Authentic relationships, the great outdoors, physical fitness, nationally renowned energy efficiency consulting … somehow it all achieves singularity at one of the North’s most remarkable companies, Keen Technical Solutions in Traverse City.
This article is featured in the May 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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Tim Pulliam, co-founder of Keen Technical Solutions, is telling a story, because, well, Tim Pulliam is always telling a story. This one is about a client, a CEO of a downstate company. Pulliam and Keen’s other co-founder, Steve Morse, were talking with the gentleman in the Keen meeting room, in downtown Traverse City. A car with paddle boards on the roof drove by down on Front Street, and the guy saw it pass and said, “I’ve always wanted to do that—go standup paddle boarding.”
And Pulliam thought, What? You are the CEO, you could go paddle boarding any time you want! Why have you not gone paddle boarding? “I told him we are going paddle boarding right now,” he says. The CEO was wearing a suit, said he hadn’t packed swim trunks. Pulliam pointed out the window to the M-22 store across the street. Told him to go buy trunks and flipflops. He and Morse would meet him at the paddle board rental place on the beach a block away in an hour. And they did. They paddle boarded 1.25 miles west on Grand Traverse Bay to Apache Trout Grill and had drinks on the deck. “By the time he got there, he was so stoked on life!” Pulliam says. “Stoked!”
Sometimes Keen brings in multiple clients to do a weekend of outdoor stuff, or do a race, like The Iceman mountain bike race. “We will get you in the race, and we will bring you in a couple of days early to train, we will pre-ride the course, and at the end, we will be at the finish line, and we will cowbell you when you cross that line,” Pulliam says.
So, here’s the thing: paddle boarding, biking and fitness have nothing—zero—to do with Keen’s core business. Keen is an energy efficiency consulting company. They show owners of commercial buildings and factories how to save money with LED lights and better insulation and smart power-demand/response systems and monitoring and heat reclamation and grid usage analysis and low-power motors, and so on and so forth. But the way they do business—a relationship-centric ethos that is bolted to the Northern Michigan outdoor ethos—putting clients on mountain bikes, road bikes, standup paddle boards, in kayaks, on ski trails, on ski slopes, in a running race … and forging bonds while sweating in Northern Michigan’s great outdoors—is as essential to their success as performing on the leading edge of energy efficiency advance.
One reason Keen’s way of doing business works is it begins from an authentic place—the love that Keen’s founders have of playing outside and a genuine recognition that authentic personal relationships are paramount. But it took them a little while to fully shape that into a business philosophy because when they were in the early days of growing their company, they found themselves being pulled into a world of business that sometimes felt very inauthentic. Business meetings could be a kind of Madmen version of the second millennium that would find them, say, invited to sign a deal at noon in a sketchy club on Detroit’s 8 Mile Road—while paying for the drinks and expenses.
They’d come back to Traverse and talk to each other, talk to their wives. How could they change this? How could they do business in a way that was an expression of who they are, who they want to be? How could they get business in a way that let them cultivate a world of clients who shared their own interests, so the bonds could be legitimate and feel real, feel authentic? They needed an “and” solution: hang out with people—clients and employees—they enjoyed hanging out with AND do some of the best energy efficiency consulting in the nation.
When Keen began, that second part of the AND solution—do great energy efficiency consulting—was the only goal. Morse and Pulliam had met teaching energy efficiency at NMC. Morse was the program coordinator and Pulliam was teaching adjunct. The two hit it off immediately and over time their conversations evolved to the topic of forming a company together. In late 2007 they drew up some thoughts on a napkin in Bubba’s restaurant. They wrote down the name Keen Technical Solutions, a basic mission, and started to be more serious about an implementation plan. They took the process slowly. They kept their day jobs while bidding on an occasional energy efficiency project and eventually made the leap to full time Keen.
Early on they identified a central problem with the whole energy efficiency market: people like themselves were cranking out energy audits by the hundreds, but customers would never implement the plans. “We’d walk into these offices and there’d be like four energy audit binders sitting there on the shelf,” Pulliam says.
And yet, the need to implement was stunningly obvious to Morse and Pulliam. They toured huge factories with parking lots as big as a giant shopping mall’s and see things like the lights in the parking left on all day. A trip to the hardware store to get a photo eye to automatically turn the lights on and off with darkness would have saved thousands of dollars, explains Pulliam.
“People were willing to spend money to make money, like hire a new sales-man, but they weren’t willing to spend money to save money,” Pulliam says.
“We had to get them to understand that the most expensive thing they could do was to watch us walk out the door without doing anything,” Pulliam says. One effective tactic involved leaving digital counters mounted near the electrical box of a factory. One counter would show the ongoing electrical cost of an existing system and the other would show the ongoing cost of a proposed system. “In a couple of weeks, the new system would say like $1,500 and the existing system would have cost like $10,000.”
A handsome example of Keen’s energy efficiency work can be seen at The Franklin restaurant, in the heart of Traverse City’s downtown. The corner property went up for sale as Keen was entering its fifth year and making money.
“When you have money in hand, it’s tempting to buy a big house or do a safari or buy a big boat, and all of that was on the table for us, too,” Morse says. “But we also thought, we could invest it back into the community.” After Keen purchased the property, the owners of Trattoria Stella approached them about razing the corner structure and building a restaurant.
