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

Updated: Jul 7














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.

Dave Anderson: Which is crazy, because over the next about three years, Empire, when I say juggernaut, I don't think I'm exaggerating, at all, I think your growth was pretty explosive. At the peak of Empire's success, how many jobs were you doing on a weekly basis, or on a [00:10:00] monthly basis?

Abby Buchmiller: So we were selling about 1,100 or so, accounts at our peak, and we were installing closer to about 500, 550 or so. And just bringing on as many people as we could, as quickly as possible. We were at a peak size, W2 operational employees, about 600 people, at one point in time. And this was 2020, remote environment, we had laptops left out for people and masks, and they'd come pick up their laptop, and work remote, and try to [00:10:30] train them. It was a wild time that I'll always remember in my career, I'm sure.

Dave Anderson: And how many states were you operating in at the time?

Abby Buchmiller: Oh, gosh, total at our peak, we ended up, I believe, I want to say 18 states, but we had about 24 offices. We had three in California, we had three in Texas, maybe four in Texas, it was a lot.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. So, I don't have the statistics in front of me, but at 1,100 jobs a month, that would've put you, certainly, in the top 10 comfortably, if not the top five, in terms of residential contractors across the country. Again, [00:11:00] explosive growth from just an opportunistic way to expand your existing labor force and licensure, into something that became a really impactful player in the solar space, which is incredible. So, did Empire ever bring any of the sales internally, or was it always done through that horizontal specialization dealer network?

Abby Buchmiller: Yeah, it was 100% dealer, we were definitely looking into bringing in more of a point of sale, lead gen, other opportunities, virtual, into feed [00:11:30] our dealer partners, but 100% dealer program, our focus was on relationships.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. So this is where, again, I think you and I could probably talk two, or three, or four, podcasts worth of information about the pain, and also the benefit, of working with the dealer network, the way that we do, the way that Empire did, and the way that Complete Solar continues to do. And also, talking a little bit about [00:12:00] just overall customer acquisition, the challenges that we experience.

And I speak at some conventions, and I spoke at a home security convention, and I pulled the audience, the home security, which a lot of people go into renewals from home security. So these were more old guard home security companies, people that have been doing home security and home automation for decades. Some of them family shops, some of them much larger organizations. And I just asked them, "By show [00:12:30] of hands, how many of you in the group here, have already done solar?" And I was not surprised less than 10% of the hands go up. And statistically, depending on where you get your data, it's probably 6% market penetration for residential solar.

And this was just after talking for 30 minutes espousing all of the values of solar, and why everyone should do solar, and why it makes sense for all homeowners to do solar. And then I share with them a study that was done, a Pew Research study [00:13:00] that was done in 2020, that showed that 46% of homeowners are actively considering solar, right now. It's crazy, and so I ask the question all the time, "Why is it we're at 6% market penetration, when we're at 52% of people either have, or are actively considering or looking into it. And why are our acquisition costs the way that they were?"

So there's a lot we could dive into there, but I think it's a real aha moment for a lot of these home security companies that are looking for ways to expand their businesses outside of just home security, considering [00:13:30] solar as a second product offering for them. So it's a real aha moment for them to realize, "Hey, perhaps there's a pretty tight overlap between the customers that I already have, and people that would benefit from installing solar." But what are the big challenges that companies like Empire, and others that are really just contractors or fulfillment companies, what are the big challenges that you faced in that three, or I guess it'd be four year, pretty incredible run that you guys had?

Abby Buchmiller: Oh, gosh. Specific to [00:14:00] Empire, I would say, you touched on it, cost of acquisition is very high. My personal read on that, from an industry perspective, is I think that it's been, with love and respect, I think it's been somewhat of a necessary evil, as far as ensuring that there is an effective market penetration. I mean more and more homeowners are learning about solar, their neighbors get solar, they're more open and keen to the idea. I do believe that cost of acquisition, [00:14:30] and method of purchase, will be adjusting, as time goes on. I think that we'll be, eventually, moving towards a little bit more of an online acquisition model, we'll see.

