Will Gruver pursued the American dream after earning a degree in economics from Northwestern University — but it didn’t take long for the Minnesota native to realize that working at a bank in Chicago’s famous Loop District couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial yearning or heartfelt need to enrich the lives of others.
So in 2002 he threw caution to the windy city and moved to the Dallas suburb of Celina where he launched USP&E Global. His goal was to design, build and operate fuel-efficient and renewable power stations, primarily in emerging markets.
Gruver says his decision to risk it all was truly a no-brainer, because the U.S. economy was growing at a snail’s pace while overseas markets were booming. And given the choice, he’d rather be sorry, than safe.
“The barriers to entrance have never been lower while the financial and humanitarian rewards have never been greater,” he says. “There are unbelievable opportunities in out of the way places for anyone willing to take a risk.”
On the surface, it seems like Gruver’s chancy decision might yield big dividends. After all, the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by one-third by 2035, with nearly 60 percent of the demand coming from countries with a burgeoning middle class like China, India and the Middle East.
But outsiders who try to navigate the business landscape in developing nations are often stymied by language and cultural differences and bureaucratic red tape. Small firms like USP&E also face stiff competition from energy, engineering and infrastructure giants like Siemens, which plans to expand its reach in emerging markets over the next five years.
Gruver would need to leverage the expertise of experienced globe trotting partners and employees to realize his dream of bringing power, jobs and hope to people in underdeveloped countries.
People in struggling countries are often wary of outsiders and for good reason. Consider the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone where slavery and the sale of so-called blood diamonds to outsiders during the 1990s fueled a brutal civil war and now only those who can afford generators have access to electricity.
Gruver, who employs a faith-based approach to leadership, believes that creating communities and jobs isn’t a consequence of doing business — it’s a reason to be in emerging markets and a moral obligation. Moreover, he scoffs at strangers who suggest that he should hasten his company’s growth by offering officials in underdeveloped countries financial incentives to secure permits or minimize red tape.
Instead, he follows his moral compass by hiring local people to operate and maintain a power station once construction is complete. He says that providing training and jobs creates trickle-down good will, and an environment of mutual respect, that leads to new opportunities. He cites his firm’s ability to secure multiple contracts in Sierra Leone, which is experiencing annual GDP growth of 35.9 percent, as an example.
He pays local workers well once a week and gives each employee a bag of rice to supplement their family’s meals.
“You build trust by keeping your word, and by giving people jobs and a career path,” Gruver says. “Hope was lost in Sierra Leone when we arrived two years ago. It’s remarkable how just a little bit of reliable growth can make a difference. We’re not only giving these people jobs and electricity — we’re giving them hope.”
Leverage strategic partnerships
How difficult is the business climate in Sierra Leone? The country’s overall ease of doing business ranks 140th out of 185 economies according to data compiled by The World Bank. Worse yet, it ranks 173th in dealing with construction permits and 176th in getting electricity, which means Gruver needs strategic alliances to achieve his philanthropic and economic mission.
“It’s very difficult to break into a foreign country without leveraging the established trust of companies that know the ins and outs of the local business and have tenured relationships,” he says.
In addition, having relationships with highly regarded and diverse companies such as Caterpillar, General Electric, Hyundai and Ernst & Young Africa helps USP&E overtake entrenched local competitors by offering clients turnkey power solutions. And the company’s nimble size and vast network helps it customize its deliverables and pounce on prospective opportunities.
“Some competitors just sell power plant support or construction or they only work in Venezuela because they don’t have the alliances to compete on a bigger stage,” Gruver says. “We can offer everything from design to construction and ongoing support for our plants by leveraging the abilities and products of our strategic partners.”
When USP&E couldn’t find a local printer to deliver documents to a prospective client in Johannesburg, South Africa, E&Y stepped in and its actions helped the fledgling power company close the deal. Other relationships have lead to inaugural deals in France and Spain.
“We’re not a huge company so we look for mutually beneficial relationships that extend our capabilities,” he says. “We expect to generate revenues of around $50 million this year and that’s largely due to our strategic partnerships which have never been stronger.”
