Dennis Kim, born during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, grew up working poor with seven siblings on a small ginseng farm south of Seoul.
Sun and water were the fuels that fed the crop.
Today, his business is dependent, once again, on renewable energy.
Kim, 77, is a founder and the owner of 43-year-old EVS, a fast-growing civil-engineering firm in Eden Prairie that nearly failed during the building slowdown of the 2007-09 Great Recession. About two-thirds of its business is now tied to the fast-growing solar-energy business in several states, including Minnesota. The industry has committed to grow the state’s electric output from less than 2% today to 10% over the next decade.
By 2008, the 20-person EVS was struggling to compete for declining business in the recession amid cutthroat competition with larger firms.
Kim, a visionary and voracious researcher of future trends in the industry, concluded that the firm needed to shift rapidly to survive to be an early entrant in the slowly emerging wind- and solar-engineering projects a decade ago.
It was a big-risk transition, including cashing out retirement funds for Dennis and his wife, who for years was the company bookkeeper.
“I put $1 million into the business,” Kim said. “We realized the civil engineering we did was directly related to population growth, such as roads and schools. And there was large-company competition. To be more successful, we needed to do something else.”
The investment has worked, particularly since 2014. That critical year the firm landed a 100-megawatt solar project in Georgia, through renewable-energy contractor Blattner Energy of Avon, Minn. Other Blattner-connected jobs followed.
“Blattner gave us a chance,” said Andy Kim, 42, who has succeeded his father as CEO of EVS, after 16 years with the company in marketing, IT and other roles. “We struggled to make the Georgia project work. It worked. And then Blattner followed up with other projects.”
CEO Scott Blattner of Blattner Energy said he gave EVS a shot at the big solar project because he trusted Dennis Kim and liked the firm’s work.
EVS, over the last decade, has tripled its employment to 66 people and achieved positive cash flow on revenue of $10 million-plus.
Dennis Kim’s soft-spoken humility, deference to others on the EVS team and gentle sense of humor belie the intense after-hours research and financial risk of mortgaging the house and liquidating savings. It was the bet that he, Andy and their-then small crew could pivot EVS successfully into the sun.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Andy Kim said. “It didn’t happen overnight. But it’s working.”
Dennis Kim added: “I just enjoy working with the people. I believe in our core values of humility, respect and integrity.”
CEO Gregg Mast of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, a growing association of businesses betting on renewables, energy-conservation software and more in an industry that has grown to more than 60,000 Minnesota workers, praised the Kims for hiring the solar developers and electrical engineers and building the solar-specific civil-engineering department that has given EVS an edge in the fast-growing emerging market.
“They’ve built a family-like culture at EVS that is genuine and real,” said Mast, a corporate finance veteran before joining Clean Energy. “It’s striking how deeply they care about people and our environment which is reflected in their commitment to building a clean-energy future.”
Mast noted that in Minnesota alone, renewables output has risen 37% over the last few years and clean energy accounts for 25%-plus of state electrical generation.
Gov. Tim Walz and even some utility executives and other industrialists are calling for 100% clean energy for 2050. To some extent, business, particularly in light of a disinterested federal government, is pushing the states to produce energy that is cleaner and more efficient. And it has generated an energy industry in Minnesota where there was little to none in terms of oil, gas and coal.
This is heady stuff for Dennis Kim, who tends to take things in stride without spilling a drop of tea.
One of eight kids on the family farm, Kim was an excellent science and math student who arrived at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s to earn graduate degrees in aeronautical and civil engineering. He was stunned when he realized that he would be paid $350 monthly as an undergraduate teaching assistant at the U, in addition to his scholarship. He thought there was a mistake.
“That’s what a full professor would make at a South Korean university,” recalled Dennis Kim, whose working-poor family worked seven days on their subsistence farm.
In 1980, Kim bought out a partner at Enviroscience, which then had three employees, for $30,000.
The firm had little business and his partners were leaving for other jobs.
“I was the shy, laid-back guy running the company, and I had to go out and solicit civil-engineering projects,” Dennis Kim recalled.
EVS cobbled together enough business from the military and other builders and contractors to survive over the years.
Solar has proved to be a breakthrough. And the successful work in Georgia and Alabama for Blattner primed EVS.
“Those two projects came just before the Minnesota solar community started getting hot about five years ago,” Andy Kim said. “We were viewed as experts.”
The Kims hired Steve Hansen, a pioneering solar-project developer from huge Mortenson, nine years ago. Mortenson is America’s largest wind-farm developer. And they hired Sohan Das, an architect who had worked years for two contractors in solar and wind. Das is expert in solar engineering and battery storage. Engineer Noah Waterhouse was hired in 2004.
“We are doing very well because Steve and Sohan and Noah are doing very well,” Andy Kim said.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.