Tom Sharkey never expected to trade a 20-year career with Colorado Structures Inc. for wind turbine maintenance and servicing.
But a year ago, the contractor began doing his homework and hired a researcher to investigate how growing wind farms were being maintained on Colorado’s southeastern plains.
He had seen the market contraction coming in commercial construction, and at age 52, wasn’t willing to ride out a two or three-year downturn without a fight.
“Demand for service (in commercial construction) had dropped off,” he said. “I wanted to find a business that would use my skills. Then I took a look at an underserved and obscure industry and decided to insert myself.”
With a self-funded business plan and a ready, displaced construction work force upon which to draw, he did some quiet networking through the agricultural community near Lamar and developed key contacts within wind farm industry.
Thus was the beginning of Energy Maintenance Services.
Today, a month into the new enterprise, Sharkey’s 15 employees have completed maintenance on five windmills for a local power provider — and are bidding on servicing contracts in Wyoming, Colorado and Sweetwater, Texas.
He calls the business opportunity “limitless.”
“I’d been watching that market for a while. There are other companies doing the work, but the quality wasn’t there,” he said, adding that his marketing efforts have opened doors at Vestas, General Electric, Mitsubishi and Siemens for starters.
Windmill techs with vertigo need not apply, however.
The company’s work involves climbing about 280 feet straight up. Each servicer is trained, certified and given $1,500 worth of safety gear.
“This is a young person’s industry,” Sharkey said.
The job is similar to changing the oil in a car, he said, adding that once the manufacturer’s warranty runs out — usually in two years — the turbine’s gear box must be serviced.
Armed with an industrial hose that first vacuums out the old oil and replaces it with 120 gallons of mildly heated oil that is the consistency of molasses, the young windmill “cowboys” perform their magic.
“In the future, we’re working toward rebuilding some of the internal components as they wear out,” Sharkey said. “Most last five to 10 years.”
So far, finding parts for repairs has led the entrepreneur into international waters — often to German manufacturers whom he said have no problem “marking up their products.”
He’s also learned to depend on the Internet and works in multiple time zones.
Granted, there is a learning curve — and clients need proof that EMS can perform. That said, however, the fledgling venture is flying high.
Sharkey has contacts at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory in Golden — and projects generating as much as $5 million in revenue within the company’s first three years.
But the self-described lifelong “aggressive” business man has covered his bets by continuing a small subcontracting company.
“It’s a seasonal business — and winter’s our slow season,” he said. “When some of the guys aren’t working on the windmills, we do steel erection on other jobs.”
In the meantime, however, EMS is proving that green might be the key to the future for at least one general contractor.