But working with those numbers, you know what it's like, it's very, very difficult. We also found ourselves just investing so much in ensuring that our sales teams and our partners were very well educated around the products that they were selling. That they were honest in their dealings, [00:15:00] just tons of attention, and effort, and costs, honestly, going back into investing into that sales force, even though it was a dealer focused or a dealer program, just to ensure that the quality of the deliverables was on point the way that we wanted them to.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I think when you have conversations with these dealers, what were the things that you felt, because obviously, you were a really effective recruiter, what were the things that you [00:15:30] would share with them? The things that would really compel the dealer to want to work with Empire?

Abby Buchmiller: Transparency, open communication. We had a lot of fantastic feedback around our system, our CRM system, where they could really see their projects and process, they could be a part of it. The hope for us, with our dealer partners, was always that they could sell a project, stay focused on building their sales words, and allow our team to really be turnkey. Our project operations teams were trained and focused [00:16:00] on, "Hello Mr. And Mrs. Homeowner. I am now the person wearing the cape. I'm so excited to walk you through this fantastic experience in home services. Which is, I think, a much longer term play in where I'd love to see a lot of the trades go, is more of a customer centric or customer focused experience, but that was honestly probably the biggest differentiator. People said, "You're easy to work with, fantastic to work with." We put a lot of care into [00:16:30] ensuring that those partnerships were healthy and quality.

But to your point on some of the challenges, I think, not having the foresight from a data and metrics perspective, presale. Meaning we saw the orders that were placed, we saw the surveys that were booked, but we didn't have a lot of insight to the data previous to that, because of the business model. So we would have suddenly volumes dump on us in a Minnesota, or a tougher [00:17:00] turn market, or a longer turn market, that was seemingly somewhat of a surprise to us. And our markets, such as Vegas, where we could install in 10 days easily, those volumes were dropping on us. And so, rather than in a full service solar company, where you have your hands deep in the presale activity, and the lead gen activity, it really put us in more of a reactionary space, instead of a proactive space, to where we were selling deals, how we were [00:17:30] selling deals and pulling them through, so it's a big challenge.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. What do you think was, I mean, I think you're probably talking a little bit to it, or a little bit around it, but what do you think was the real, or the ultimate, or the biggest challenge, that led to Empire ultimately having to close its doors?

Abby Buchmiller: Gosh, I think that's probably a podcast episode in itself.

Dave Anderson: Probably, probably is.

Abby Buchmiller: I think, to stay on the services, I think at our foundation, [00:18:00] we had some pretty weak spots and unfortunately, time and running out of time, not having time for certain things to come together that we had thought would. But if you just look on the surface, as far as the challenges in business model, that's certainly one of them. Understanding the way that we do now, and I do now the importance of cash modeling, and understanding how quickly those projects move through your pipeline, [00:18:30] and also keeping tabs on those, when you're running 24 offices, with very different metrics. It's a beast and it's a behemoth, and you really have to have a sharp team of financial and FP&A folks, way ahead of operations.

Dave Anderson: Man, we really could do a whole podcast episode on this. So I've told a lot of people, it's an overly simplistic way of saying it, but people can profit themselves way out of business. So you can be balanced, you can be really strong and cash poor, [00:19:00] and managing it. And one of the challenges that exists in the United States, and I'm speaking broadly here, but we had, our last guest on the podcast. One of the things he's really passionate about, talks a lot about, is the fact that you can get solar, it's got much higher penetration with lower value benefits in Australia, compared to here in the United States, and they're up 25% residential penetration with cost for acquisition, [00:19:30] total cost, not cost for acquisition, total cost of solar well below $2.

