This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews for my exclusive column on Thriving Culture. The intention of this series is to give you, as a reader, a sense of where and how culture is thriving in the solar industry, and how you might begin to strengthen company culture in your own company or place of business. I conducted this interview with Ry Heller, Field Manager at True South Solar which currently employs 18 solar team members with 2 solar install teams.
Tamara: How would you describe your path to becoming a Field Manager at True South?
Ry: I started in solar in 2006, when I was about 25 years old. Before that, I was in construction and I got the opportunity to build spec homes with my dad. Our goal was to make them different as well as more efficient than the average house. It was through that process that I realized that, despite the great R-value we were creating, we were generating so much waste through construction. This got me thinking about alternative construction. At the time, there was a wave happening, with a lot of straw bale here in Southern Oregon, for example. People were starting to talk about alternative building. I ended up going up to Eugene on a whim for a concert, and while there, I picked up their local magazine and saw an advertisement for a renewable energy program at Lane Community College. That was about 2003. I had hit a personal rock bottom in my life, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, nor what my path or purpose was. I decided I really wanted to get involved with something that I felt was making a difference, and I was invited to jump right into the Lane program. Ryan Mayfied was one of my teachers, and I got into energy management and renewable energy. At that point, they were telling us that if we wanted a job in the solar industry, we needed to be prepared to move out of the state. But within a year, I was hired by local solar electric company, Energy Design, and my work with them really inspired me and helped direct my path. There was a solar boom at the time -- we had the BETC and the RETC, and we were off to the races. I proceeded to get my Electrical Journeyman through that company, and I got to install and design for them for seven years. I’d been noticing, towards the end of my stint there, that True South had sprung up out of the weeds. After feeling ready to move back home to Southern Oregon, it turned out to be divine timing with them – I was looking for them, and they were looking for me. They hired me to be their lead installer, and I also did all their design work. That freed them up to focus more on marketing, sales, and running a company. At the time, it was just myself with Eric and Shawn, the two co-founders, and we were working out of our homes. As we grew, I grew into Field Manager, which is currently my official title, though I wear several hats for the company. I’ve been with them almost 5 years now.
Tamara: What does a thriving culture mean to you?
Ry: I think about it along the lines of my community here in Ashland. Our company is a little thriving culture within that. We have like-minded visions, shared goals, and our job is environmental activism. Our little thriving culture is more than just a job where you show up and make money. It’s a little community within the bigger community of people who want to make a difference, and enjoy showing up to work everyday to make that difference. We’re not just coworkers, but we’re all getting to know each other better, doing things outside of work sometimes, providing a very friendly community of support for one another.
Tamara: Where do you see aspects of a thriving culture at True South?
Ry: I see it with our whole team, in the office and the field. We’re not just a company where you show up, work, then go home. Like I was saying before, we have a common purpose and a vision that we’re working towards. The people that join True South see that pretty quickly, they realize that they’re in a special situation, that they’re not just an employee or a number, but that we see them as human. We’re trying to make this the best job they’ve ever had. We’re also trying to install as much solar as possible, solar on every rooftop. That community vibe thrives here because we are promoting it.
Tamara: How does the culture at True South affect your ability to do your job well?
Ry: At True South, everyone has each other’s backs. Because we share a common purpose and a vision, we’re really working together to achieve that. It’s been an uphill battle for a lot of years, trying to change the energy paradigm. We’re fighting other energy sources that are highly subsidized and we rely on policy to help keep solar affordable. But within that, our solar culture, we‘re all about keeping solar looking good. We would like for all solar companies to put in high quality systems, that last a long time, that look good, that are going to help promote the next sale of solar. Early in my career, there were times when it was a struggle. In the last several years, though, we’ve been on a nice run where policy has been there, we’ve been able to get more efficient with what we do and products have gotten better. And with that, we’ve been able to make it look good to more people, even those that are only looking at the dollar value. That plants a seed. They’re becoming more aware of their energy use and how it affects their pocketbook, and hopefully how it affects the environment. That glues us together, reminds us that we have a vision, that we’re not just showing up to a job everyday, eager to get home. The solar we see on roofs all over the place really fuels our culture. Having a great job where you can support your family and love what you do, that’s the key. That helps you get up the next day and fight the good fight.
