Photo: Jeff Silker
Earth, Wind & Fire
Springfield-based company generating excitement with green energy, electricity, and hot pizza.
Years later, a physician said he should have died.
In 1980, then 25-year-old Tim Lipetzky was an electrician working inside a Lakefield hospital when he felt an ache arcing through his stomach. He told a registered nurse about the pain, but would wave it off before leaving that night. At home later, his wife pestered him into visiting a doctor. It hurt.
“I had cancer,” said Lipetzsky in a Connect Business Magazine interview from his 23-employee L&S Electric headquarters in Springfield, where he also owns the nation’s first stand-alone Hot Stuff Pizza Buffet franchise and Green Energy Products, a solar and wind energy business with a satellite office in Mankato. Almost whispering, Lipetzky went on about his experience: “They did a chest x-ray before surgery and found a tumor on my right lung the size of a softball. It was advanced testicular cancer. The tumors had moved into my stomach and lung. But I felt good. I was 25 and had never been sick a day in life and never missed a day of school or work.”
After his first surgery, a nerve-wracking eight-hour affair in Rochester, he couldn’t work for more than eleven months. Brutal chemotherapy treatments sapped energy. His wife had just given birth to their first child. Lipetzky tried applying for government assistance, but was rejected due to having $1,500 in savings—even though his medical bills had reached $20,000. He was accepted for food stamps, but was so embarrassed to redeem any he snuck off to grocery shop in Marshall, far from the eyes of neighbors and friends.
“The way we were brought up, you just didn’t take handouts,” he explained.
When returning to work in July 1981, he pledged to his wife they would never again face another devastating financial hardship. Once was enough. In an effort to make good on his pledge and build a financial cushion, Lipetzky started L&S Electric in early 1984 with about $500 saved up.
The fifth of eleven children born into a close-knit Roman Catholic family, Lipetzky grew up on a family farm ten miles north of Springfield, where he began his first business venture at age 6. While at the Sleepy Eye auction yard, an auctioneer and his father both urged him to buy two scrawny piglets. “And I will never forget when they were sold my father gave me $66 for them,” said Lipetzky. “The money was in silver dollars and I could hardly hold the coins because of the weight. After that, I was always doing things with business.”
The Lipetzkys often worked and lived as a team, which sometimes involved playing softball, walking the beans or doing kitchen work—and everyone had their turn. He said, “I feel sorry for some of the smaller families today that have just one or two kids. They don’t get to build the relationships with their brothers and sisters, especially if there are a lot of years in between.”
After Mass each week, Lipetzky’s father gave each of his children a nickel to buy candy, which was their only weekly treat. Family reunions usually had up to 40 children playing outdoor games. The entire family grieved when the oldest son died in Vietnam in 1969. Mom worked part-time, and dad was a full-time farmer raising dairy cattle, chickens, hogs, and tending 200 acres. Theirs was a frugal, conservative lifestyle light years away from one experienced by modern American children that thumb cell phones and manipulate Xboxes.
Lipetzky would become an electrician for Brandt Electric and meet Korean-born Hyon at a dance in Sanborn. She had been living with her sister in Minnesota. The couple dated and married in 1979 and right away had a child three months before Lipetzky was diagnosed with cancer. His first surgery, which lasted more than eight hours, left a Zorro-like scar across his stomach from one side of his body to the other. He went on chemotherapy, which back then was a physically exhausting seven-day ordeal every six weeks. The day he drove to his scheduled lung surgery at St. Mary’s in Rochester was the same day deranged John Hinckley shot at President Reagan. By then, Lipetzky weighed just 114 pounds and would lose the upper right lobe of his lung in surgery that day. At least two doctors over time would say he shouldn’t have survived the ordeal.
“And every day since, the first thing I say after waking up is, ‘Thank you, Lord, for another day,” he said. “I sometimes wonder why I had a second chance. Some people don’t.”
