In today’s interview we have Kevin Nickels, vice president of Nickels Energy Solutions.
| Can you introduce yourself and maybe tell us something about yourself before actually talking about the company?
My name is Kevin Nickels. I started Nickels Energy Solutions in 2015 with my brother, Steve. He’s our company president, and I’m the vice president. I have been a sales professional since 2012 and I have loved my time so far in the solar industry. I manage the sales aspect of our businesses and the marketing. I also do a lot of the permitting and contract work and things like that with each customer. My brother manages the installation side of the business and really the bookkeeping and back end of the business.
| What was that initial thought process when you decided to start the company? Were you already working on some solar projects and then decided you could maybe do it better, or in a different way?
My brother studied mechanical engineering and got a job designing racking structures for commercial solar projects after graduation. I became interested in solar because of him, even though I was going to college for something entirely different.
He was working in Maryland while I was in New York State. We both saw an opportunity in the residential solar industry when New York State announced tax credits and state rebates to lower the cost of solar installations. We noticed the industry growing in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and thought we could do well in it. I was working in sales and marketing, and I noticed that a lot of general contractors and electricians were working in our industry, but they didn’t really have the feel of a company who was going to take care of the residential homeowner.
We wanted to start a business that was solely focused on the residential market and working with homeowners from an educational perspective. My brother had to learn about the residential industry because he had been designing systems for commercial applications. But, since we have different skill sets, we work well together. I handle the sales and marketing, while he focuses on designing and installation. This allows us to make sure both sides of the business are well run.
| What about these marketing strategies? What are some of these strategies you employ in your company?
We don’t rely on traditional forms of advertising like TV commercials, billboards, or magazine ads. Instead, we’ve invested in our website to ensure that we’re easily findable when people search for us. When it comes to spreading the message, I’m all for working together on sharing content and building our SEO.
We also participate in local events, such as small business shows and home and garden shows, where we can have a table and meet people in our community who have questions about solar.
We’ve found that doing it the old-fashioned way and building strong customer relationships has been successful for us. We make sure to never leave a customer in a negative situation and always strive to exceed their expectations. This has resulted in a lot of referrals, which make up a significant portion of our business. I believe that over 25% of our customers know one another!
Our approach is simple: treat people the right way, make every customer feel important, and allow the local community to approach us when they’re ready. We’ll put up tables where it makes sense, but our focus is always on doing a great job and making sure that every customer is satisfied, because we know that they’ll become our best salespeople.
As a company, we don’t believe in pressuring people to sign up for our services right away. We understand that it takes time for customers to make a decision, and we respect that. Instead of trying to close a sale on the first meeting, we focus on educating our customers about their options and the benefits of our services. Our approach is to design our systems upfront, revise them as needed, and provide accurate estimates to our customers. We want to give our customers all the information they need to make an informed decision that’s best for them. Ultimately, we believe in building relationships with our customers and helping them make the best choice for their needs, even if it takes time.
| I guess it was a bit challenging in the beginning, when you didn’t have that word-of-mouth advantage and you haven’t done many projects. Can you maybe talk about that initial process? How was that for you and for the company?
Early on, it was definitely tougher for me, especially when you do a Google search, and you couldn’t find us on the first page. So, it took a lot of work to make sure we were winning the deals that were in front of us. Losing on competitive projects was a heartbreaker. We had gaps in the calendar and there were a lot of tough days early on, where we didn’t have the flow of the projects where it’s just constant.
But we kept grinding it out, and asked people to refer us to their friends and neighbors. Signing up for local events and meeting people was really the best thing we ever did because the people we met this week could be signing their contract next week.
When we started, we were happy with 15-20 projects in a year, but now we aim to do more than 50 projects every year. The expectation has really changed. But when you don’t have a big budget, you must do what’s affordable. That meant doing local events, like paying a hundred bucks to put up a table on a Saturday and talk to people. That’s what got the job done for us.
| How big was your team when you first started out and how big is it right now?
In the beginning, it was just my brother and I running the business. As our business grew, we hired more employees to help us with installations. Our business is somewhat seasonal because of where we live, so we usually add four to six additional employees during our peak season. However, we don’t have a large team with multiple crews or people canvassing neighborhoods. We like to keep our approach lean and mean.
| What are some of the other services you do besides doing solar installations?
Electric vehicle chargers are a common add-in for our contracts. Then energy storage is starting to pick up a little bit as well. It isn’t really there just yet, but it’s starting to get more questions about it. It’s starting to get more popular.
We’re very excited about the developments in electric vehicle chargers. It’s interesting to see how soon they will become bi-directional, meaning the homeowner can use the car battery to power the house when the grid goes down. Currently, EV chargers only have one directional flow, but with new cars like the Ford F-150 Lightning, it’s becoming possible to back up the house with a 100-kWh battery, provided the right equipment is in place. We are very interested to become the installer of that product.
| What about the competition? Do you have a lot of competition? How do you actually view your competition?
