June 2019 - Joe Vanden Plas, InBusiness Magazine
Chad Sorenson says it was part of his business plan all along. Two years ago, Sorenson, the president and co-founder of SunPeak, a solar photovoltaic system developer focused on commercial and industrial customers, moved his company away from the traditional business model of using subcontractors and began performing all of its installations.
This was cited as a major contributor to the five-year-old company’s employee growth, but it had an impact on revenues, as well. Now with 40 employees, $40 million in projected revenue, and 15.6M kilowatts in direct current of solar installed, SunPeak has eclipsed the competition for businesses, educational institutions, and municipalities that want to reduce their electrical costs and carbon footprint.
It’s also a key factor in SunPeak earning a 2019 Dane County Small Business Award. SunPeak and five other winning companies will be honored during an annual awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.
When your company’s mission is to make solar accessible to everyone, installing your own systems is inevitable. “The biggest reason for it was so that we could control the customer experience,” Sorenson explains. “SunPeak wants to be vertically integrated, and we wanted to have continuity so that the company selling the system is the company installing it.
“So, there is continuity in the customer experience,” Sorenson adds. “That all goes back to quality control, safety control, and the control of the experience with the customer. There is, as we scale up, some financial benefit to it because there is some margin recapture, but that was kind of a secondary motivation. In the short term, it’s mostly been just having control of our installations. We’re not just handling the paper, so to speak, we’re actually on the roof putting the system in.”
This arrangement works well because SunPeak doesn’t just install the system and leave. It takes care of the systems over the next 30 years with an ongoing operations, monitoring, and maintenance contract with customers. “We build a relationship with them, and that includes periodic monitoring of the performance of the system to make sure it’s continuing to produce electricity,” Sorenson explains. “Also, if there is anything that’s wrong with it, we go onsite and fix it, and by installing our own systems, it’s easier for us to take care of them over the long haul because we can control the whole thing.”
SunPeak had to get to a certain size in order to install its own systems. When Sorenson started the company, it was just him. Revenue and project volume were very inconsistent, and so he didn’t have enough business to support a “construction company,” but now that SunPeak has a two-year backlog of projects, it has confidence in the business and the income to support the purchase of its own trucks, take on more overhead, and have an increasing number people on the payroll.
“There are a lot of things with construction, such as safety and insurance and just the capital investment that’s associated with that, which requires us to have a normal volume of business to make that viable,” Sorenson notes. “That’s been a big part of our growth — taking on the construction aspects, as well the increase in projects.
“It was always part of our business plan to do it, but it was a matter of when to do it,” he adds. “We crossed over that point and took it on, and we started installing our own projects. Now we install all our own projects, and it’s been a good move. It’s working out well for us.”
SunPeak also is practicing what it preaches. The company has purchased a 14,000-square-foot building in an opportunity zone located at 1018 Ann St. This highly visible building, situated between Park Street and Fish Hatchery Road, is in the heart of an underserved neighborhood and later this year will become SunPeak’s new corporate headquarters. In the coming months, the company will be investing more than $600,000 to renovate the building, utilizing local contractors and labor, and the site will be powered entirely by renewable energy.
Handling the installation encourages relationship building with customers, so it’s vital to make sure SunPeak’s growing staff is well taken care of so that staffers, in turn, take care of customers. For Sorenson, who has three college degrees and is an active instructor at UW–Madison in both the College of Engineering and the School of Business, that means continuing education. The company picks up the complete tab for employees to be certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), which offers credentials for sales, installation, and design.
“We’re urging all of our employees to pursue one of three or four different programs that are out there,” Sorenson notes. “I led the way, being the first person in the organization to pursue all that training and certification, but now I can mentor other people as they go through it, as well. That not only helps employees, it also helps SunPeak because it increases our knowledge as an organization, and it makes us more credible with our customers.”
NABCEP is essentially a professional accreditation organization that does testing and certification and, as Sorenson explains, there are a number of institutions in the country — some are online-based, some are as part of a technical college — that are accredited to provide this training. Since the delivery of the education can either be online or in person, it’s up to the student to decide which they are more comfortable with. Step one is to go through the required training, and step two is to take and pass an exam to get the certification.
While Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training is common in the solar industry, Sorenson says NABCEP training isn’t as common as some would assume. “I would say the majority of the workforce in the solar industry does not have it,” he explains. “There probably are no more than 50 people in the state of Wisconsin who have it.”
In Sorenson’s view, education doesn’t end when someone graduates from college. “It should continue, and we should get smarter every year of our lives,” he states. “A big part of it is continuing to challenge people so that they can see personal growth. We are strongly supportive around here of people taking classes on their own initiative.”
SunPeak and five other Dane County Small Business Award winners will be honored during the annual Dane County Small Business awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.
PTO for a philanthropic cause that interests employees is another perk, but perhaps the company’s biggest community impact is its support and active participation in the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Foundations for the Trades Academy. This program provides a second chance for men and women who have significant barriers to obtaining gainful employment due to a prior conviction or other life circumstances. A number of SunPeak employees were hired out of the program, including six that were hired in one day.
“It’s a very exciting thing that we’re very proud of,” Sorenson states, “and it’s something we plan to do more of moving forward.”
Sorenson, a member of the Dane County Climate Change Council, learned of the initiative when he attended a program featuring Wayne Strong, director of Workforce Development for the Urban League of Greater Madison. “This initiative provides kind of a venue for people who need help to get going again in life and to find out what they are going to do next. So, when we actually installed one of our first systems in 2014, we developed a project for Ale Asylum, which is on the Dane County Regional Airport property. I ended up having a number of people on that construction team who had served significant time in prison prior to that, and they were freshly out of prison. So, I had personal experience with people in this situation and a pretty good experience with it.
“So, I made that comment to Wayne from the Urban League after the lecture. I just said, ‘What you’re doing is great, and I would have an interest in engaging with you because actually installing solar is a very fulfilling thing to do and it provides a lot of rewards for those who get involved with it.’ It’s an excellent opportunity for people who are looking for something to do, to add value to their lives.”
Honored by Honorarium
Given that his business peers, including past Dane County Small Business Award winners, were involved in choosing the new class of winners, the honor means a great deal to Sorenson. “Well, first of all, we’re incredibly humbled and pleased that we’re receiving this,” Sorenson says. “It’s a big honor. As the founder of the company who started it just slightly under five years ago in my living room, to start with an idea not knowing whether or not the business would succeed, to within five years grow to a point where we’re getting community recognition like this, is really fulfilling to me personally and professionally."
“Speaking more broadly for our company and the people who work here, it’s a big morale booster. It shows that in being recognized for some things that we think are important, it’s a catalyst to our ability to attract more committed people and continue to build a good company here. We’re really happy about it, and I’m really pleased that we got selected this year.”