After an 11-month recovery and several more years of working for Brandt Electric, “in March 1984, I broke out on my own (with a partner),” he said. “I just felt it was time and was worth the risk. It was difficult because I was used to getting a weekly check and the economy wasn’t going very well. But I was ready for having my own business. All those years working for Brandt Electric, I would raise pigs, rent land, and farm on the side. I was always doing something on the side anyway.” And he also had that financial pledge he made to his wife.
He won his first two bids within 24 hours of each other: Tauer’s Grocery Store in Springfield and a Windom hospital clinic addition. He also had some work regularly coming from Sanborn Manufacturing in Springfield. By the end of his first year—even though he struggled at times eking out payroll—he had 13 employees.
By 1990-91, the company was going great guns with up to 40 employees and was the first business settling into the industrial park on Springfield’s west side. The company began a seven-year stretch of having a maintenance crew work on site in Marshall at a corn processing plant. Also about 1990, the company became a subcontractor for a Tracy business specializing in lighting retrofits for Xcel Energy customers.
“And also that same year (1990), we ran into a company that asked about our providing cardboard storage for them,” said Lipetzky. “So we rented a building to and hauled cardboard for Rapid Packaging, who supplied cardboard product to a large window company. “
He attributed the company’s success through this growth period and beyond to a lot of hard work he and his employees spent building relationships with customers and contractors, which included being competitive with pricing, on time with product, and on schedule with contractors and owners. (His first employee, Larry Kohout, still works for him as an estimator.) He believed in his employees and gave them a great deal of power on job sites to make many of their own decisions. They have always tried doing that “little extra” to make sure the owners or contractors were happy, he said.
He said, “As a boss, I’m not really the boss. Everyone working for me is the boss. They tell me what we should do. I’m here only to put out fires.”
Having talented and hard-working employees he could trust gave Lipetzky the confidence and extra hour or two daily to try his hand at dabbling in side businesses—something he had done his entire life. His electric business was booming. In the late ‘90s, he began two new business diversions for fun and profit: Springfield Fish, which was a company that raised 2,000 yellow-striped perch at a time for resale to a buyer in Wisconsin; and a day trading career of buying and selling stocks through Scottrade.com. Both of these diversions ended within a few years. The perch company went belly-up when the sole buyer stopped buying and competition was rumored coming; and day trading ended when his wife felt he was neglecting L&S Electric. The former company—Springfield Fish—never made much money, while day trading turned a tidy profit and could have been a full-time career even though this was during the stock boom years of 1998-2001 when many people made money trading stocks.
L&S Electric maintained growth into 2005 until two rather large electric jobs literally ended the same weekend. Lipetzky had 42 hungry employees and not enough work. The company couldn’t get a bid, he said. He had to lay off almost half his workforce.
“The economy was beginning to go down, too” he said. “It was difficult letting people go. I just had to hang my head and tell them I was sorry. My dad gave me advice by saying I had to do what was best for the company to make sure it survived. If the company didn’t survive, then literally everyone was out of a job.” That same year, he bought out his partner, who by that time held only five percent of the business and ended up started a company in Willmar.
Just like cancer moved him to start a new business, having to lay off so many eventually did the same. He saw the bread-and-butter construction market fading, profit margins narrowing, and he had only so much operating capital to keep L&S Electric employees working in shop between jobs. He had to diversify—and fast.
In early 2008 after much preparation, he launched Green Energy Products. He said, “We had started looking at doing solar and wind, and started calling Sunpower (a solar manufacturer) and emailing them weekly for eight months straight. We became their first dealership in Minnesota.” His starting Green Energy Products, he said, not only provided a much needed revenue influx, but also probably saved L&S Electric, the mother company.
