By Jenny Paradiso, and EO Southern Australia member and managing director of Suntrix Solar
The market for solar panels exploded in 2009 when Australian governments began offering subsidies to convince conservative buyers to invest in their future. The public was faced with a myriad of jargon – FITs, STCs, CEC, MPPT – but also a promise: This will cut your energy costs.
We formed Suntrix in 2009 because we were faced with the problems this opportunity created. Mixed messages, sales people more intent on a sale than a relationship and some companies offering poor quality components for high-end prices.
Ongoing cuts to feed-in tariffs changed the dynamic and then had an obvious impact: customers started to rethink their investment and orders slowed. Then the inevitable occurred and companies began to fail.
Even as our business was growing, newspapers were screaming about collapsed companies, the millions of dollars taken by their founders and the angry creditors left behind. We wanted to keep building our business and tell the world these were the exceptions.
But the tide had turned. The media were describing the worst of our industry and not interested in the best. And every advertisement seemed to reinforce that image with screaming bargains and special deals. Our reputation was being hit by the actions of others – a crisis with no spark. We realised we needed to respond to these industry-wide changes on five fronts.
Knowing residential sales would eventually flag, we realised we needed to develop new markets. Commercial installations were the obvious avenue for growth, but we lost another eight months by hiring people without the right skill set to take our business forward. The lesson we learnt was to always look forward with an eye to what is happening in the market and the customer base. We network often and talk to people in our industry to inform that view. We have also improved our recruitment processes, and are now better able to find the people who can take our business forward.
We write a strategic plan every year. The first plan we ever wrote was brief and naïve when I look back, but it included our objectives and vision. The plans have improved each year, and we are getting better at tracking progress and updating them regularly. The lesson we learned: Reviewing our market, customers and priorities on an annual basis forces us to think about the resourcing we need and where we should invest. It has also given me, as a business owner, unexpected benefits. I now more readily celebrate my achievements, and more readily steel myself for coming challenges.
Changes in the solar industry will seem familiar to any business person: confusion, customers faced with cheaper but inferior options, and customers unwilling to spend. We realised we couldn’t change the industry by ourselves, and also saw the need to take the conversation away from price and turn it to value. We began partnering with likeminded businesses to build our portfolio and provide complementary services. The lesson: Partner with companies and suppliers to improve your product offering and extend your geographic reach, and search for complementary partners.
We have always focused on innovation and developed products in-house, all the while learning that innovation itself improves productivity. Recognising that innovation is also a point of difference that should be marketed, both internally and externally, is key.
CULTURE AND BRAND
Interviewing new staff to find whether or not they will fit in a culture is hard. Occasionally, people relax enough for you to see the real person, but more often than not they are on their best interview behaviour. And the lesson here: After some poor hiring decisions, we critically assessed and described our brand and culture. We brought in some outside help to develop our brand, and became more aware – and experienced – about our own culture and how to look behind the veil during a job interview.
Our industry, like many, is rapidly changing. Initially, we viewed the change as a crisis – and it was. But that crisis has forced us to review our business for the better. This will be a hard year for us, and we still have a long way to go. We haven’t finished the process yet – far from it – but we are now looking back to the external crisis in a positive light. After all, a crisis is simply a change that you haven’t had a chance to take advantage of yet.
Jenny Paradiso is the managing director of Suntrix, the solar panel installer she set up with husband, Dave Hille, in 2008. They left careers as a librarian and network engineer, and now employ more than 20 staff members.