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Podcast Transcript: Being a Female Executive in the Renewable Space with Abby Buchmiller

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Dave Anderson: All right. Welcome everyone to the second episode of The Power Moves podcast. So we are absolutely thrilled to have Abby Buchmiller in office with us. So a lot of times we do these things virtually, but we're thrilled to have you in office with us. And this is a conversation I've been looking forward to having for a really long time. So Abby and I have competed, we've competed alongside each other, we've both tried to move and advance the solar cause in our own respective ways. And so, really [00:00:30] thrilled to have a conversation with Abby today. So thank you for coming in.

Abby Buchmiller: Thanks for having me. Yes, I very much love working next to Complete, and just to share a quick story, remember my first, I think, dealer relationship in solar space, and someone said, "You've got to see the system these guys at complete have." And anyway, I've been a fan ever since.

Dave Anderson: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. So I think I've been a fan from this side, as well. So Abby, she was the CEO of Empire Solar, most recently, but I think [00:01:00] her background goes further back than that, and it's certainly worth talking about. So you've been in the office a little bit today, and we've had some conversations about your background, which has been fascinating. I didn't realize that we had so many things in common, and I think we'll probably end up talking a little bit about that, but so the youngest of seven kids, is that right?

Abby Buchmiller: Yep.

Dave Anderson: Okay, youngest of seven kids and born in Alaska?

Abby Buchmiller: I was technically born in Utah, but I was only here a minute, left to Alaska. Yeah, my dad was a coal [00:01:30] miner who wanted better for his family, which obviously I am super appreciative of, but he loaded all of his seven kids in a van. And we took off to Alaska chasing gold mining was the next big thing. After gold mining, he ended up in oil field work, which was where our family really settled in, and found some really good opportunities. So he worked up on the North Slope of Alaska for years, on hitch rotations, and got a lot of us into oil field careers, which was a little wild.

Dave Anderson: It's fascinating. So it went from coal, which [00:02:00] people that know me, realize that's my background, Colstrip, Montana, and then to gold mining, and then to oil mining, but very much so a blue collar type of an approach towards work. And I think that I have, and I think you do, as well, have a real appreciation for vocational work generally.

Abby Buchmiller: Absolutely, love the trades.

Dave Anderson: So most of the people that I went to high school with pursued more, what we'd consider, a blue collar path. And I think that they're some of the happiest, greatest people that I know, [00:02:30] back in Montana. And so I was fascinated to find out that you actually come from a similar background as I do. So youngest of seven kids born in Utah, goes to Alaska, down to Arizona, and then finds your way back to Utah. So how did you end up back in Utah?

Abby Buchmiller: It was actually my husband, a student at Utah State, and I was just in a spot in Arizona where I needed a new start., I needed a do-over maybe. So he was a friend of mine at the time and said, "Why don't you come [00:03:00] check Utah out, stay for a bit." I came out to visit and never went back, and my sweet dad loaded all my belongings in a car, and drove my car to me. And I've been in Utah ever since, but that first winter was horrific, it was terrible.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. You had forgotten what winter was like from the time you had spent in the Alaska?

Abby Buchmiller: And I hadn't had my driver's license, so I didn't really drive in it. So I slipped off the road a few times in Logan, Utah, it was a mess.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. And Logan, for those that don't know, gets a little bit more snow than most places around Salt Lake do. Definitely [00:03:30] a snowier place than Arizona, though. So, and were you in the Phoenix area? Where in Arizona were you?

Abby Buchmiller: Yeah, so I went to high school in a cute little mountain town, super pretty, it's called Payson. Not a lot of people know about it, but it's gorgeous. And then after high school, I got kicked out of high school, and slash graduated earlier through a different program, and went to Phoenix and started my career, and stayed in Phoenix in a few different apartments, and got my start there

Dave Anderson: So your family, specifically your father, he went from coal, to gold, [00:04:00] to oil. And then how did you make your way back into working, because that's where you actually started, your real career is in oil, as well.

Abby Buchmiller: I had my first baby, and I was married and living here in Utah, and he decided that he wanted to go into business for himself, and quit the crazy rotational shifts in oil. And so, he and my brother decided they were going to start an oil field services company. So this meant a couple of guys in trucks, and chasing rigs down, helping them rig down, move, rig up, service calls in the middle of the night, and getting them fixed. [00:04:30] And he decided to start his own business and said, "Would you like to help me run the back office?" And as a young person that had already had a decent career behind me in management leadership and administrative work, I was super excited to jump in there, and help him build it.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. And so was it just you and your dad, or were there other family members in the business, as well?