And here in the United States, we struggle with so much red tape, and having to understand every single AHJ, and the fact that, and you had mentioned Minnesota, as an example, and Las Vegas, as an example, and the business operates so dramatically different, from one state to the next. And so, as the CEO of Empire, you become, [00:20:00] essentially, the CEO, or you have to have appointed CEOs of each individual little market, or a system that can somehow bring all of that information together in a single digestible way, so that the top leaders can make sound decisions. And I think it's a real struggle for our industry, unfortunately.

Abby Buchmiller: Absolutely. I would say the other challenge our industry, both has been facing and continues to face, is that because of the opportunity on the commission side on the sales side, [00:20:30] sales is hand over fist outpacing the labor supply. I'm concerned, we're not going to be able to fulfill projects 12 months from now, even close to the rate that sales is growing and booming, and everyone, to your point is jumping into the solar arena, that hasn't been previously. And so I think that a lot more companies need to be focused on bringing people into the space, training and developing the fulfillment teams, for sure.

Dave Anderson: [00:21:00] Yeah. I think you're talking about a challenge and an opportunity. One of the fantastic parts about our industry, renewables generally, is it's the fastest industry, in terms of growth, in terms of employment. So if you want to have a booming economy, you have a privatized marketplace, that's hiring more people than any other space is presently, and I think that's a huge opportunity. And part of it is, that at the end of the day, there are some great commissions, but it goes back down to the actual homeowner himself. [00:21:30] The homeowners are beneficiaries of solar, huge beneficiaries of solar, I know it's small, it's modest, in terms of the percent penetration we have, but I tell people all the time, "You'll never meet someone that has solar, that doesn't love it." And in terms of, to be in an industry where the product that you sell is loved universally by the end user is really fantastic.

And I, myself, it's the Hair Club For Men, the old saying, "Not [00:22:00] only am I the president, but I'm also a member." So, I've had solar on one, of a couple different homes, over the last decade, and I just absolutely love it. So yeah, I'm a beneficiary of the product, the end product, as well, which is exciting. So, you've got the homeowner that loves it. You've got commissions that are really high right now, that are driving a lot of new entrants into sales. And then, you can have, to your point, and it sounds like Empire started to struggle [00:22:30] with this a little bit, as well, is you were growing really fast on the sales side, and then operationally you have to somehow try to remain excellent in every disparate market, while sales is continuing to fly. Was Minnesota, you brought that up, was that like your most painful market?

Abby Buchmiller: It was our most painful market, but it was also the market a lot of these over the phone, remote close guys were just finding extreme success, more than we had expected, for sure. And so again, [00:23:00] great opportunity, exciting, but Excel Utility in Minnesota was running an interesting performance basis for homeowners, which was just peaking a ton of interest, and great market, but that's just one example of how it can be difficult to keep a finger on.

Dave Anderson: So obviously, those were the big challenges that Empire had faced, we talked about high acquisition costs, you said necessary evil. So in your mind, being a solar executive, having been around this for a while, where do you think that the space [00:23:30] goes, in terms of commissions, in terms of acquisition costs? How do we further the solar cause, in your mind? How do you see solar progressing over the next 10 or 12 years?

Abby Buchmiller: I see solar as, I mean, the opportunity is going nothing but up, for everyone involved. I do think that the cost of acquisition, specifically the overall cost to homeowners, as well, has got to just adjust, it's got to correct. I do see that coming, hopefully, from the sales side.

As someone that's been on [00:24:00] the fulfillment side, it's an unhealthy environment for the guys trying to get the panels to the roof, and to maintain a quality operation, it's just very, very difficult. So something's got to adjust, something's got to change. But I think that's it, I think that from a national perspective, permitting requirements, a lot of the red tape that you talked about, I think that [00:24:30] it continues to be a little more tailwinds, than headwinds, hopefully sooner, rather than later. But just standardized permitting on a national scale, something like that. Even the idea of it coming in the next 12 to 24 months excites me so much, because that really is, most people, as you know, put a lot more emphasis, or stress, on the labor piece, or on the completion piece. And that project management piece between here and here, is the biggest challenge, bar none.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. [00:25:00] And the project management piece gets so much easier, if we could standardize it in more market to the next, you don't have to have market specialists. And you had complimented us earlier, and I appreciate for doing so, I mean, we really do have some fantastic systems that help us manage through that, but we're not immune from having to learn and understand the changing environments that exist within every AHJ, and so it's something that we certainly struggle with, as well.