“Our mission was to build something that fit into the community, that was not overpowering, that added to the community,” Morse says. “And we wanted it to be super energy efficient, use it as an energy lab so we could show clients and demonstrate those skills.”
On a morning in late February, when a couple of prep cooks are the only ones at work in The Franklin kitchen, Morse and Pulliam give a tour of the building’s sustainability highlights. The most visible example of the sustainable approach is right under foot: the floor. It’s milled from the invasive species black locust, cut in Leelanau County. The back bar, a gorgeous and ornate classic piece, is recycled from a bar in the Upper Peninsula. Upstairs in a meeting room that Keen owns, the crossbeams that span the two-story ceiling space are recycled from the original building.
But the guts of the energy efficiency measures—other than the LED lights, some of which are motion activated—are far less visible. Morse and Pulliam walk into the kitchen and point to vents on the back of prep tables. “Those vents are typically for venting warm air from the refrigeration,” Morse says. “But the problem is you are venting warm air into a kitchen space that is already really hot, and then you are paying to cool the kitchen.” The Keen team installed a system that captures the refrigeration heat and uses it to pre-heat hot water, saving on air conditioning expense and on water heating expense. These measures and others added up to the building qualifying for a Gold LEED certification, one of the most prestigious awards possible in the sustainability, energy efficiency construction world.
But that other part of Keen—that playful spirit that values relationships— is also on display. On the second story in front, the restaurant is an open-deck patio. “I wanted something where I could yell down to my friends on the street,” Pulliam says, as he looks out the window at the snow-covered scene. Across a hallway, in an ante room that Keen kept for its own, is a climbing wall—for when there’s a need to lighten things up in a meeting, or to just jam on for a bit to stimulate creativity. Or to encourage a client to go somewhere they’ve always wanted to go.
Morse grew up in a suburb of Detroit, in a family of tradesmen. “I was taught you had to work hard to get ahead,” he says, plainly. He’s calmly executing. Makes sure the promises made in a bid are kept. Makes sure performance is on track. He is the one who convinced Pulliam to have the company sign on to a quality improvement and tracking program developed by Toyota. He is the one making spreadsheets that put order to what would otherwise be—well, you wouldn’t even know what it would be. But, still, relationships are everything. When heading into an interview session for this story, he saw one of his young technicians getting ready to go to a job on a cold, drizzling winter morning. He stopped, asked the man what he would be wearing for weather protection that day, offered some of his own gear—genuine concern and clear respect.
Pulliam grew up in a house in the forest near Hale. He basically began kindergarten with the same small group he graduated with. “Or, well, should have graduated with,” he says. He ended up spending so much time in detention that he had to walk with an empty folder and then finished up in summer school and night school. He’s the partner who, early in the company’s history, when money was still tight, went to his partner Morse and said,“we need to spend $10,000 on mountain bikes because we need a bike team,” because it would make a statement about who they are as a company and help connect them to their customers, who could also ride the bikes. Morse said yes.
Hans Voss, executive director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, concedes he’s a longtime fan and observer of Keen. “Tim and Steve are very different people, but they share a common dedication and phenomenal integrity. There’s an amazing guy in Steve—the coolest cat you ever saw, he’s like a Zen master—tremendous honesty and respect for the people they work with, the customers and their staff. You see the same integrity in Tim, but in an entirely different way. He’s a free spirit, creative, unpredictable, but his integrity shines through and it is incredible. There is just real unusual integrity in that company. You hear about it, but I’ve never seen it like this.”
Tom Casey was nearing 50. He had been a cigarette smoker a while back, but then sorta kicked that habit … sorta, meaning he had switched to cigars. At one time, back in the day, he had been into cycling. Had ridden quite a bit. Stayed in shape. But over the years, as his career progressed he had fallen into the lifestyle of so many other people in the Chicago metro. He became sedentary, ate hearty business lunches. Spent days driving from one meeting to the next. And though he had become good at what he does—earned a VP spot in one of the biggest industrial space leasing companies in the nation—his health was on his mind.
One day, Casey was having a meeting in Traverse City with Pulliam and Morse. Pulliam said, “Dude, you gotta get off those things [the cigars]. You got to get back to where you were. Get back on that bike.”
Pulliam recalls the meeting too. “We said, ‘We are getting you on a bike right now.’” They rented a mountain bike then and there. Pulliam and Morse grabbed their own bikes and headed out to the tip of Old Mission Peninsula. They spent the afternoon riding the trails and then drove to Jolly Pumpkin brewpub a few miles away to recap the day. Yes, they signed a deal. But that’s totally legit, too, says Casey, because Keen recommends top-flight equipment, their prices compete in a three-bid system, and their install teams are strong. “I don’t have to worry about a tenant calling me,” he says.
And so Casey started riding again, around Chicago, and, when he visited Traverse City, he’d ride with Pulliam and Morse and other guys they work with. “These guys, you could say they had a role in saving my life. It has revived me. It has,” Casey says. “It sounds corny, but I will never forget them. When I am retired, looking back, it will be one of the best experiences of my entire career. They got my ass on the bike.”
Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org. | Michael Poehlman is a Traverse City-based portrait, editorial, advertising and fine art photographer, michaelpoehlman.com.