Posted: February 18, 2009
Who is Blake Jones?
The story behind Namaste Solar Electric and the man who introduced Barack ObamaBy Karen Mitchell
When Namaste Solar Electric Inc. installed solar panels on the roof of the Denver Museum of Nature & History, little did Blake Jones know that job would lead to meeting President Barack Obama, whom he introduced at the signing ceremony for the $787 stimulus bill held at the museum on Tuesday.
“We’re a small business, based here in Colorado,” said Jones, Namaste’s president. “And we design and install solar electric systems for homes, businesses, nonprofits and government entities.
“We also specialize in designing systems for museums that have good rooftops for presidential tours.”
Jones spoke -- and joked -- with ease, while the nation’s commander-in-chief stood directly behind him. That’s fitting considering Namaste is a 100-percent employee-owned business, and each of the company’s 55 co-owners receives the same compensation, has equal voice in decision-making, and is afforded the same opportunities to participate in company ownership. Jones reluctantly adopted his title to give customers and the media a sense of company leadership.
On Tuesday, Jones provided a snapshot of what Namaste and other green technology industry companies are experiencing and how the stimulus bill affects them. Despite growth in solar and other green industries, Jones said, “we’re very concerned about our future.” In recent months Namaste froze hiring, slashed budgets – more than once – and cut work for subcontractors. “We were faced with difficult, challenging conversations about laying people off,” Jones said. “But now, because of the stimulus bill that the president will sign today, our pessimistic outlook has been injected with new hope and optimism.”
In addition to the Denver Nature & History Museum, Namaste has completed high-profile installations at the Colorado governor's residence, Denver's new EPA headquarters, Boulder Community Hospital sites and the Boulder County Courthouse.
How Namaste got its start
Jones was working in Kathmandu, Nepal, for a renewable energy firm when Amendment 37 passed in Nov. 2004, mandating that a percentage of electricity in Colorado had to come from renewable sources, in particular, from solar. "There was a solar industry here already, but it was small, concentrating on off-the-grid cabins and homes," Jones says. "The new law created an overnight market for urban solar systems in cities." As of September 2007, when this profile was originally published in ColoradoBiz, there were 80 solar companies in the state, with more than 40 in the Boulder/Denver area, Jones said.
Jones, who previously had lived in Colorado, daydreamed about returning, and just after the bill passed, he did, joining with his co-founders Wes Kennedy and Ray Tuomey in pursuit of the Namaste concept and choosing a name from a Sanskrit greeting to reflect interconnectivity and respect. The trio rented a downtown Boulder office in early 2005, eventually purchasing their downtown building. Paying their own salaries, they set out to promote their message to a public that was more aware of solar hot-water heaters than with the technology of solar electricity.
The co-founders wanted to retain full control of their vision, without outside investors. The goal was for a values-based company that shared all aspects of ownership, including risks. "It was an experiment and still is," Jones says. "We intuitively believed that by doing good things we would be stronger and more competitive. In business karma you reap what you sow."
Once in hiring mode, the co-founders wondered if they could attract others with like-minded passions. "We discovered that we were like a beacon, and we were swamped with applications each month," Jones says. "We have zero turnover." One applicant was Teri Lema, Namaste co-owner/business administrator. Lema, one of six female Namaste co-owners, left a corporate job on the East Coast and was hunting for work at a socially responsible company in Boulder.
"I didn't know that much about solar electricity, but I believed that as a business you vote with your money," she says. "I spent two hours writing a cover letter because I knew their values were totally in line with what I wanted to be associated with. I didn't even know Namaste was employee-owned. That was icing on the cake." Namaste staff members have the option to pay into the company to become co-owners, and the company offers low-interest, short-term loans for this purpose. To date, no one has declined the co-ownership opportunity.
"We want everyone to be owners from day one and to know what it's like in all aspects of the business, including the burdens," Jones says. "Since we are all masters, we decide what happens with our profits, dividends, bonuses and investments. We make the 'big picture' decisions each week in a three-hour meeting." As to the answer to the biggest question--Is this business practice sustainable?--Lema says it remains unanswered.
"Employee ownership will always be the bedrock of Namaste," she says. "But with regards to salaries as we grow and hire, we don't have the answer yet, but it's something we discuss."