When we started the business in 2015, there were more competitors than there are today, but we still see a high demand for solar. I don’t have any negative feelings towards my competitors. There’s a couple of them out there whose work has resulted in requests for my company to come in and do services and fix things. So, I wish they’d do a better job — so that homeowners don’t have to contact NES to fix something, because that ultimately may make a bad name for solar in the community.
We don’t bump into each other a lot, but we see them at the same events and have friendly conversations. We’re very careful about the growth of our business and avoid taking on debt. We run a healthy and debt-free business that we want to grow gradually over time, rather than making big mistakes by adding too many people to the team at once.
| So, you believe in slow and steady growth. Is this your plan for the future for the company as well?
Yeah, slow and steady is my approach. I can definitely relate to the challenges of finding experienced workers in the solar industry. It seems like there’s just not enough skilled individuals out there, so when we hire someone new, we have to start from scratch with their training. And because we’re so focused on quality and reputation, we can’t just let a crew go unsupervised. We’re careful and meticulous with every job site. We’re not interested in making mistakes or causing problems for our customers.
Unfortunately, this means that we can’t expand our team as quickly as we’d like, because we can’t just hire more experienced installers. And it’s not just a matter of finding new employees; turnover is also an issue in our industry. Sometimes, even when we do find someone great, they end up leaving for another job or moving out of state. But we’re committed to growing our business slowly and steadily, even if it means taking a bit longer to get there. I want my company to be here for our customer base for a long time, so we’re not going to do anything too drastic.
| That must be a big problem – hiring people, educating them, training them, working with them, and then they end up leaving your company. Does this impact the projects you take? How do you deal with it?
Yes, it’s the reality. We need people in their early teens to say, “I want to work with my hands. I want to work outside. I want to build things. I want to make things.” Until society encourages and rewards that, we’ll continue to face staffing and training constraints, where I can only capitalize a smaller percentage of sales demand.
I can’t say yes to every customer that comes in our door. I turned down business today. For instance, I’m only pursuing roof-mounted solar panels or solar shingles (as a function of roof replacement). I’m leaving on the table hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue every year because I don’t have the experienced staff to handle ground mounts.
It’s better for my team to become experts at roof-mounted installations rather than throwing them into something new. The learning curve for ground mounts is higher and the installation would be very slow. Therefore, I’m only doing roof mounts to manage the calendar, scheduling, and training constraints.
| Is there a way to solve that problem, or is it just ‘it is what it is’ sort of thing?
I think for now, it is what it is. The industry is still in its early stages and the labor pool is inexperienced. My company started in 2015. Things really started getting going in my region in the 2012 to 2015 timeframe.
It’s still not a mature industry. I think 10 years from now, the industry will mature, and the labor force will become more experienced and exposed to solar, which will create more opportunities. I envision a future where I can have a ground-mount crew and a roof-mount crew working efficiently in the field. But I also understand that this is a problem bigger than me or my small company.
| Do you see a growing interest in people to pursue careers in solar?
Yes. From my experience, I’ve noticed that there are state colleges in New York (SUNY), and offer two-year and four-year programs in renewable energy, which includes solar installation and design work. We often hire people from these programs and offer summer internships as well.
I believe that over time, the curriculum geared towards solar installation work will only get better. In addition, there are BOCES programs that provide affordable training in various fields, such as plumbing or air conditioning. It would be great to have more entities involved in educating people on solar as it requires specific skill sets.
We have had people from these programs reach out to us for shadowing opportunities where they can come to a job site and learn more about the work we do. We have a training program ourselves that could be replicated in other places. It would be great to have people come to us and say, “I completed the one year solar BOCES program, and I know I don’t have any experience in the field, but at least I’ve got that under my belt.” This would be a good way for them to enter our team.
| We’ve reached the end of our interview! Is there anything else you’d like to say? Something that we might have missed?
Discover your solar saving potential
One of the main things that differentiates my company from others is that we are early with solar shingles. We work with GAF Energy who created a nailable solar shingle that is a function of roof replacement. We’ve got contracts coming together for solar shingles, and it’ll allow us to explore a similar, yet different avenue. Solar equipment lasts longer than roofing materials, so it’s important to put solar panels on the newest roof possible.
I’m glad I’m early at this because I’m going to have 50-100 projects under my belt before others get to 10. We’re lean and mean, which allows us to pivot at a moment’s notice and change our direction when we find a good opportunity.
When I look ahead, we are going to keep installing solar panels on people’s roofs. I hope to add ground mounts, more electric vehicle chargers, and battery storage. I’m going to be involved in the bi-directional EV chargers because it’s going to help people keep the power on when the grid goes down. And I’m going to be involved in replacing roofs with solar shingles and scaling the company in a thoughtful and proper way.