Embrace the new work paradigm. We’re a very location-agnostic company, which means our team relies on all kinds of communication and collaboration technology to keep everything moving. We do convene on select days and times to inspire a certain esprit de corps that can only come from in-person meetings. During our face-to-face hours and days, we have critical, focused conversations that cover a lot of ground efficiently. The rest of the time, we get collaborative work done using video conferencing and other remote working technologies. Knowledge workers increasingly don’t want to drive several hours each day, to sit in an office five days a week. We’ve seen both greater employee satisfaction and increased ability to mobilize as a team to solve problems extremely quickly through our flexible policies.
I had the pleasure to interview Martin DeBono. Martin is the President of GAF Energy, a new company that is transforming the roofing industry by integrating solar into every roof. Previously Martin headed SunPower’s residential North American business and global commercial business and served as President of SunPower Capital. He has held sales and marketing positions at various high technology companies including Cisco, Siebel, Insightful and Pure Networks. Martin is a decorated naval submarine officer and holds degrees from the University of North Carolina (BS) and Harvard University (MBA).
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Solar energy as a whole is an underutilized resource. We could power the entire world for a year with the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth in a single hour. Yet solar only accounts for 2% of the energy generated in the United States. The technology has existed for decades, but the industry hasn’t managed to scale in the way that other, less green fuels have.
I started my career in renewable energy in a somewhat unorthodox place: the US Navy. As an officer on a nuclear submarine, I had an incredibly intensive introduction to alternative fuel sources. But nuclear, though it’s better than coal or oil, isn’t truly clean. When I left the Navy and pursued a career in private industry, I wanted to focus on growing truly renewable energy sources. Solar is by far the best place to be doing that.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
There’s a lot of planning and energy that goes into launching a company. GAF Energy made its debut in January 2019, and my first challenge was getting clear on the business strategy, having enough confidence in our data and intel that we were choosing the right course. I learned that you have to do your homework and assess the marketplace, but also trust your gut. A lot of success comes down to intuition, particularly in a nascent field like rooftop solar.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
No secrets here: I credit persistence and hard work in my success — there’s no substitute for tenacity coupled with blood, sweat and tears in building something great and meaningful. You have to love the work but also really do the work, show up each day ready to tackle the difficulties and seize the opportunities that arise.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO?” Please share a story or example for each.
Things will take longer than you think they will. It’s okay to be impatient, because that speeds up the process. Having roofers adopt and actively sell solar at scale is going to take time. But, it will happen and create tremendous value for all involved.
Budget for the unknown. You can run endless spreadsheet exercises in rapidly growing environments, but you will always have limited information. You’re learning as you go. Be prepared to stumble into things that weren’t on your radar, and have enough buffer in your plan to address them. Young organizations with scarce resources tend to plan for perfection, rather than planning for bumpy, uneven realities. For example, there are important elements to roofers being ready and willing to sell solar as part of the course of a roofing sale that we hadn’t fully anticipated. We now know that we have to hire a team to build out select services. We learned quickly and are adapting our model to incorporate that important unknown.
Embrace the new work paradigm. We’re a very location-agnostic company, which means our team relies on all kinds of communication and collaboration technology to keep everything moving. We do convene on select days and times to inspire a certain esprit de corps that can only come from in-person meetings. During our face-to-face hours and days, we have critical, focused conversations that cover a lot of ground efficiently. The rest of the time, we get collaborative work done using video conferencing and other remote working technologies.
Knowledge workers increasingly don’t want to drive several hours each day, to sit in an office five days a week. We’ve seen both greater employee satisfaction and increased ability to mobilize as a team to solve problems extremely quickly through our flexible policies.
There is no substitute for trust. Hiring good people is always crucial, but becomes that much more important once you’re in charge of the entire organization. Building up a team on which you can rely is vital, as you’re not the one doing everything at this level of management — you have to encourage and motivate people on the team get things done. I have to be very trusting now; I can’t do it all. I have a team of lieutenants in particular that I trust implicitly, which manifests as empowerment in their work and in the work of their respective functions.
Do it for the right reasons. You have to be truly invested in a larger mission, not simply focused on some ego-driven notion of, “I want to be President/CEO.” Orient to a longer game. This long-game orientation is especially important when you come across challenges. As the going gets tough, it helps to be able to ask yourself why you’re doing this work and have a rock-solid answer that becomes a touchstone time and time again. For me, that answer is simple: I believe in solar energy and truly want to see clean energy generated from every roof.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I don’t like the concept of “work/life balance.” I think it sets up a false binary; we don’t wall ourselves off from the different elements of our lives, we exist as whole, integrated beings. When things are going well at work, it spills over into the rest of life and vice-versa. I like to think about creating virtuous circles of enjoyment at work and in what we do “off-hours.” You have to love what you do professionally — life is too short to live otherwise. You also have to find things non-work related that excite you as well — for me, that’s mountain biking. In fact, I just got back from a multi-day biking trip in Vancouver. I love the physical rush of being on the trails, and it’s just so beautiful out there. It’s important to find interests outside work to step away, decompress and reflect, which makes you sharper when you head back into the office.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Honestly, there are too many people who have helped me along the way to list in one place. From people I’ve worked for to those I’ve worked with, I’ve experienced significant cumulative growth and support. The thing about being a leader is that you learn to contend with myriad situations and a plethora of personalities and respond to them skillfully and gracefully, and, ultimately, draw inspiration from them.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I aim to build a truly sustainable (read: profitable) energy company. Personally, I just completed a 200-mile, eight day bike race in British Columbia, arguably one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. It was honestly the hardest physical endeavor I’ve ever undertaken, with over 30,000 feet of elevation gain. Having just finished it a few weeks ago, I can’t imagine doing something like that a second or third time, but I would wager that, in time, the spirit will move me.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Candidly, I don’t actively think about my legacy. I want to make sure people love working at our company, that our customers are happy and that our owners are satisfied with the returns we provide. When my time here on earth is done, it’s done. I prefer to enjoy every day and live it to its fullest, rather than worry about what I leave behind. I believe, paradoxically, you accomplish more that way, by focusing on the here and now.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I’d love to start a movement to address the obesity epidemic in the U.S. I didn’t know anything about nutrition or eating well for the first 45 years of my life, and I’m a well-educated person with access to a lot of options in how I craft my diet. The link between how I feel and what I eat is remarkable, and makes a significant impact on my wellbeing. It’s amazing to me that many people, even if they do have a proper understanding of nutrition and have access to a variety of foods, aren’t more selective about what they put on their plates and in their bodies. Especially as you get older, it’s absolutely critical to make smart food choices.
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