August 2012 has been nothing short of exceptional for Traverse City entrepreneurs Tim Pulliam and Steve Morse.
Last week, the respective president and CEO of local energy-conservation firm Keen Technical Solutions got word that their not-quite five-year-old, 14-person company had captured the entrepreneur’s equivalent of the Holy Grail: a spot on Inc. magazine’s annual list of the 500 fastest growing private companies in America.
A day later, the pair bought one of the hottest pieces of property in downtown: the southwest corner of Front and Cass streets, sold by Kevin Endres of Three West commercial real estate.
Unlike Cherry Republic’s Bob Sutherland and local developer Thom Darga, who last year held purchase agreements and intended to raze and rebuild the property – originally listed in 2009 just shy of $1.7 million – Pulliam and Morse say they have no immediate plans to develop the site, or even move in. They’re happily hunkered down in their loft offices at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where they work opposite one another on a set of well-worn brown couches, their feet kicked up on an oversized coffee table wedged between.
“We both live pretty frugally, and we believe in downtown Traverse City,” says Morse. “We had the opportunity to invest in the Detroit area, but we wanted to put our money back here in the local community.”
“It’ll have much more value in the downtown district, and we can take our time with it, decide what’s best for Traverse City, and allow it to develop organically,” adds Pulliam. “No sense in upsetting the apple cart. ”
They can afford to be patient. The pair spent two years brainstorming and developing their company on laptops and free WiFi in their “east office,” a booth inside Bubba’s Restaurant and Bar, while they made their living teaching renewable energy technologies at NMC.
“There was no trust fund,” says Pulliam. There were no investors, and no bank loans either. There was, however, a (multi-) million dollar idea to give energy savings-hungry companies what the dozens of other energy auditing firms out there weren’t: an action plan.
Beyond providing energy audits to businesses who want to cut their energy usage and cost, Keen finances, engineers, installs, monitors, maintains and services the energy-saving systems it offers its client companies. It finds, files and manages the company’s associated energy rebates. And the clincher: It offers every client a guaranteed savings, often with no capital expense.
To date, Keen has netted its client companies – the bulk of them in Michigan – more than $14 million in savings. As for their own bottom line, it skyrocketed from around $100,000 in 2008 to $4.2 million last year, earning them a No. 1 spot among the nine Michigan companies on this year’s Inc. 500 list and ranking them No. 60 in all of America. (TC's Dancin' Dogg Golf also made the list, ranking No. 299 – an advancement from last year's ranking.)
“We’re quite happy to be there,” says Pulliam, “but we want to keep going. We’re projecting even more growth this year.”
Bigger carrots set firmly in their sights, Keen’s leaders won’t rest on their recent laurels for long – though they did see fit to take a brief break last week to look back and celebrate how far, how fast, they’ve come.
“We went to Bubba’s,” says Morse, "and had a beer.”