How DPW Solar survived Y2K with a little help from the Georgian army

DPW Solar’s precision CNC press forms Easy Feet mounting attachments for roof applications.

DPW Solar’s precision CNC press forms Easy Feet mounting attachments for roof applications.

DPW Solar started with a 200-page business plan. Kevin Goodreau had spent a year writing it, and when the time came to announce his ambition, he invited a close colleague, Jeff Randall, over for dinner to share the news. The men were employees of Zomeworks, a solar engineering firm founded by Steve Baer in 1969. Randall was a vice president and Goodreau was the business manager.

When Goodreau shared his idea to start a solar integration and distribution company, Randall said he, too, was thinking about setting out on his own, although his inclination was toward manufacturing. It seemed to be serendipity.

I said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to re-do the business plan,” Goodreau said. When the new plan was finished, the men put their 401(k)s on the line and started Direct Power and Water—later known as DPW Solar.

At first, the company focused on farms with water pumps powered by wind turbines. Goodreau estimated 10,000 such pumps stood in the southwest corner of New Mexico alone, and compared to solar, they were five times the cost to operate. The pair aimed to replace them all. The first product they sold was called the Sunbelt Pump, in a town called Tierra Amarillo. The pump used a DPW Solar two-panel top-of-pole mount.

When the business started, about 80% of sales came from distribution and installation. Much of the solar installation business came from survivalists who were protecting against the effects of Y2K. “One man spent $140,000 on a back-up system,” Goodreau said.

When the new millennium came and society didn’t collapse, the solar installation jobs decreased. However, the company secured a contract with an engineering firm and eventually won an overseas project to supply remote power systems to the Georgian army for surveillance and detection. Goodreau and Randall built plug-and-play systems that could be dropped by helicopter, meeting very strict specifications.

That chance contract, along with turnkey solar installations for remote homes that could not be serviced by the electric company, kept DPW in business until grid-connected power became a force. The company completed the first two grid-tied solar electric systems in the state in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories, also based in Albuquerque.

Another driving force was its employees.

All the core people we hired were passionate about solar,” Goodreau said. “Michael Reed, who now works at Array Technologies, was one of the first. A lot of the others are still here.

These people didn’t come to this industry because we were paying them huge money, but we did the best we could to take care of them,” he said.

By 2003, the grid-tied solar market was beginning to take off in California. DPW Solar started shipping racking to the state—especially its ballasted and rail systems. The business started to grow, and expenses in manufacturing were escalating.

We had no inclination to sell the company,” Goodreau said. “We were getting offers all the time by fax, and we would just shred them.”

But then came Performed Line Products (PLP), an Ohio-based company that was interested in expanding into the renewable energy market. A visit to Albuquerque showed the company had a synergy with Randall and Goodreau and the capital the pair needed to take the business to the next level.

DPW Solar is well-known in the solar industry for having a well-designed, robust product,” said John Markiewicz, general manager at DPW Solar and Performed Line Products. “PLP is known for the same in the power utility and telecommunications industries.”

Retaining its name, DPW Solar grew exponentially in the first five to six years after the acquisition, with the mounting business becoming the key driver. The trend continues today, albeit with a slower pace due to competition in the market. The business aims to differentiate itself with quality and reliability, while also being cost-conscious.

At Solar Power International 2014, the company introduced three new products.

For us to be competitive going forward, we have to keep innovating and creating new products,” Randall said. “We are combining PLP and DPW engineering groups and people to make the next generation of products. As soon as we are done with one generation, we’re working on the next.”

One thing Randall said the company won’t do, despite market pressure, is sacrifice quality.

We sell to customers who value an engineered and robust system,” Randall said. “To be competitive, we have to get more aggressive on our designs. Customers are looking closer at price, but we continue to sell on quality and durability.” SPW