Since family-owned solar installation company Empire Solar Group’s (No. 108 on the 2020 Top Solar Contractors list) founding in 2017, it has expanded to serve a total of 11 states, six of which opened offices in just seven months.
Before starting Empire, the family owned R&J Technical Services, an electrical contracting company that served oilfield businesses. When the price of oil dipped in 2016, R&J Technical had peaked out at about 100 employees and was operating in five states. Chevron Oil and other large oil companies had to make budget cuts, and electrical contracting was the first cut since it was considered an ancillary service.
Some vendor partners R&J worked with in oil contacted the company saying they were moving lots of solar equipment and seeing a big demand for solar installation in the state of Utah. The former vendor partners wondered if the electrical contractor wanted to try installing these systems using their equipment.
“It was just perfect timing and sort of landed in our lap in that sense, because most of the electrical contractors in the state of Utah that are focused on construction — new builds — were really overbooked,” said Abby Buchmiller, CEO and co-founder of Empire Solar Group. “We were there and ready to reinvent ourselves and jump in.”
The family started the new company, Empire Solar Group, then did its first few installations in Utah and found some opportunities to install in Colorado since it had existing contractors’ licensure there. Next came Idaho.
“We were in three states and we were rolling, but that felt very natural for us,” Buchmiller said.
The family’s former business experience prepared Empire to embrace expansion and move where demand was high.
“In oilfield services, it’s following wherever there’s an oil boom or a boomtown, and sort of setting up somewhat temporary operations,” Buchmiller said. “Obtaining quick electrical licensure in different states is something that I think we’ve definitely been a lot faster to do than a lot of our competitors.”
In its new solar venture, Empire knew coordinating standardized business practices across multiple states was crucial to success. Buchmiller said when it expands into new states, Empire deploys its “business in a box” with a warehouse, base number of vehicles and base number of staff members.
“Scalability is managed pretty effectively with that blueprint,” she said.
Empire’s entire installation workforce is on-staff. The only subcontracting the company does is for additional services at point-of-sale, like pest control services.
Remote work was nothing new for Empire when the COVID pandemic started. The company has a strong partnership with a human resources-specialized legal firm to ensure it’s following all the rules in different states with varying HR laws.
The company also relies on Slack, an instant messaging service, for communication, with different channels established for the satellite offices as well as different departments or job functions. When COVID-19 came to the United States, Empire moved as many employees as possible to remote work and leaned more on the virtual platforms it was already using.
“It’s a different skill set that everyone has to sort of learn and adapt to and I would say part of us sailing through some of this COVID stuff is because managing these remote offices, ensuring that they feel the culture, that they feel a part of the organization and that they have a certain amount of autonomy to kind of create their own micro culture and their own camaraderie,” Buchmiller said.
Empire took a pause for a few weeks when the pandemic started but was able to continue installations as usual in the states it operates in after being determined an essential business by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The company didn’t have to furlough any employees and actually hired 32 new HQ employees during that time.
Buchmiller said the company managed to achieve record sales even during a pandemic, which she saw as a testament to the team’s hard work and good reputation during a dark time. She expects Empire to grow even faster this year than last.
“Doing really good business and also taking care of one another has been the key to the rapid growth,” Buchmiller said.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2020 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.