Founder pushes Volta Power Systems to leadership in lithium battery industry

Jack Johnson's first full day as founder of Volta Power Systems began in an 8-by-10-foot office sitting in front of a used laptop. Twenty lithium battery packs were stacked next to his desk in the fluorescent-lit office. 

"We started tearing into them and redesigning them to meet our applications," Johnson says. 

Since 2014, Volta Power Systems has provided safe, powerful, and simple lithium-ion energy storage solutions for small to midsize businesses. They specialize in service industries, including RV, marine, utility, emergency, and military vehicles. 

Volta may have started in an 8-by-10 office, but Johnson's energy for the business concept had been generating for more than a decade. 

Project MacGyver

During his 16 years working at Johnson Controls as an engineer, Johnson led a $250 million project to take military lithium battery technology and repurpose it for a large-scale automotive manufacturing plant. 

"Nobody had designed a plant on that scale," Johnson says. "Large format lithium really wasn't a thing at that point." 

Johnson developed a reputation at Johnson Controls for problem-solving that he says came from growing up on a family farm in Columbus, Kansas. 
 
"I've always been an entrepreneur in my heart," Johnson says. "I lived that entrepreneur life as a kid." 

As the plant got up and running, Johnson saw a gap in the market for the product they were trying to deliver. Johnson says payback on electric vehicles in 2008 was equivalent to $8 per gallon and had a minuscule demand compared to today. 

So he started Project MacGyver to research how they could find uses for the batteries that provided better profitability and security. The name referred to the “MacGyver”-style creativity Johnson developed working on the farm.

"[We thought] let's take the product we have, and let's figure out a different market that can utilize this technology without starting from scratch," Johnson says. 

Johnson learned that the primary value of batteries is that they are quiet, lightweight, emission-free, and long-lasting. Next, he narrowed in on the target markets of RVs and camping, because they are generally luxuries where experience is more valuable than the cost. 

"Those all created these really great value points that made them more valuable than a generator," Johnson says. 

But when Johnson pitched his findings to his bosses, he received universal "nos."

So after years of service to one company, Johnson finally decided to step out on his own and turn Project MacGyver into a full-fledged business. 

"I went and started [Volta] on those lessons learned," Johnson says. 

A Kick in the Stomach 

Johnson worked crazy hours in the early days of Volta. 

"[It took] sheer strength of will to drive through those early days," Johnson says. 

The time was demanding, but thankfully the RV industry relationships developed during Project MacGyver helped line up Volta's first customer. 

In the fall of 2015, Johnson sat for two hours in the lobby of Liberty Motor Coach’s offices in Florida before meeting with the vice-president and co-owner, Frank Konigseder Jr. 

Konigseder was tired of troubleshooting his lithium battery system and bought into Johnson's vision. After that meeting, Volta became standard equipment for Liberty Motor Coach. 

"I was totally thrilled, but at the same time felt like I was kicked in the stomach," Johnson says. Konigseder wanted the batteries in production by January 2016. With only a prototype in hand, Johnson had work to do. But he says the commitment from Liberty gave him the confidence to make his dream a reality. 

"It was just one of those awesome moments that will stick with me the rest of my life," Johnson says. 

A van down by the river 

From Tesla to EGO lawn mowers, the popularity of electric-powered equipment has changed the industry for early lithium disruptors like Volta. 

"People realize that there's a value proposition and that they do get a return on their investment," Johnson says. 

Since 2015, Volta has expanded into the marine power sports industries and utility vehicles. In addition, it recently signed a contract with the Department of Defense to help improve the electric functionality of military vehicles. 

As the competition increases and supply chain delays challenge Volta's growth, Johnson says the company is focusing on moving faster and finding the next tech advancement. He believes that being headquartered on the Lakeshore provides the perfect location to continue Volta's consistent growth. 

"The diversity in technology right here in West Michigan is phenomenal," Johnson says. "What you can build within 30 miles of here is phenomenal." 

Volta's customer service and support are also vital differentiators the company is investing in. Johnson says his favorite feedback from customers is when they say that Volta's batteries have changed their lifestyle. 

"Living in a van down by the river is now that aspirational goal," Johnson says. Having a lithium battery installed in an RV or camper van means that you don't have to run a generator at night, giving customers the freedom and flexibility to stay wherever they want, when they want. 

"People always thank us for giving them that capability," Johnson says.

Volta's current 30,000-square-foot facility is a drastic change from Johnson's simple office space eight years ago. Through that growth, Johnson learned three critical leadership lessons. 

First is having the confidence to make decisions for everybody, not just yourself. The second is having patience. 

"I'm a fast thinker, I move quick on my feet, and I solve problems quickly," Johnson says. "You have to slow down. You've got to bring everybody along with you sometimes much slower than you want." 

Lastly, no matter how much you communicate, you can't communicate enough. 

These lessons, plus his MacGyver-like problem-solving, have given him the knack for getting things done. 

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