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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 3, 2017 3 years ago

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TerraSmart does solar work competitors can't — or won't — do. One key: Its internal policies foster and encourage innovation.
by: Alicia Ceccarelli Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. TerraSmart Industry. Solar, ground-mounted solar Key. Company does solar work nationwide

On any given day in the meeting spaces of TerraSmart's headquarters in Estero, a team of engineers will brainstorm solutions to remain on the forefront of solar innovation.

The formulas, sketches and designs that squeak their way onto whiteboards — and glass walls, when necessary — ultimately become the processes, products and equipment that have helped TerraSmart find a top spot in the niche national utility-scale solar industry.

TerraSmart manufactures and installs ground-mount solar installations for a host of commercial and utility-scale entities, from colleges to military bases — even a monastery.

In solar, there's ground mount, for large-scale commercial projects, and mainly rooftop mount, for residential and smaller scale businesses. TerraSmart makes its ground mount panels and other proprietary products and equipment in a 70,000-square-foot facility in Columbus, Ohio. It sends crews out nationwide to plan, design and install the ground equipment for projects.

“Our goal was to really master the ground mount process, because there is so much potential in that market space and so much room for growth,” says Brent Franks, TerraSmart vice president of information technology.

Franks co-founded TerraSmart with his college friend Ryan Reid in 2009. Franks had been an account executive with SalesForce, while Reid was in marketing with Comcast. Looking at the growing solar markets, Reid and Franks saw that “there wasn't really a viable solution in those environments where the project conditions were more complicated,” says Franks. “We kind of rolled up our sleeves and said, 'Let's do this.'”

Product Development Manager Tom Olenick says TerraSmart has since leveraged its reputation to “compete in not just the ultra-niche but the better sites as well.”

TerraSmart's secret sauce? It has patented tools and proprietary techniques that allow the company to install the structures in all types of terrain. It's completed more than 300 projects since 2009, from the smaller kilowatt range to mammoth megawatt plants , including the Moapa Indian Reservation in Nevada. The 353-megawatt reservation project generates enough power for 100,000 homes per year and was the 2016 Solar Project of the Year in Solar Builder magazine.

Complications and challenges TerraSmart overcame in that project went beyond the rocky and sandy caliche soil, regulations, scale and time constraints. The sanctity of the land posed unique challenges that motivated TerraSmart personnel to innovate their process. Aiming to be minimally invasive, TerraSmart solved the issue by integrating the survey equipment into the drill rig, eliminating another step and adding to efficiency.

In the past two years, TerraSmart has grown more than 200% in sales and projects completed, and aspires to use autonomous technology to foster the expansion of job creation for the solar industry. Company officials decline to disclose specific sales figures due to a pending deal. TerraSmart has about 115 employees, including 30 in Southwest Florida.

Innovative solutions
Most of TerraSmart's clients are contractors and others in building and engineering. In essence, TerraSmart is the company a builder or developer will call to get the solar done on a given project. TerraSmart wins the bulk of its work from a bid process, competing with companies like GameChange Solar, a racking manufacturer out of New York, and Cincinnati-based RBI Solar, which offers roof, car ports, landfills and more.

Out in the field, TerraSmart utilizes its patented ground screws to penetrate the most troublesome terrain. Franks says TerraSmart's rise in the industry leadership stems from “saving” competitor projects when their ground installation fails — known as “pile refusal.”

“Our racking products have the ability to be installed in places where a lot of others don't,” says Chase Anderson, TerraSmart's systems design and drafting manager. This flexibility with location makes
TerraSmart an attractive choice among competitors, says Anderson. A key reason why? Investors and project developers save twice, in purchasing cheaper land and bypassing the cost of conditioning — think grating or rock removal.

Yet TerraSmart concentrates on its swift and smooth installation times over offering the cheapest bid, says Olenick. “Labor per hour doesn't go down, so you have to drive it down with innovation,” Olenick says. “What we've found is that we can charge more for premium product because we are saving civil work.”

