Salute the Sun

Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 09:14

Clear Solar Founder Paul Wilson is a passionate environmentalist, business visionary and inspirational entrepreneur. By Darren Baguley

World War II Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces 1943-45, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." For Clear Solar Managing Director, Paul Wilson, living this philosophy has helped drive a 35-fold increase in sales over the past two financial years.

"I was studying mechanical engineering at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1990-92," he says. "For my industrial placement I went to Germany to work for six months, spending my time developing electronic surveillance cameras and controllers. But I also saw the start of the solar industry there and that totally inspired me."

Wilson had learned a lot about energy efficiency and global warming while at university, including the trivia that it takes 700 growing trees to offset the emissions of the average Australian's lifestyle. That fact really energised him.

"Seven hundred, that's a lot of trees," he says. "I thought that there are two ways you can deal with that: you can complain about people cutting down trees, or you can plant trees yourself.

"So I went out and grew seedlings from gumnuts and planted about 10,000 trees to try and offset my lifestyle. There are ways you can actually do stuff and find different ways to solve a problem. I've always had a passion for the environment, forests and nature, but that's what started me on the environmental journey about 20 years ago."

Making a difference
Wilson decided the way to make an eco difference was to emulate Germany's efforts in promoting solar power. Given that Australia has a lot more sunshine than northern Europe, he thought solar power was a no-brainer. But in Germany, solar power use was being driven by generous government-mandated feed-in tariffs. In 1990s Australia, with its cheap, mainly coal-generated electricity, the only people interested in solar power was alternative lifestylers.

"Ever since coming back from Germany I've tried to find a way to get solar to work. I had a spreadsheet already set up where I was plugging in the figures for years trying to prove that I could do it, but it would never work," says Wilson. "It was too expensive and people wouldn't pay for it. Then, all of a sudden, two years ago the government grant came along and the figures worked; you could do solar."

Wilson was running a successful video surveillance company when the solar model became workable. He set up Clear Solar and his faith in the technology has been vindicated; the grant scheme led to explosive growth. In FY2008, Clear Solar logged $3 million in sales, for FY2009 it jumped a staggering 35 times to $110 million and Wilson is aiming for $1 billion in sales for FY2010.

Scale is everything.
These numbers sound impressive, but they illustrate a vital point about solar power: scale is everything.

"The grant program has increased the number of systems installed and driven down the cost in a healthy manner," says Wilson. "Our factories in China can buy more raw materials, employ more staff and negotiate volume prices with their suppliers. So the end-user price is much lower than it would be on a small scale. Solar power matches grid demand in a nice bell-shaped curve, so [large scale solar] really is the best type of renewable power for our grid health."

While Wilson freely acknowledges the importance of the government grants, he'd love to be independent of grants because they represent a business risk. "What we're aiming for now is to make ourselves independent of grants."

"For now, the grants mean we're a bit more profitable and we can put more money into advertising, put more product out there, more research, and it's a good tool to help us grow bigger. We're now buying into companies over in the US because the technology is not as valuable as in Australia."

Taking action
Ultimately, Wilson believes that selling solar comes down to being able to present an argument that taking action is cheaper than not taking action.

"If you can achieve that, then you've got two emotional triggers; save the planet and my children's future and save my money and my own future," he says. "So as long as your argument is true and clean and pure you'd be mad not to install solar cells."

Because of the economies of scale Clear Solar has been able to achieve, as well as the grants scheme, return on investment (ROI) for solar panels has plunged; it's now at five years.

"We aim to achieve an ROI of five years or better for all our customers. We don't sell technology, we sell an ROI because the first question people ask is how long will it take to get their money back."

There are also new products under development that will maximise the efficiency and cost of solar power, says Wilson. "We are not far from releasing panels using copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) cells, which is a revolutionary technology set to bring ROI to less than five years."

But what about base-load power requirements? Is green energy an option or is it more of a feel-good 'doing something for the planet' emotive purchase? Wilson argues that new technologies are in the pipeline to produce base-load power from renewable sources.

"It's just a matter of time and scale. There are technologies that can do base load now. For example, in Tasmania when there's low demand they use the power from the Basslink cable to pump water uphill into a reservoir for later release. There's no reason you can't do that with solar."

While Wilson is the driving force behind Clear Solar, he's a quietly inspirational entrepreneur for whom leadership is bringing a person to a point where they choose to help you achieve your goals.

"I rarely tell anyone to do anything. I inspire, motivate, educate, facilitate, empower and love my employees."

Wilson's employees thrive in such an environment and there's virtually no attrition as a result. "People get in and they're so excited about doing something for the planet, and making a good living out of it, they just stay."

A natural gift
So can this leadership style be taught, or is it inherent? "I do believe it can be taught, however, some people seem to naturally have the gift. I've learned a lot from Henry Kaye, Napoleon Hill and Harvey Diamond. I highly recommend people read whatever they've written," says Wilson.

And where does management come into it all? "I believe management is all about empowering people and delegating responsibility. I always try to implement self-policing motivators so people become like mini-entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are much more fun to work with than employees."

Wilson's emotional-intelligence approach goes beyond his employees; he tries to apply it to anyone he deals with. "I had a meeting with Penny Wong [Minister for Climate Change and Water] last week and gave her a letter of encouragement, saying good on her for helping the environment out; we've just created 150 jobs and put so many megawatts of power on people's roofs and you're responsible for this.

"She gets it from both sides: the greens think she's not doing enough and the browns think she's doing too much. In the end, who are you going to try harder for, work harder for? Someone who does nothing but complain and criticise, or someone who encourages you?"