Andrew McCalla, Meridian Solar
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Andrew McCalla is the founder and CEO of Meridian Solar, a PV systems integrator based in Austin, Texas, with offices in Dallas and San Antonio. Meridian is a market leader in the state with more than 400 installations and approximately 3.75 MW of installed capacity. Andrew has been a solar professional since 1995 and is one of two inaugural NABCEP certified installers in Texas. He has served on the board of the Texas Solar Energy Society, currently serves on the board of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association and is a regular presenter at industry events and conferences.
—Kathryn Houser, managing editor at SolarPro, met with Andrew at his new Austin office and warehouse location.
KH: Can you trace the trajectory of your involvement in solar and your business?
AM: To borrow a phrase from Mickey Hart, I figured out what I wanted my life to smell like in 1992 when I was at the Global Forum in Rio de Janeiro. That’s where I was turned on to PV. I was later inspired to do a deep dive, and one of the few options in 1995 was Solar Energy International [SEI]. Along with several others who are still in the industry, including Joe [Schwartz, publisher of SolarPro], I went to SEI for its summer courses. Afterward I got a job with a PV distributor outside of Houston—one of the largest in the country, doing great designs with great product. I learned a ton about business, pricing and economics, and design and supply stream. All of this was new to me as a Spanish major from the University of the South.
The company wasn’t interested in installation—the market really wasn’t ready for it in Texas. But I was looking forward, so I parted ways amicably and hung out my shingle as Meridian Energy Systems. I first officed out of Grandmother’s attic in about 200 square feet and warehoused out of her garage. The year was 1999, and the only incentive was altruism or fear. There were a lot of systems sold to people who were fearful about what was going to happen at Y2K.
The myriad ways in which people approached preparing for the apocalypse was fascinating. It became my objective to make sure that the system they had bought was installed properly, and also to temper their fears. I found myself in very personal situations reviewing the hierarchy of needs: you need air first; and then there’s water, so let’s talk about water systems; and then let’s talk about food and its preservation and preparation. After that, all bets are off. Some people still wanted the Fry Daddy to work.
It made for an interesting way to start the company. It wasn’t a huge boom, but it kept us busy through the first five months. Then we just started this slow ramp up, from one full-time and two part-time guys to today, with 42 full-time guys and gals. Office space progressed similarly, from 200 square feet, to a shipping container converted to an office, to a cabin out in the country, to 1,800 square feet, to 15,000 square feet today.
KH: What do you think contributed to that success?
AM: Tenacity and passion—focusing on getting the project and getting it done right. I know that sounds like New Business 101, but it pays off in incredible dividends. We don’t do much advertising or marketing; we never have. We are still very much in reactive mode, because word of mouth is doing so much work for us. We maintain an acute focus on quality, and that’s not always profitable in the short term. I think profitability needs to be looked at in a long-term way. It’s harder to maintain quality control with a bigger organization, when we’ve got six jobs going at once. But that really is the thing we come back to. We still haven’t nailed the formula; we still paint ourselves into a corner on projects. But we always come back to the root: do it right. And I think that’s allowed us to grow the way we have.
KH: You started out as the guy on the roof. How has your role changed as the president and CEO?
AM: A lot, and yet not at all. I don’t do a lot of wrenching anymore; I do get up on the roof for site analysis and predesign, to see how project pace is going and to look at quality control issues. While I am still involved in sales and design efforts, more of my attention is on the company structure and making sure that people have what they need and that the company has what it needs. Management is to me, at times, an unfortunate by-product of growth and success. It may take you away from some of your key passions, but I find infinite solace in the overall picture of success. As much as things have changed, I still take out the recycling.