Tamara: After being in Salem for Solar Lobby Day recently, and meeting with legislators who are very much in support of the RETC but also quite present to the budget shortfall for the state, I’m wondering what True South might look like if the RETC disappears?
Ry: The same kind of feeling came up with the elections. The policy in our company has been to continue to show up and do what we do. We don’t know what’ s going to happen, and our mission is not going to change either way. We need those other programs, but we need the environment to be there so that food does grow, so that people can survive. I think it’s all tied together. I haven’t been a firm advocate in tax credits. I feel like they’ve served a purpose and they’re great but the way the system is set up now, it caters to people who have lots of money and lots of tax liability. Maybe there’s another way to make solar happen for everybody. Community supported solar doesn’t have to be on every roof. It could be a local ground-mount somewhere, where people can invest what they can and get something out of it. We’re just going to see what happens, and if RETC does go away, we’re going to find another way to make it work. Maybe something positive will come out of it. Solar is not going away, even if the incentives dry up. I feel pretty confident about that.
Tamara: What role do you play in supporting a thriving team culture at True South?
Ry: As I mentioned before, I’m kind of the in between the office and field. I get feedback from the crew that I need to relay to the sales guys and vice versa. I deal with the crew and trying to manage personalities and maintain group vision. As Field Manager, it’s my job to be aware of the crew that we have, and help place them in the right position, that they’re getting what they need and moving up their ladder. Every installer that we hire is presented with the opportunity to grow, generally through getting through the LRT program. After a trial run with a new employee, if they’re excited about it and they want to get into it, they can start climbing that ladder within the structure and not just be the guy on the comp roof putting down the attachments. As they show dedication, they can see for themselves what they can achieve and where they can get to with hard work. It’s my job to make sure that those people are getting the right opportunities and make sure that the next person in line gets to shadow the lead installer. I feel like that affects their well-being, as having room to grow helps you feel positive about your job.
I also focus on being open, getting feedback about what I’m doing, and listening to their needs and suggestions. We need to make adjustments and improvements to the plan so we can continue to get better at what we do and keep solar looking awesome. Our goal is to leave the client feeling great about what we did, and to leave a little taste of our culture with them. So, I’ve got to give feedback from the crew to the sales team and maintain positive attitude and portray that in a way that allows us to grow as a team. As we get bigger, it’s easy to have a disconnect between the office and the crew, so that’s a constant thing I’m having to massage and communicate. It really comes down to communication.
Tamara: Is there anything that's been tried at True South in regards to creating a positive team culture that maybe didn't work as well as expected? If so, what was done to improve that attempt?
Ry: As we go through this life, and through this job, we’ve been growing and needing to constantly adjust how we’re doing it. We’re paving new ground here. It’s a complex industry, and we have to be specialists in a lot of different areas: electrical, rooftop construction, fabricating. The biggest thing that we’ve been trying to juggle is how big to get. As the company grows, when do we bring on that next employee and how are they going to fit in? As we’ve grown, there have been a few times where personalities clashed in in the field or in the office. I didn’t think my job was ever about that, but then I find myself managing these personalities and trying to find a way to spin it in a good direction. It’s a fine line between getting too big as an install crew, blasting through all the work, and having no place for anyone to go -- or scaling it back a bit and keeping an eye on the flow, so that people have been there longer have work to do. We want to keep everyone going, because we know that it’s hard on people to be in flux about their schedule.
Tamara: In closing, is there anything that you would like to add? Any final remarks or thoughts?
Ry: Go solar! Since I started in 2006, it’s been really great to be a part of the industry. I love going to the OSEIA conference and meeting all my solar brethren and sistren. It’s been great to get to know the first generation solar installers, the groundbreakers, who were installing in the 80s and having to make it up, at times, as they went along. The industry has come a long way. I really find a common bond with them, and with the 2nd and 3rd generation installers, as well. I love what we’re doing here in Oregon, I feel like it’s been a good ride, and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Should you be interested in learning more about integrating a thriving culture into your own business or team, or how you might attract more customers, ease communication, and align company profits with the growth of solar, contact Tamara Staton directly at thrivingsolar.com. You might also consider attending her workshop at the Oregon Solar Energy Conference, ‘Creating a Thriving Culture from the Inside Out: How to Build an Organizational Culture that Supports the Bottom Line.’
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