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Latham's Plug Power CEO works to build a market as well as a company

Outlook

Latham's Plug Power CEO works to build a market as well as a company

Business increases sales but long march to profitability isn't over yet
Latham's Plug Power CEO works to build a market as well as a company
Plug Power CEO Andrew J. Marsh, right stops by Senior Mechanical engineer, Mike Cacioppo work station.
Photographer: marc SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

LATHAM — The standard American workweek is 40 hours, or sometimes 35 hours, subtracting lunch breaks.

Andy Marsh spent that much time just in airliners in one week at the end of January, traveling far and wide to boost Latham-based Plug Power and the hydrogen-based electricity-generating technology it manufactures and markets.

In 2018, Marsh marked a decade as CEO of the fuel cell company, and 2019 finds him trying to build strong sales momentum into a positive bottom line – Plug Power has yet to turn a profit since it was founded in 1997, but it broke even in the final quarter of 2018, and expects to at least break even in 2019.

Fuel cells use bottled hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen to create electricity, with water as the only emission; Plug Power’s primary market for these devices has become forklifts in large warehouses.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power CEO Andrew J. Marsh in the production facility in Latham.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power CEO Andrew J. Marsh in the production facility in Latham.

The challenge facing Plug Power and Marsh is to not only grow the company but to operate in a new industry without a playbook – to essentially establish the market.

“What are the products?” Marsh said. “How do you sell this to people? How do you price the units to be competitive? How do you develop supply chains? What do you outsource?”

Questions like these have kept him busy.

The 63-year-old Philadelphia native took a nonlinear early path to his career, working as a janitor, hotel manager and burger flipper before earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology at Temple University.

Since then, he’s had only three jobs: at AT&T Bell Labs; at the startup he co-founded, Valere Power; and at Plug Power.

ASPIRING MANAGER

Bell Labs helped finance his master’s degree in electrical engineering at Duke and his master’s of business administration at Southern Methodist University. 

The MBA was most closely matched to Marsh’s aspirations.

“There was a job about two levels up which was director of engineering, which had about 250 people reporting … my first week at Bell Labs, I said, ‘that’s the job I want here.’ It took me about 15 years to get that job,” Marsh recalled.

“Probably from day one, I never envisioned myself as a full-time engineer. 

“Within a year or two at Bell Laboratories, I was running activities which were more sales- and customer-oriented than engineer-oriented.”

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power fuel cell membrane
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power fuel cell membrane.

His specialty at AT&T was electricity – first the power supply, then the entire power system, designing a redundant, resilient network that would keep the phones working. 

“I went from managing people who did power supply designs to managing people to did system and power supply designs to actually also managing all the field application engineers, the system engineers and some power supply designers,” he recalled.

Marsh said he gained internal recognition for his own engineering work before moving away from it as a day-to-day duty. 

“I was a pretty good engineer in my time,” he allows.

Marsh’s career transitions have been remarkably timed.

More from Outlook 2019

He joined AT&T in 1981, not long before the telephone monopoly underwent a court-ordered breakup. (Bad time for an ambitious young engineer to come aboard? No, quite the opposite – “When organizations transform, there’s opportunity.”)

Marsh quit AT&T and co-founded power system provider Valere Power in 2000-2001, just as the dot-com boom was bursting and venture capital for tech firms was drying up. One of Valere’s investors rejected the other 200-plus pitches it heard that year.

Marsh and partners sold Valere in 2007, not long before the credit crisis crimped corporate acquisitions.

Finally, Marsh took over at Plug Power in 2008, shortly before the Great Recession began.

All three jobs have involved power supplies in some way. Another common thread: “I think in all the jobs it’s always been ‘How do you build a business?’"

AT&T was different from Valere and Plug Power in one crucial aspect: its size. It had more than 400,000 employees.

“When you work at a big company like that, you actually never know how good you are ... because there’s so much around to support you,” Marsh said.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Marsh and his wife, Kathy Mattes, live in Saratoga Springs. They have no children of their own or pets, which eases their frequent travel, but they dote on the 19 children and grandchildren of their siblings.

Marsh said his work and personal lives entail a balance that requires a seemingly contradictory mix of both self-discipline and flexibility. He exercises four times a week and likes to travel for pleasure, but much of his time is consumed with meetings and business travel.

One of his hobbies is reading (he recently finished a thousand-page history of Britain, which he found a bit dense but which gave him a better understanding of the dynamics behind Brexit). Yet he’ll bring work rather than a book aboard a plane.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Senior Technician, John Cain works on a Plug Power aircooled 4K GenDrive system in the production facility in Latham.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Senior Technician, John Cain works on a Plug Power aircooled 4K GenDrive system in the production facility in Latham.

Marsh attends meetings in interesting parts of the world but generally opts to turn around and come right home without seeing them. Occasional long weekends are the exception, such as when he followed up a Paris business meeting with a visit to Normandy with Mattes.

He’s tethered to his smartphone, except when he’s not.

“I’m very good when I get home to turn it off – except if the phone rings, then I can turn it back on for 15 minutes and turn it off,” Marsh said. 

“So I don’t consider myself a workaholic. That doesn’t mean others don’t.”

Marsh said it is personal focus that shapes his work habits, rather than a need to be in control.

“I have a very competent staff, so that’s not the issue. I think it’s a question of discipline. Even when I’m on airplanes I’m working the whole time on the flight.”

He recalled an episode from the early days of Valere that illustrates his approach:

“I can work anywhere. I raised, at Valere, $15 million from JP Morgan Partners with an initial call that took 2 and a half hours sitting in a 7-Eleven parking lot.”

WHAT COMES NEXT

There’s some irony in how Plug Power’s business strategy has evolved under Marsh: When he came aboard, the company was pursuing development of the fuel cell as a backup power source for cellphone towers, which would have been a logical extension of Marsh’s previous work.

But he soon redirected Plug’s focus.

“Here’s the challenge for backup power with telecommunications: You need to have high density of sites which are all using hydrogen to make the delivery of hydrogen efficient,” Marsh said. Plug does this with a Southern Company subsidiary that has its sites close together, but most cell systems are more widespread.

“I think that market has an opportunity with the 5G buildout,” Marsh said, because that next-generation cell technology will require an increase in the number of cell towers. “In that case I think hydrogen is a really viable solution. So I haven’t given up on it. I placed it on lower priority because I couldn’t see how it worked effectively without having density.”

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power "stacks" for fuel cell production.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Plug Power "stacks" for fuel cell production.

Instead, Plug Power focused on warehouse vehicles, which operate in a fixed area and can be refueled at a central hub. The company has enjoyed steadily increasing sales in recent years and its fuel cell units now power more than 25,000 forklifts. This is where the task of building an industry as well as a business has been visible, as Plug learned how best to make and market its devices.

“When I started Valere, I knew the answers to all those questions to start. I knew how big the market was. I could mimic the sales channel of competitors. Supply chains of the components I was going to use were well established around the world,” Marsh said.

“None of that existed at Plug.”

So what’s harder, Marsh is asked – creating and perfecting something that doesn’t exist or selling it?

Creating and perfecting, the veteran engineer says.

“Power Points are easier than physical hardware and software.”

More from Outlook 2019

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