Asked to give Connect Business Magazine readers his best solar sales pitch, he said, “First off, it will lower your operating costs. I feel it’s a very good investment because Sunpower has the most efficient solar panels. For example, they just made the Guinness Book of World Records this year for having the most efficient panel. Even on a cloudy day, you will do anywhere from 30 to 70 percent (of maximum energy production). I’m a believer that if I want you to buy solar or wind, I should own some myself. So I have three solar systems and three wind generators, so I can get my own production data. Payback is in the eight- to twelve-year range depending on rates and incentives. It has a 25-year warranty and the life expectancy of a Sunpower solar panel is more than 50 years. My electric bill last month was a minus $3.25. As for the environment, because of my 18 solar panels I have not emitted 30,000 pounds of CO2.”
As for wind power, Green Energy Products buys from Southwest Wind of Flagstaff, Arizona, which manufactures smaller wind generators retailing for about $15,000. Customer payback has been seven to twelve years depending on wind conditions, which can vary considerably from year to year.
Said Lipetzky, “We have installed about 50 (wind turbines) in the Midwest and 120 solar systems. One thing not discussed in terms of payback is the residual value. For example, my son started out in solar with a different brand at his home. When we became Sunpower dealers, he took the old one down after two years and was able to sell it for what he had paid initially.”
The company recently opened a new Mankato office next to Zanz Mexican Restaurant after having been in the nearby Mankato Design Center. Tim Schwartz of Brown and Brown Insurance helped find a location. The Mankato office has been managed by Drew McCabe, an MSU construction management graduate Lipetzky hired on sight at Red Lobster where McCabe was working as a part-time waiter while going through school.
Today, Green Energy Products doesn’t have any employees per se, only cross-pollination with L&S Electric, which has workers commuting to job sites from their homes all over, including Willmar, New Ulm, Jeffers, Lamberton, Springfield, and Mankato. L&S Electric itself lately has been staying busy working on a hospital project in Slayton, a clinic addition in Marshall, a remodel at the Jackson hospital, and ongoing work for hospitals in Springfield and Windom. The company also does some lighting retrofit and energy management work. Lipetzky sees his 28-year-old business as being centrally located: Marshall is 56 miles away, Willmar 61, Worthington 57, Jackson 42, New Ulm 28, and Mankato 58.
That 1980-81 cancer scare changed Lipetzky inside out. He said he still hasn’t figured out why he received a second chance, but then again, maybe other people have. This soft-spoken, humble man makes a habit of doing random acts of kindness for people less fortunate.
For example, he said, “One winter day, my wife and I went to Mankato. On the way back, there were these homeless guys on the east end of Springfield. When the workday was over for us, they were walking out on Highway 14 near our shop. I went out and asked what they were doing. They wanted to get to the Salvation Army in Brookings. So I gave them a ride 90 miles to Brookings. I wasn’t doing anything. They had gotten a ride earlier with someone in a motor home. The bags they had were still in the back of the motor home because the guy had forgotten to unload the bags. One of the homeless guys was frostbitten. In Brookings, I got them a motel room and went to Wal-Mart to buy clothing. I always think back that could have been me.”
Hot Stuff Pizza
On July 1, Tim Lipetzky’s Hot Stuff Pizza Buffet franchise opened in a former Chevrolet dealership building in Springfield. He said, “My son said he always liked Hot Stuff Pizza. I told him to contact them to see if we could do a stand-alone restaurant. So we contacted Orion Foods of Sioux Falls. They were thinking along the same line. So Springfield has the nation’s first stand-alone Hot Stuff Pizza Buffet franchise. They have it in 1,100 convenience stores and one stand-alone. Ours is the prototype.”
Keep Working, Tim
L&S Electric owner Tim Lipetzky said, “Having family members come into the business has helped me provide a future for them. My son Phil and daughter-in-law are here. One daughter is a graphic designer and another a web designer—both from Minneapolis. I could have retired six years ago, but feel an obligation to them. My accountant says I should keep working because I will never adapt when I retire. I don’t hunt, fish or golf.”
Lipetzky volunteers up to 15 hours monthly with the Springfield power utility, which includes offering advice on long-term power contract decisions. For years, he was on the Springfield hospital building and finance committee, and worked on that entity joining Mayo Clinic Health System.
Location: 1315 W. Central Street
Springfield, MN 56087