It’s easy being green

It all started with a bet.

Jon M. Williams, CEO of OSC Manufacturing and Equipment Services, Inc., was having lunch with friends Matt Enstice, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and Dennis Elsenbeck, who was then the regional director of National Grid (now the head of energy and sustainability for Phillips Lytle Energy Consulting Services LLP). The BNMC was growing exponentially, with myriad progressive environmental practices in place. The diesel-powered construction vehicles that growled their way around the green campus broke the new norm that Enstice and his team created. So this trio inked the deal on a napkin: If Williams could design an engine for an environmentally safer “green” construction vehicle, National Grid would buy it.

And within a year, that’s exactly what Williams did. “This was an opportunity to test the energy efficiency and durability of electric-powered drive systems on heavy-duty construction vehicles,” said Williams.

From that, Green Machine Equipment was born. “At first, it was a cost center within OSC ... a research and development project to build out technologies for a select group of customers,” Williams explained. “We spent the first five years researching and testing drive systems design to build the best electric drive systems in the construction industry.” Green Machine spun out as a separate entity in January, and is now a C-Corp under parent company Viridi Parente (Latin for “green parent”) which will focus its business on cells and modules.

Green Machine’s innovation is the lithium-ion powered drive system for construction vehicles, which replaces traditional diesel engines. The Green Machine drive system is electric and emission-free. It is sufficiently powered to run for a full shift, comparable to one tank of diesel fuel. Right now, the fleet includes hydraulic excavators, trailer-mounted light towers, and stand-by power systems for computer servers and onsite data storage equipment.

This innovation met practical as well as environmental needs. “It’s increasingly difficult to run diesel engines in confined work sites,” said Williams. “The site could be in an alley in an urban setting.”

Constantly running diesel engine emissions are foul smelling, environmentally harmful, and costly to run. Engines powered by electricity are quieter, have zero emissions, and have constant torque and output, unlike traditional combustion engines. “It’s like a light switch,” Williams said. “If you need power, it’s there.”

Green Machine Equipment also meets the three key needs of the construction industry: cost; safety, and speed. With National Grid as the beta customer, Green Machine Equipment was able to test the first five generations of the power drive system in real conditions and learn from operational feedback given in real time. Williams noted that there were many design challenges because no one had done this before, but the result was not just an environmentally efficient engine, but “a better machine,” he said proudly.

Williams’ entrepreneurial success began with OSC, which he launched in 1997. From work in brownfield development, to construction, to demolition in civil and marine sites, OSC maintains its Buffalo base to do work throughout the Western Hemisphere.

A Niagara Falls native, Williams worked construction jobs throughout college (he graduated from St. John Fisher College in 1984 with a business degree). Although he worked for large contractors for a time, he never saw himself working for someone else. OSC was his opportunity to build his own brand of business that would reflect best practices in the industry, embrace new technologies to build on success, and participate in the region’s economic growth.

Building any new business is not without challenge. “I don’t know that an entrepreneur struggles any differently from any other line of work,” Williams said. “There are no easy businesses in general. The real struggle for any business is to know that what you did five years ago is not relevant for what you need today.”

In construction and development, keeping up--or getting ahead of--constant change is essential. So is having a team around you that shares your vision and wants to be part of your enterprise’s future. “If you don’t have a team of people with you and vendors who support you, you can’t succeed in New York state,” Williams said. “When you’re captive to tomorrow’s technology, you’re working toward a place that’s undefined. When it goes well, it’s great. It’s a lot of fun. But you’re only as good as the people around you. These people have to innovate and change along with you and your business.”

There is a downside to the risk-taking world of business, though. As Williams noted, “There’s a phone book full of companies that didn’t design for tomorrow or look ahead.”

OSC prides itself on being a customer-centric business, with clients throughout the United States and Canada. As a native Western New Yorker, Williams made a business decision to keep the company headquarters here in Buffalo, in the historic American Axle building, 1001 E. Delavan Ave., on Buffalo’s East Side. He’s enthusiastic about Buffalo’s industrial past--which set the stage for entrepreneurial success--and the region’s future. “I’ve done business all over the country and Canada,” he said, “and Buffalo has some of the best business people I’ve ever met. Because the Buffalo economy has been flat for a long time, the companies that are still here were very well managed with good employees. If you survived in Buffalo over the past 20 years when the economy didn’t grow and you’re still in business today, it’s because your company was well-managed.”

Williams is optimistic about the future for OSC and Green Machine Equipment. “Green Machine Equipment’s mission is to design, build, and sell renewable drive systems for construction equipment, and our goal is to create core platforms for construction. We want to replace diesel engines with renewable drive systems that have better power output.”

Williams’ commitment to the region also prompted him and his family to create a philanthropic foundation to better organize the family’s community support. “In business, you’re only as good as your least effective person,” said Williams. “If that holds true for a community, we’re only as good as our most poor people. If we help them get to a better place, it helps everyone.”

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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