business," Brumels said. "We came up with some ideas that are a little different from everybody else. We went and applied for a patent on our mount, and some other process. The most recent patent was issued last summer."

Challenges past and present

When the couple first decided to pursue their own business, the first challenge they faced was with the banks. They needed some start-up capital, but Brumels said the banks "wouldn't touch us." He said the banks didn't understand the market and weren't ready to support solar-based energy products.

Calling on family support for the initial investment, it was roughly a year and a half before Truhn and Brumels suddenly started taking on a wave of orders.

"In the first year it was just kind of trial and error. We were trying to get our patents and put a website together, which was a disaster," Brumels said. "I think we made some mistakes a lot of people make."

While Solar Street Lights experienced a rocky start not untypical of many new businesses, the company also managed through a couple of unforeseeable tragedies early on. Not long after the company was up and running, an employee embezzled $33,000. The Holland Sentinel reported the employee used a company credit card to make purchases on Amazon.com.

"We're still dealing with that," Truhn said.

Not long after, both Truhn and Brumels were in terrible car accident that left Truhn with a broken neck, broken ribs and countless other injuries after another vehicle drifted into the couple's lane, forcing them off the road into a tree. Guess, the dog, was also in the vehicle and was flung to front of the car. The massive dog bounced off the windshield and into Truhn, which potentially saved Truhn's life as the car's airbags didn't deploy, they said. The dog walked away unharmed.

Truhn's following recovery left her unable to tend to matters concerning the business, and for a time Brumels and his team scrambled to keep orders flowing.

Now, the couple is to a point where they are struggling to develop new products and manage the business at the same time.

"Business is just starting to go crazy," Truhn said. "I mean, really, it's scary."

Truhn said Brumels would like to spend more time refining and working up new systems for the company's products, but staying up on bids for potential projects requires his constant attention.

When MiBiz spoke with the partners, the company was looking to hire a second engineer, one who could also do estimating and sales. Truhn said she hoped she could find someone with solar experience.

"To try and duplicate or clone Craig, that's going to be impossible, but that's what we hope to do because he's just overloaded," she said. "Research and development is what he would love to be doing, but he just doesn't have the time."

With talent in short supply locally, finding a sustainable candidate has been difficult, Truhn said.

"A lot of the electrical guys here in Holland were gobbled up by LG Chem and Johnson controls," Brumels said.

Keeping pace

From the onset, Brumels said getting customers to try Solar Street Lights' products was a brutal challenge. For almost 20 years, Sol Inc. and Solar Electric Power Co., two Florida-based solar lighting companies, have been the major players in the market and are now Solar Street Lights' primary competitors.

Brumels said many customers first have an unsatisfactory run with a competitor's product and then seek out a better quality solar lighting system. He said many of the companies in the solar lighting market incorporate cheaper foreign components in their products, whereas Solar Street Lights is American-made.

"The hardest thing to do is get our lights out in the field, when all the jobs out there on bid have our competitor's name in," Brumels said. "Some of the first projects we did, we got (the customer) to a comfort level just by talking through our product, the benefits and the quality."

Early on Solar Street Lights did a lot of work for military bases, capitalizing on their dissatisfaction with other solar lights, Brumels said.

"They would try other prodcuts, find out they're not happy with them, then try ours and request a bigger project," he said. "Fort Polk in Louisiana was our biggest project. Their first order was 180 lights. I brought in some extra help and had the project finished in three weeks."

Brumels said he is able to so quickly put lights together because of a standardized system he employs to keep overhead low, while also incorporating specific weather data from a site that can help determine the power load, type of solar panel needed and the battery type that will match best. Brumels designed the lights to be assembled with just a few connections, which makes it easy for the general contractors, he said.

Finding new markets

From the start, much of Solar Street Lights' business came from southern states, as the demand and climate conditions align consistently and the products are more viable options as opposed to in a state like Michigan.

However, the company is seeing more and more inquiries from overseas and emerging markets in South America, Central America, and Africa. While many of the regions lack significant electric infrastructure, the potential for solar power is abundant and practical as well as cost-effective, he said.

"These are huge emerging markets for solar and that's what we're steering our business toward, though we are still focused on the U.S.," Brumels said.

Over the last couple of years, the company secured many contracts through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But with those funds history, the company is looking to get its products more readily available in those emerging countries.

When MiBiz met with Solar Street Lights, Brumels and Truhn were preparing to leave for Trinidad, to evaluate eight different sites where the government wants solar lights, including a government highway.

As for the African segment of the market, the process has been slow going.

"With Africa, we don't know yet. We've been trying to break into that market since day one. It has been really difficult," Brumels said. "They buy in price and not in quality and it's finally starting to come back that the lights they bought on price aren't working, so now they're starting to look for higher quality."

Brumels said funding for projects from the emerging regions is always really tight, so educating the buyers on the differences between his product and a competitor's is the biggest challenge.

Aside from the emerging markets, Brumels said he also sees a lot of potential in the offshore markets. It's just a matter of finding the right people that can market the lights and talk intelligently about them and their differences, he said.

The company is also developing innovations to control light fixtures to maximize their potential throughout the day. Customers are also demanding the ability to dim the lights and for the products to come with more decorative designs.

Truhn said the company tries to stay competitive with what the market wants and to slowly chip away at its competitors,

"We were nipping at their heels and then we were in their shoes. Now we're wearing their shoes," she said.

 

Read 1020 times Last modified on Thursday, 30 August 2012 23:33
Elijah Brumback

Staff Writer

ebrumback@mibiz.com

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