A Second Meeting
It had the kind of day that makes you feel guilty if you’re not outside, sunny and warm with just the slightest breeze. I took my time walking from the office to the Washington Post, where Paul held a table for our 7pm meeting. This wasn’t the first time we’d met. At an SBA (small business administration) talk a few weeks prior we exchanged cards with the promise of a coffee meeting in the near future, and here we were!
I chit-chatted with the barista as we waited for our drinks, then slipped into the booth opposite Paul. Immediately he began telling me about his experiences leading up to becoming an entrepreneur.
A Rough Start
Freshman year, Paul attended college in Jacksonville, Illinois at a very small private school. After only one year he realized this small, rural school wasn’t his M.O. But, before he transferred to Carbondale, he met Kyle. The two quickly became friends and stayed in touch after Paul left.
Even after the transfer, Paul struggled to decide on a major, changing it four times before finally settling on chemistry simply because he’d done well in high school. Thanks to Breaking Bad, he had some strange people approach him when he made that decision. “When I was first getting into it, you’d always get those people like, ‘oh, you can make acid, right?’”, he said using a dopey voice. His response: “I’m like, ‘No. Get away from me.’ They really thought that like, I had the ability to like… do that. Which, I mean… I guess. But most things are specialized.”
After graduation he was lucky and easily found a job at Covidien, then Sigma-Aldrich where he did quality control for different chemicals. The work involved significant risk because he was working with very serious chemicals. One of the most dangerous things that Paul discovered during his work here, was a lab that wasn’t set-up properly and had been blasting carcinogens into the space where he and other employees worked. So he swabbed a wall of the room and found dangerously high levels of the chemical. “Stuff like that happened occasionally,” he said shaking his head.
“Obviously one of the reasons I wanted to get out of the whole industry was because, when you’re at that level you’re like a peon. You do what they tell you to do. You put your health and everything else at risk for them to make an extra buck. You get a decent salary, but at what cost? Not to mention the environmental cost and everything else they don’t even consider because it has nothing to do with the dollars in their pocket. It’s just totally against everything I believe.”
It Was Kismet
One day at work, Paul decided to take action and sent an email to HR about a supervisor that had been giving him a lot of trouble. This was his last resort, as the situation had been escalating for months and had left him miserable. He understood the odds of anything being done about it and he knew that sending this message was basically writing his own death note, but he didn’t know what else to do. Within minutes of sending that email, he received a different email from a former employer asking if he was interested in interviewing for a position in this smaller company, called Dynalab.
“I started crying, I was so emotional at that point. The next day I was interviewing there.” The rest is history. Until Kyle and Paul started EFS Energy and eventually, it couldn’t be contained. The company was growing so quickly that he had to say goodbye to the team at Dynalab after a relatively short period of time and devote himself to the solar company full-time.
The Energy Proposition
The passage of proposition C, or the Clean Energy Act, in 2008 paved the way for companies like EFS Energy to crop up all over the state. Publicly owned utility companies were required to pay a rebate to anyone who installed solar, forcing companies like Ameren to add solar to their portfolio. Practically overnight the sun-powered energy industry began to boom in the state.
While installing solar is still cost-efficient, the rebates from Ameren dried up in December because of a loophole. Their attorney’s interpreted the language of this act to mean that rebates could be capped at 1% “of something”, Paul said indignantly. Initially the program was to be stepped down over a period of 6 years, but instead it was just gone and many new solar companies and jobs were lost. Don’t worry about EFS, though, they were one step ahead. “This kind of came at an ok time because we’re gonna use this as a platform to expand into other areas of energy efficiency.”
The Awesome, Excellent, So Good, Very Great Year
The life of a small business owner is always an adventure, but Paul is loving it. He looks forward to the future of solar energy and how it could lead to more sustainable communities. “That’s what I want to be a part of, and that’s why I left my chemistry career.”
While things are sailing along for EFS Energy, it’s not the only great thing to happen for Paul this year. He and his wife are now parents! Photos of his adopted son Mitchell have taken over his phone and he proudly stretched over the table to show me. “He looks so…” I started to tell him how alike they look but he cut me off. “Jedi?” Not exactly what I was going to say, but hilarious! As we scrolled through more than 10 pictures, he commented on each one. “It’s really good when I can get him to laugh.” “He looks like a little Obi-wan.” “Almost every picture on my phone is him now.”
Despite an interesting conversation, we were both eagerly anticipating that first step out into a perfect summer day. So I made my routine query,“What is your favorite thing about St. Louis?” The question had barely left my lips before Paul blurted out his answer with a smile. “City museum.”