Blake Jones is on a mission to break the corporate mold. As chief executive officer of a cutting-edge solar design and installation business, he doesn’t have a private office. He says everyone at his Colorado company, Namasté Solar, knows each others' salaries. And he claims not to have any more of a say in company decision-making than an entry-level employee.
His philosophy: one person, one vote, the democratic way. It’s a fresh approach to corporate leadership that has attracted attention from national media outlets, business groups and even President Barack Obama.
“Each one of our employees has the opportunity to become a co-owner of the company and purchase stock,” says the 37-year-old innovator amidst the hum of business operations. “They can invest as much as they want in the company and get a proportional return.” But they still only get one vote, Jones adds.
The employee-owned cooperative is setting the standard for corporate success based on democratic principles and upholding social and environmental responsibilities. “Most corporations exist for one purpose: to maximize financial returns for the stockholder,” Jones explains during a recent phone interview. “We want to maximize returns not just for our stockholders, but for our employees, the environment, our customers and the community.”
It’s a new take on business that’s helping to transform how energy is produced, says Neal Lurie, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. “[Jones] has developed an entrepreneurial environment where the organizational culture is as innovative as the technology they sell.”
Among those that have taken notice is B Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Just last month, the organization named Namasté to its first "Best in the World” list recognizing companies that create the most positive social and environmental impact.
The name of the company epitomizes its goals. In Nepal, where Jones began his solar career, Namasté is a Sanskrit greeting of great respect. “It means the divine in me recognizes itself in you. It recognizes that everything is interconnected.” In that way, the economy, energy, human health are all related, Jones says. And if nothing else, he believes the name helps Namasté Solar differentiate itself.
Ironically, Jones found his calling of challenging the standard corporate structure along with America’s overdependence on fossil fuels by working for a giant oil company. His first job out of Vanderbilt University was as a civil and design engineer for a subsidiary of Halliburton called Brown & Root. He helped develop oil and gas refineries and served for two years as a field engineer at a natural gas plant in the middle of the desert in Egypt.
From there he determined that developing countries could benefit from using renewable energy technology and skip the investment in fossil fuel, which requires more infrastructure, maintenance and operating costs, he says. He got to do that for three years in Nepal, implementing solar, wind, hydro and electric vehicle technologies for a small but growing Nepalese company before returning to Colorado to co-found Namasté Solar with two other partners in 2004.
At that time, Colorado voters had just passed an initiative that required a portion of electricity in the state come from renewable sources. “It was a great time to start a solar business in Colorado.”
The vision for a new business structure with a decentralized hierarchy arose from the original founders’ past experiences. “The conventional corporate model was not working,” he says.
“After the Enron, WorldCom scandals, corporation almost seemed like a bad word,” Jones explains. “We believed it could be done in a different way. … I think it’s shocking that while Americans passionately believe political democracy is the best form of government, when we get to the corporate world, we almost see the exclusive use of command-and-control organizational structures.”
Jones believes the way Namasté conducts business offers a competitive advantage. That includes attracting a higher caliber of employees with more than a 95 percent retention rate, he says. “People don’t just want to come to work and earn a paycheck. They want to believe in not just what they’re doing, but also how they’re doing it.”
The state solar industry can back that up. “Under Blake's leadership, Namasté Solar is one of the most sought-after employers in Colorado,” Lurie says.
Jones believes the democratic model has helped Namasté improve product quality with fewer errors and better customer service. Happy employees produce happy clients who refer others and reduce the need for a large marketing budget. And it all boosts the company’s bottom line, he says.
In six years, the company has grown to $20 million in revenue and 100 employees, Jones says.
It hasn’t been easy though. In 2009, Jones introduced Obama when he came to Colorado to sign the economic stimulus bill. They also walked together on the solar-paneled rooftop Namasté had installed on the Denver Museum of Nature and History.
That year, Namasté made Inc. Magazine’s top 500 list as the 56th fastest-growing private company. Its ranking fell to No. 975 the following year after the price of solar panels plummeted along with revenue growth, Jones says. “We call it the ‘solar coaster.’ It’s a very dynamic, fast-changing industry that depends on subsidies.”
While the solar company grew substantially through the stimulus bill and other local subsidies, when those dropped off, so did business. Namasté was forced to lay off some workers, but is now on the upswing with plans to hire about two dozen more employees this year.
The recent supply glut that has hurt solar manufacturers has benefited installers who can pass on lower costs for solar panels to their customers, he says. Overall, he believes the solar market is weathering the economic downturn better than most others, doubling in size between 2010 and 2011. “It’s attracting a lot of investment capital and is one of the few industries that’s creating jobs.”
Still, the solar market provides less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Jones, for one, is doing his part to change that in an unconventional way.
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