IT was the early ’90s, and newly minted civil engineer Blake Jones was earning money hand over fist in the oil and gas industry overseas. But his bright future was about to get even brighter, and he credits his older brother, Todd, with helping him see the light. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I would’ve made that transition to a passion for renewable energy,” says Jones, who started Boulder-based Namasté Solar in 2005. The company now has 175 employees, annual revenue in the $50 million range and 50 percent year-over-year growth, despite an 80 percent drop in the price of solar.
Jones, who stepped down as CEO in 2016, introduced President Barack Obama at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — a Namasté customer — during the signing of the economic stimulus bill there nine years ago. This year, the current administration slapped a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels. But while solar might be buffeted by political winds, Jones remains optimistic about its future.
“The solar train left the station a long time ago,” he says. “There’s no stopping it.”
CB: YOU WERE AN ENGINEER FOR HALLIBURTON. HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY IMPACT YOUR VENTURE INTO RENEWABLES?
BLAKE JONES: It created some of the nest egg and the financial wherewithal to be able to bootstrap Namasté Solar. It was an employee-owned company from the get-go, so we were all putting up our life savings and money from friends and family. So it wasn’t just me. It helped that I was one of many to bring their own capital to the table, so we didn’t have to take on outside investors at the beginning. And it paid for my training. I had a wonderful experience both personally and professionally working at Halliburton — technically a subsidiary of Halliburton. I learned a ton about engineering and energy, I learned different languages, I learned about different religions, and I gained a lot of perspectives that definitely broadened my way of thinking and my way of seeing the world. In the early years when we were just taking off, I think it added some credibility that I had an oil and gas background and I was jumping to the other side of the fence.
CB: AT NAMASTE, ALL EMPLOYEES HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE CO-OWNERS, AND THERE'S A PREMIUM PUT ON TRANSPARENCY AND DEMOCRACY. HOW DOES THAT KIND OF CULTURE IMPACT THE COMPANY'S OPERATIONS?
BJ: Although it was just a hunch at the time that it would give us a competitive advantage, here, 13 years later, I can definitively say that’s been our special sauce. That’s what’s helped us out-perform and out-compete the rest of the industry. It’s what helps us attract and retain the best, the most value-aligned, the most committed, engaged and caring people. Not everyone becomes an owner. And it’s not automatic. You’ve got to choose to become one and go through a one-year candidacy period, you get training in financial literacy and you have to invest your own money. That is part of the experience — you’ve got skin in the game and you had to petition for it, you had to step forward for it and go through a candidacy period and a training program, and you’re assigned a mentor. After going through all that, becoming an owner is a very different experience than if you were just given stock options. That’s one of a thousand different things that are part of a very intentionally designed experience. We’ve all been architects of our culture and the experience we want everyone to go through because that contributes so much to who we are, the quality of work we can provide to our customers and the customer experience they have. It’s what sets us apart: having everyone think and act like an owner in everything they do each day, day in and day out.
CB: YOU STEPPED DOWN AS CEO IN 2016. WHAT WAS BEHIND THAT? AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THE COMPANY NOW?
BJ: I’m still here. I’m working part-time at Namasté Solar because I’m working on two spinoffs. I’m here all day, but I’m wearing different hats throughout the day. I thought it was a good idea for me to step down for a lot of different reasons, but one of them was that I was getting outvoted by my colleagues a lot. We have all-company meetings once every two months where the entire company gets together, and we discuss big-picture issues and we have lots of democratic votes. It just became apparent that I was out of alignment. If the democracy were to vote for a Republican agenda, and there’s a Democrat at the helm, you don’t tell the Democrat, here’s this Republican agenda. You find someone else who’s better aligned with that vision to lead us in that direction. So we started having the conversation, how about I step down? I’ll still be in the boat right next to all of you, paddling my butt off in whatever direction we decide to go in. But I don’t think I should be the one leading the charge. It was humbling to step down and a little embarrassing when I’d tell people outside the company. A lot of my friends who are CEOs of more conventional companies, they didn’t understand it. But it’s a beautiful thing, very much in alignment with our culture and our structure. I didn’t want to be that kind of founder or CEO who doesn’t have the self-awareness that he’s not the most qualified person to lead a company into its next chapter. I like having the title now of just co-founder.
CB:THINGS HAVE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY ON THE POLITICAL SCENE SINCE YOU INTRODUCED PRESIDENT OBAMA IN 2009. WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOLAR'S FUTURE?
BJ: When President Trump took office, I did not foresee what was going to happen. I didn’t foresee the tariffs on imported solar panels. It’s a speed bump that we’d rather not have. That being said, for those of us who have been in the solar industry — we call it “riding the solar coaster” — for the past 10 to 15 years, we’re pretty used to this by now. This is just another twist or turn on the solar coaster and definitely not the biggest. A lot of veterans are like, that’s OK. The solar train left the station a long time ago. There’s no stopping it. Costs are going to continue to come down, it’s going to continue to get more popular. Even if the solar market comes to a complete halt here, the rest of the world will continue to keep that solar train going, to keep that momentum. I wish there were more support from the federal level, from the Trump administration. But we’re going to get there regardless.