Abby Buchmiller: At first there was three or four of us, a couple of siblings, as the years went on, more family members moved in to help grow, and ended up being quite a group of us.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. And [00:05:00] family dynamic, did that strain family dynamic at all, or was mostly good?

Abby Buchmiller: I think it was mostly good to start, definitely as the business threw challenges our way, and or we grew, it definitely exposed the differences in, I think, desires first and foremost, I think that my father really wanted a business that could be a long term job for himself, and his sons. And I think that a few of us maybe had bigger hopes, and desires, [00:05:30] and dreams, me being probably the guiltiest of all of them. And so I think it did for sure, create a little bit of a challenging environment, at times.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. So, Complete Solar obviously was founded by my brother and I, but we have several investors. That's a question that we've had to encounter, every time we've ever done any investment round, investors always want to understand what the family dynamic is like. And I think there's a lot of real benefits to it, and obviously, it causes some additional challenges, as well. But, at least for the part of my brother and I, [00:06:00] it's been pretty fantastic. So we actually did have another brother, and some extended family members, that have come through the business. My own son, has done some proposal writing for the business, at one point. But we certainly don't think of ourselves as a family shop, at all, but the family dynamic has been an interesting one.

Abby Buchmiller: I can relate to that. I don't know that I ever really thought of it much as a family environment. You just call each other business partners, and you just run through it. But there're challenges, I think, like a lot of other partnerships [00:06:30] for sure, but maybe a little worse.

Dave Anderson: So, you're in the oil business, and I had actually asked you previous, I think people land in solar, or renewables, for different reasons. Some people are really cause driven, and I think anyone that spends any real time in solar, or in renewable energy, becomes pretty cause driven. But that's not necessarily what drives us into the industry to start with.

So how did you make the transition from dirty oil, I mean that affectionately, for all of my [00:07:00] coal mining friends back in Colstrip, but from the non-renewable energy sources into solar?

Abby Buchmiller: Sure. It was an opportunity that landed in our lap, it was a vendor partnership that said, "Hey, you guys are here in Utah, you have electrical contractors licensing. Would you be open to trying solar installation? We know some marketing companies, sales companies, that are looking for fulfillment partners."

At the time we went, "Local work. This is great. Maybe easier work." Oil is tough, it [00:07:30] is very boom and bust, it's very feast and famine. And, for the oil field relationships we had, the price of oil would drop just a bit. And we were the first to get cut off of any budgets, and so it was tough work. And I think we jumped into solar thinking, "This is going to be a lot easier, a lot smoother, a lot less volatile." And certainly, to your point, I was blessed by finding a whole lot more insular than I thought we were getting into, but initially it started as just an offshoot, or an arm, of our oil [00:08:00] field services company, as electrical contractors.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. And only in Utah then?

Abby Buchmiller: No, we had such a great network of licensure from, from a contractor's perspective, so initially it was Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada, I think, was our third or fourth state. But we were expanding really quick right out of the gate, because we already had footprint, we were already doing work in Texas.

Dave Anderson: And Colorado's had its moments, Utah certainly had its moments, but Idaho not considered, generally, a really huge solar state, but I think you guys had [00:08:30] a fair bit of success with there, didn't you?

Abby Buchmiller: We had some success in Idaho. It was never one of our top five markets, per se. Colorado was always just slow and steady, it was a great back pocket market, it was just a workhorse. Texas was a huge market for us, obviously, three different offices. Nevada was phenomenal for us, it was definitely of a downhill, as far as solar challenges, it's just a fantastic [00:09:00] environment for installing, much easier for us folks.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. And so, this extra offshoot work then, becomes what was, at the time, or became a real juggernaut in the solar space, which was Empire. And I think you rebranded the Empire Silver Group, is that what it was called?

Abby Buchmiller: Yeah. Essentially I fell in love with it, we fell in love with it. I saw, really quickly, the opportunity to market to a lot of different sales companies, in a dealer type environment and [00:09:30] said, "You know what? Let's just start an entirely separate new company." Which I was a larger stakeholder in, and much more eager and excited to just build, so Empire was born in 2017.