Contractors Corner: After entering solar for survival, Horizon Solar Power finds a passion for going green

 

The U.S. solar industry employs 260,077 people, according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census. It’s probably a good guess that many of those solar workers have a strong desire to combat climate change and go green.

But that’s not necessarily the case for Temecula, California’s Horizon Solar Power. CEO Frank Kneller said while the installation company does like the added bonus of doing good for Mother Earth, the Great Recession was really the main reason his company entered solar. Founder Chip Polvoorde threw his strained construction company into the industry in 2008, and it turned out to be a great decision.

“We grew out of a construction business,” Kneller said. “Many other solar companies come to us when they have installations they can’t handle [because] we’re based in construction and we know how to install solar. As the business has grown, we’ve got a robust marketing and sales frontend attached to it.”

At last count, Horizon Solar Power has 650 employees working throughout Southern California almost 10 years since the company’s start. Kneller came on board as CEO in 2015 after Polvoorde decided to take a step back. His background running other consumer services and home improvement businesses has pushed Horizon to new levels.

“Solar seemed a logical place to hopefully bring some of the more common-sense things that we do in other home improvement businesses,” Kneller said. “When I came to solar, I was shocked by how long it took to get solar installed. Compare that to buying a car—you put in the commitment and somebody takes the keys away for four or five months? We really focus on velocity, shortening that time from the moment the homeowner wants to go solar and is excited about it to the time they see solar working.”

Horizon does do some commercial projects (each less than 3 MW), but residential installations are really the company’s specialty. Listed at No. 10 on the 2016 Top Solar Residential Contractors list, Horizon has found its success mostly in two California counties—Riverside and San Bernardino. There has been talk about expanding, but Kneller said he’s not concerned the Southern California market will dry up. The good thing—and sometimes bad—is that almost everyone in the area knows about solar.

“One of the complaints of homeowners in Southern California is how many people have knocked on their door for solar. We have to be aware of that. It’s very competitive,” Kneller said. “You’re seeing a certain amount of fatigue. When the ITC was on the verge of going away, the airwaves were being pounded. One of the things we battle is just to get the consumer involved and excited about solar again after all of that. We have to say solar is like improving your kitchen or bathroom. It has value.”

Rather than overburden an already weary customer base, Horizon often lets its projects do the talking. The company has a robust referral program, rewarding customers $500 for their first referral, $1,000 for their second and $2,000 for their third. Kneller said he recently signed a check for someone’s seventh referral—something is clearly working for Horizon.

“People aren’t going to do it just for the money. They have to trust you,” he said. “They won’t recommend you if they aren’t happy. A lot of people don’t know anything about solar. Their parents never bought solar, no one they knew bought solar. Trust is a huge thing we have to build with our customers.”

Using his home improvement business knowledge, Kneller has helped Horizon Solar Power focus more attention on the customer experience. Along the way, he said he’s grown to love working in the solar industry.

“I’ve spent my whole career helping people to retain the value of their home or enhance it,” he said. “Some of those industries were probably not exciting—lawncare, pest control, foundation repair. When I told my two daughters I was getting into the solar industry, there was actually real excitement. It was doing something relevant to them. You’re providing an incredible benefit to the consumer and you’re doing something that’s helping the environment and future generations. It’s not just about providing a service or home improvement; it goes far beyond that.”

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