State-of-the-art surveying methods, including the use of areal drones, provide detailed topography data that cuts down significantly on the mapping phase. TerraSmart also recently launched an Autonomous Precision Survey Rover — a first in the U.S. solar market — to ensure accuracy and more than triple marking point speed. The rover was Anderson's creation, who says TerraSmart leadership excels at creating an environment where all ideas, even those “a little out there,” are considered.

“These guys aren't just taking giant checks and going home,” says Olenick. “If you can prove that it's going to help you innovate and be better than the competition, they're willing to invest in it. It's extremely apparent through the rover.”

Entrenched entities
Reid moved to Southwest Florida four years before he proposed a partnership with Franks, who was commuting between Washington, D.C., and Southwest Florida. And the plan is to stay in Southwest Florida. TerraSmart recently closed on a property near Southwest Florida International Airport in the south Fort Myers region in unincorporated Lee County to expand its headquarters.

But the irony, of course, is TerraSmart doesn't do a lot of work in Florida — the Sunshine State. Florida has lagged other sun-drenched states in solar for years. Some in the industry put the blame for that on politically connected power and utility companies.

“We are up against a very wealthy, very heavily entrenched traditional energy system that has a huge vested interest in maintaining status quo,” says Bill Johnson, owner of Brilliant Harvest, a solar panel installer in Sarasota. “(Big utilities) make a tremendous amount of money doing what they have always done.”

Wayne Wallace, president of Tampa-based contractor Solar Source, which has worked with TerraSmart, shares Johnson's view about political resistance. He describes the match-up between solar businesses and the monopolizing utility companies as a “David and Goliath” battle. “Solar is to the monopoly electric utilities like the car is to horse-and-buggy manufacturers,” says Wallace.

A solar amendment Wallace, Johnson and others in the industry say was intentionally written to confuse voters failed last year. The referendum, says Wallace, would have prevented residential solar customers from selling power back to third-party installers. “They're trying to stop us on every front, but the cost of solar is going down as production and technology keeps advancing,” Wallace says. “The horse-and-buggy guys couldn't stop Henry Ford, but I'm sure they tried.”

The mindset is changing, albeit slowly. As state legislators and utilities begin to understand that “solar makes sense purely from an economic standpoint,” says Franks, the resistance is letting up.

Do right
Like others in solar, Franks and Reid have long shared a mutual belief that renewable energy is “definitely the future,” says Franks. “We liked the notion of being able to do business, and also do something good as well in terms of the fossil fuel footprint.”

Reid and Franks raised an initial $200,000 through a close friend of Reid's family. They quickly assembled a team of leaders including vice presidents for manufacturing, legal and engineering.

TerraSmart spent a year in residential solar work before going to utility-scale projects. “To get viability and people to trust your product, you have to have deployment, so residential was a good market for us to enter ... It's been a full-on sprint since then,” says Franks.

Franks credits their success to their team and a unified focus on “doing right by the customer.” The founders saw an opportunity to assist the client with logistics by putting it all under one roof, says Franks. Thus, TerraSmart developed its “authentic turn-key” operation. “We really changed the business model around solar mounts,” says Franks.

Today, TerraSmart consists of several divisions including surveying, product, design and engineering, manufacturing and sales. TerraSmart employees complete all TerraSmart projects — no subcontractors. Their construction fleets are deployed nationwide and work closely with engineering on the development and refinement of their installation processes.

And the simplicity and satisfaction of working with TerraSmart creates “a halo effect” for repeat business, says Franks, and promotes client recommendations. Adds Franks: “Word of mouth is huge.”

Competitive landscape
Executives at Estero-based TerraSmart, in a niche within in the already niche ground-mount solar sector, say there aren't many others firms that can match what they do.

But executives also preach a competitive mantra to always watch your back.

“You're always in competition with someone,” product development manager Tom Olenick often tells novice engineers. There is always someone putting in more hours. Says Olenick: “You really just can't underestimate your competition, no matter what.”

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