Backup power generation fuels growth for Darien company

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

In a perfect world, the items manufactured by Darien-based Professional Power Products Inc. would never be used. However, the world is imperfect, and Professional Power Products keeps the lights on and electricity flowing during natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other crises. The company makes equipment for the backup power generation industry. The firm produces both stationary and mobile power modules – the platforms, housings and electrical equipment that house backup diesel generators.

The diesel generators are supplied by manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., Kohler Co. and Cummins Inc. Most of Professional Power Products’ customers are diesel motor dealers, who send an engine to Professional Power Products, which then creates a power module around it.

Caterpillar makes its own backup power generation modules, but does not make customized models for customers who have specialized needs, either for more power, greater noise reduction or a larger fuel tank. For those jobs, Caterpillar and other generator makers often turn to Professional Power Products.

Most of Professional Power Products’ customers are in industries that cannot afford to have any time lost to a power outage. Those customers include electronic data centers, hospitals, oil rigs, trading boards, banks, the telecommunications industry and public utilities.

“It seems crazy building a product that might never run … However, people have more and more to back up,” said Ken Trent, vice president of operations with the company. “They will pay good money to keep things running.”

Each of the power modules that the company creates are custom-built for clients. The company is usually a subcontractor for Caterpillar dealers, Trent said. The client purchases the diesel engine from a Caterpillar dealer, which is shipped to Professional Power Products, which then designs and builds a power module around it.

“The customer gives us the space it will occupy, the sound tolerances it can have and the fuel requirements,” Trent said. “We will then take the engine, put it in a drawing, send it to engineering and then build it.”

Many of the company’s customers tend to be in urban areas such as New York City, Chicago or Denver. Instead of putting the power modules on the ground, those customers need them lifted onto the roofs of skyscrapers, Trent said. Recently, the company placed multiple units atop several of Pfizer Inc.’s buildings in New York.

Professional Power Products will also soon build power modules for AT&T Inc.

The firm also built four custom power modules for an East Coast insurance company, Trent said. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the insurance carrier decided it could not be without power again, so it ordered four power modules, each mounted on its own tractor trailer, which can be towed into place when needed. The carrier also purchased four semi-tractors to pull the trailers and a fuel truck to service them, if the power modules are needed.

Not all of Professional Power Products’ work comes from high-density urban areas. It also does extensive work for oil rigs and other places that can’t afford down time. Some of those jobs have been in the Gulf of Mexico and in offshore areas of Africa, China and Russia.

Power modules designed and built by Professional Power Products commonly cost more than $500,000. Because each job is customized, lead times are longer than most other manufacturers, Trent said.

Once a design has been approved by the client, it takes four to 12 weeks to complete, depending on the complexity of the product.

The company has about 120 employees, including 15 in its engineering department. The firm plans to add a third shift of production, which will gradually add 10 to 30 employees, Trent said.

Because each of Professional Power Products’ power modules is a custom job, the company must create most of its components and pieces.

“We do it all in-house here,” Trent said. “We take raw steel into finished product.”

The company’s employees punch and bend sheet steel into panels for the walls of a power module, create frames from steel I-beams and paint pieces before modules are assembled. They also create fuel tanks that become part of the power modules’ chassis.

Most customers will send an engineer to Professional Power Products’ Darien facility during the testing phase to ensure the power module works properly. However, the company installed a series of 16 cameras throughout its manufacturing floor about six months ago, allowing it to show customers live images of their products under construction.

“We did it for insurance and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration),” Trent said. “But we’re starting to see it more as a sales tool.”

Professional Power Products was started in 1986 by Ken Trent’s father, Carl Trent, president of the company. When founded, the company was operating under a different name.

Carl Trent previously was general manager for another power module manufacturer. When that company downsized, he began offering engineering services to former customers who needed assistance. When he started the company, he was the only employee. By 2001, the firm had grown to 45 employees.

The company moved to Darien from Harvard, Ill., in 2002, when it needed a larger facility. The firm is currently located in a 130,000-square-foot facility on a 10-acre lot.

The Trent family still owns 100 percent of the company.

Business in the power generation industry is cyclical, Ken Trent said. There was a big increase in orders during the Y2K scare in 1999, but a lull in early 2001. However, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the East Coast blackout in 2003, demand surged.

The company’s executives anticipate $15 million to $20 million in sales for 2006, Trent said, a growth of about 40 percent over 2005. Most of that growth is coming from word-of-mouth referrals, Trent said.

“My dad’s philosophy is that if you do a good job, word starts to get out,” he said. “We know who our customers are. It’s just a matter of producing a good product for them.”

The company is expecting an additional 20 percent growth in 2007.

In the next six to 18 months, the company plans to open a satellite facility in either Texas or in the Northeast, where many of its customers are, Trent said.

Address: 448 W. Madison St., Darien
Founded: 1986; known as Professional Power Products since 1992
Products: Power modules and testing for the backup power industry
Revenues: $15 million to $20 million for 2006
Employees: About 120
Web site: www.professionalpowerproducts.com

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