Hire diverse and passionate people
Companies encounter unfamiliar technical and cultural challenges when they venture beyond the U.S. border. Having a diverse, multi-cultural staff with global business experience is critical in an environment where local knowledge plays a critical economic role. This is especially true in emerging markets, where decision makers are interested in knowing whether companies are interested in them as people or just want their dollars.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for globally experienced engineers and energy-savvy technicians — especially in Texas. So how has a mid-size company with fairly limited resources managed to hire 110 movers and shakers over the last three years?
“We promote our mission because it attracts like-minded people who want to work for more than a paycheck,” Gruver says.
Indeed, what people want most is the chance to make a difference according to Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of “Business Innovation for Dummies.” Although a great salary doesn’t hurt, professionals are flocking to disruptive, world-changing organizations where they can feel good about what they do.
Interviews at USP&E usually start with a rudimentary question and answer exchange, but the conversation quickly turns toward the company’s overseas exploits. At that point, candidates who are merely interested in collecting a paycheck usually exit, while those who are passionate about the company’s mission are hooked on the idea of traveling the world and meeting buyers, sellers, and facility managers on multiple continents with different languages, cultures and customs.
And since engaged employees are generally more productive than their less motivated counterparts, the passion factor allows Gruver to boost the return on his fairly small staff. His experience is validated by more than 29 studies that link employee engagement to better service, sales, profits and shareholder returns.
“I lead an awesome team of executives, directors, engineers, project managers and technicians,” Gruver says. “They can have any job they want but they work for USP&E because they’re passionate about helping people.”
Harness the power of the Internet
USP&E doesn’t pay for advertising on Google or Yahoo, and it doesn’t have a commercial sales team. Yet, the company manages to garner five to 15 legitimate leads per day through the strategic deployment of some 80 websites.
Gruver studied web development in college — and refers to himself as a technophile — so he knows a thing or two about search engine optimization. Invariably, USP&E comes up near the top of the page when a prospective client searches the Internet for power engineering solutions or providers because the company owns the rights to a variety of keyword-rich domain names.
A strategic domain name can increase a website’s ranking especially if the domain matches the search query. The tactic is especially effective for small companies that don’t have a large advertising budget or well-known brand, since it snares prospective clients who search on keywords or phrases instead of a company name, and having a strong web presence may even attract investors.
“Executives often think that they have to pay for strategic Internet placement but that’s simply not true,” Gruver says. “Managing search engine optimization is so important to growing companies that it needs to be a top priority for executives right after cash flow.”
Speaking of cash flow, it’s still a daily priority for Gruver given the company’s age and rapid growth. He’s learned to say no to unnecessary frills and how to streamline operations by investing in mission critical areas that yield the best return. He credits his mentors with telling him the truth about frivolous spending instead of what he wants to hear while teaching him the virtues of risk taking and pushing boundaries.
“It’s amazing how just one disruptive idea can change the fortunes of so many people,” Gruver says. “We’re not just creating jobs — we’re creating hope — and that’s a wonderful thing.”
How to reach: U.S. Power & Environment Global, (469) 726-4780 or www.uspowerco.com
The Gruver File
Name: Will Gruver
Title: CEO and founder
Company: USP&E Global
Born: Minneapolis, Minn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications and economics, Northwestern University.
What was your first job?
My first job was a youth pastor, but I started my first company when I was just 10. It was a landscaping business which I built up and sold to my partner after I finished high school.
Who do you most admire in the business world and why?
Entrepreneurs, especially those who head-up small businesses, because they’re the risk-takers who are pushing the boundaries and making a difference in this world. It’s the developing nations that offer the greatest growth and philanthropic opportunities, but it takes courage, passion and a forward-thinking strategy to pursue those opportunities.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Practice work-life balance. It’s easy to become entrenched in your business and overlook family and friends. I’m more motivated and productive on a daily basis because I have balance in my life.
What’s the key to success in emerging markets?
There’s so much corruption that’s it’s critical to build trust. You won’t muster repeat business unless you take the time to become a valued and trusted supplier.
What’s your definition of business success?
It may sound like a cliché, but helping other people. It’s easy to make money; the hard part is making a difference. There are unbelievable opportunities in this world for anyone willing to take a risk. For a company to thrive there has to be a reason for it to exist. Profits are important but it’s how you get there that counts.
Awards: Finalist, 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young
Recipient, Dallas Business Journal’s “40 Under 40”Award
Finalist, INC. 500, fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Dallas 100 Entrepreneur Award, USP&E placed seventh out of the 100 fastest-growing privately held companies in the Dallas area