Maria and Bob Kingery, Southern Energy Management

Growing a Good Business

Southern Energy Management (SEM) is headquartered in Morrisville, North Carolina, with offices in Charlotte and Wilmington, as well as in Greenville, South Carolina. In some ways, SEM’s business trajectory mirrors that of many solar integration firms. The 11-year-old company successfully navigated the challenges associated with rapid growth, geographical expansion and the ebb and flow of financial incentives. However, several aspects of the business set it apart. First, Maria and Bob Kingery, the company’s co-founders, honed their business acumen in an industry far removed from solar—both were part of the core team that transformed Burt’s Bees personal care products from a Maine-based cottage industry to a multi-million-dollar international brand. Secondly, unlike many integrators, SEM has a strong business focus on efficiency services and building performance rating, in addition to PV and solar heating. To date, SEM has installed over 20 MW of PV including residential, commercial, utility and military systems. Maria earned a BA in English literature from North Carolina State University and currently serves as the company’s president. Bob is SEM’s CEO and holds a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University.

SP: SEM was founded in 2001 and now has approximately 120 full-time employees. What were some of the key business initiatives that enabled this rapid growth?
BK: We had a spike in hiring around 2007, initially driven by building performance and residential solar services, mostly solar water heating. Energy Star certification became a big seller as production builders started coming into the fold wanting to differentiate their offerings, so by the end of 2008 we were working with more than 300 builder clients. On the solar side, the North Carolina market grew tremendously in a short time. In 2007, we worked on the state’s largest system to date, and it was just 30 kW. That same year, North Carolina adopted a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, which helped create an in-state market for our services. As we all know, policy is critical to our success as an industry.

We work with utilities and commercial clients on multimegawatt projects, in addition to continuing our relationships with builders and residential customers. Balancing the various client and service types is certainly not simple, but we believe it allows us to provide the best value for our customers. So far, it’s paid off. We see more and more opportunity for our team across all our lines of business and in expanding geographies, both on the solar side and with our commercial building performance team, which travels all over the country.

SP: Promoting sustainability is a cornerstone of SEM’s business. How are these core values integrated into your company?
MK: Sustainability is the foundation of everything we do at SEM, and the integration starts with the hiring process. We’re building a world-class team of smart, passionate people who don’t just want to take home a paycheck—they want to have a positive impact on the world. That’s who we want on our team. As a business tool, this focus on both what we do and how we do it has helped us find not just great team members, but also business partners who appreciate the long-range view that SEM has planned. Operating sustainably also helps us save on costs. We have a fleet of hybrid vehicles, and we also do a lot of little things like composting, buying gently used furniture as much as possible and being vigilant about our own energy use. Done right, sustainability should add to the bottom line, not detract from it.

SP: SEM promotes a balanced work environment for its team members. What does this environment look like for your employees?
MK: We try not to take ourselves too seriously! We celebrate accomplishments, both big and small, by ringing a gong that the entire office can hear. Instead of vending machines in the break room, we have a “sustainable snack” program, and team members have input on what kinds of snacks are provided. We have a generous holiday policy to allow our team members to have time to enjoy their lives outside of work. While we work really, really hard, we do our best to enjoy our work and each other along the way. Fostering a cooperative work environment is advantageous because it allows us to attract the best people to help us achieve our mission, and that separates us from our competition.

SP: In 2009 SEM became a Certified B Corporation. Is this certification primarily used as a metric to guide internal company decisions or does it have external marketing benefits?
MK: B Corp certification is a very big deal for us. Anyone can write a mission statement that sounds nice, but B Corps have to go through a thirdparty certification process confirming that they’re actually doing what they say. For us, that means we’re putting an emphasis on things other than the financial bottom line. We provide a benefit to the environment and society while still working as a for-profit business. We have a B Corp Declaration of Interdependence up on the wall that everyone has signed, stating that we envision a new type of business model that “harnesses the power of private enterprise to create public benefit.”

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