Gary Gerber, Sun Light and Power
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Gary Gerber launched Berkeley, California–based Sun Light & Power in 1976 and serves as the company’s president and CEO. He recently began his fourth term as president of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA.) Gerber has co-founded several environmentally focused nonprofits, including Build It Green, Green Resource Center and Sustainable Business Alliance. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a BS in mechanical engineering, is a registered professional engineer in California and holds both B and C46 contractor licenses.
SP: Sun Light & Power appears to be charting a conservative and intentionally sustainable course. What basic principles do you consider in relation to business growth?
GG: It is interesting to me that you characterize my approach to business growth as “conservative.” In many ways, I consider my approach to business growth to be radical and definitely sustainable. First and foremost, I believe that to be sustainable, any business must have a clear and inspiring mission supported by a set of values that keeps the entire team pointed in the same direction. I have yet to find an outside investor who is willing to place this company culture above pure profit margin, though if and when I do find such an investor, I will be more than willing to have a funding conversation! In our 35 years in business, we have never taken any significant outside money; we finance the company’s operations entirely through retained earnings, bank debt and a relatively small private loan from a family friend. This has been difficult, to say the least, but it is what has allowed my wife, Barbara, and me to steer a true course through difficult times, without ever having to compromise our principles for the sake of profits.
SP: In September 2009, Sun Light & Power became one of the first solar companies to attain B Corporation certification. What are the benefits of being a B Corp and what was Sun Light & Power’s business case for attaining this certification?
GG: I first heard of the B Corp certification about 3 years ago through the Social Venture Network. B Corps are companies that value not only company profits but also the interests of the other economic stakeholders of any business: the company employees (we refer to them as team members), the local community and the environment, which ultimately sustains all economic activity. A B Corp is often called a socially responsible business or a triple–bottom-line business. I knew that Sun Light & Power already was a B Corp in its behavior, so becoming one officially was a matter of paperwork and expense.
I think that the main business case for being a B Corp is the customer recognition: Doing business with a B Corp guarantees a standard of ethics and actions that is consistent with sustainability and responsible corporate behavior, sort of like buying certified organic food or FSC-certified lumber. Your customers know up front that they are doing business with a company that shares their values and says so proudly and verifiably. For me, the decision to become a B Corp was very personal. I have always tried to consistently “walk the talk,” whether it be in my personal behavior or the behavior of the business that reflects my values.
SP: What are the highlights of your company’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility?
GG: Personally, I have been active in the green building movement for more than 15 years and have cofounded several environmental nonprofits. As you can imagine, the building materials and office furnishings we used to build out our offices demonstrate green building at multiple levels. For years we have operated our offices using a grid-tied, battery-based PV system and 100% solar and biodiesel water heating. For more than 10 years, I have been driving an electric vehicle that I recharge at my home using 100% solar energy. Our company fleet runs on biodiesel, even though it’s more expensive than petro-diesel. More than 80% of our team members live within 5 miles of our offices, and a large number bike to work daily, a practice we encourage and facilitate with secure storage and travel policies that make it easy for them to get to jobsites in company vehicles. (We also pride ourselves on having a dogfriendly workplace.)
We focus on building PV on affordable housing projects, and we encourage team participation in community service, such as Grid Alternatives, a local nonprofit where many of our team members volunteer to install solar systems on the roofs of lowincome housing. My wife, Barbara, is our chief culture officer and devotes most of her time to ensuring that we maintain and promote our B Corp values. Most importantly, we focus on hiring people for whom a sustainable lifestyle is their personal choice, assuring strong participation in the B Corp value set throughout the company. Of course, we want to hire the best and brightest, but we can train people to do the work the way we want it done. It’s far more difficult to change someone’s basic nature to fit with our company mission and culture.