Abby Buchmiller: I mean, it changes monthly, its crazy. So much complexity.

Dave Anderson: And you hear a lot of talk, you've mentioned [00:25:30] a national permitting, that's one there's been some buzz about that for a while. But tailwinds and headwinds are an interesting one, because obviously we're in a really heavily subsidized industry, from the federal level. And a lot of other regulatory things are expected, and I think it maybe is the topic of most conversation on the Capital right now is, "What are we going to do about renewables generally?" It was the green new deal for a while, [00:26:00] that didn't pass, now something else is probably in the works. And I hear from people that are in the know, that something in the April session is supposed to be coming. But a lot of federal tailwinds, for sure, but at the local jurisdictional level, it feels like it's a lot of headwinds, it's, "How well do Flo down at the permitting department?"

Abby Buchmiller: It's crazy. It's crazy, you get everything from someone at a permit office saying, "Do you need a permit for this? Aren't you just putting a panel on a roof?" That's an Idaho memory I have actually, pushing permits myself. [00:26:30] To different areas, where just the hurdles you got to jump through, it's crazy. And HOAs are another roadblock that are really, really difficult to get around, market to market.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. We have found that we can navigate the HOAs, but it adds complexity and it adds time to every project, and which in turn, adds cost. And you have to have people that are managing every HOA [00:27:00] relationship, and some HOAs will work with the company, and some require the homeowner to do some overly onerous things, like requiring signatures from neighbors, a lot of things like that.

And I've actually been in the solar space for 10 years. So 2017, we're still in the infancy of the solar industry, for all intents and purposes. But back 10 years ago, almost every install we did, was either the first one in the city, or the first one in the community, [00:27:30] and so it felt like we were doing a lot of education for the HOAs, or education for the cities, or education for the families.

Abby Buchmiller: I can relate.

Dave Anderson: Fortunately, people are getting a little bit more adept at being able to navigate this, even at the local level, but we still struggle, and it's so much different, one spec to the next. I've got hundreds and hundreds of inspections outstanding of jobs that are installed, because one random reason or another, we have to go back and do something. And I say something, [00:28:00] because it really is pretty random.

Abby Buchmiller: It feels almost up to inspector mood, at some point in time.

Dave Anderson: Yeah, it certainly is that.

Abby Buchmiller: I don't know if you feel this, as well, but the addition of other home services, at point of sale with solar, is a fantastic opportunity. And it's driving, I believe, solar adoption so much better, but all of the reroofing projects, or HVAC add-ons, the lenders have made it so friendly and easy to add a lot of these different home improvement services, but it really, at our level, at the completion [00:28:30] level, makes everything very, very complex. You're now managing projects with hundreds of different variables, truly.

Dave Anderson: So did Empire start adding a lot of supplementary services outside of solar?

Abby Buchmiller: We did. That was definitely one of the biggest challenges we dealt with, from taking our systems that were working, but we were always adjusting for permanent requirements, HOA requirements, or local requirements, and then trying to extrapolate that to four or five different workflows, even according to those, based on what other products and services outside of PD only, [00:29:00] that we were managing, and so, it was a lot.

Dave Anderson: Yeah, that's something that we, at Complete Solar, are pretty bullish about. So many of our partnerships presently, actually come from other tangentially related residential services, whether it's dish, or internet service providers, or home security, or fill in the blank, HVAC, or roofers. Interestingly roofers, for a long time in the solar industry, people would think that's the most natural fit, like do your roof, do solar at the same time. But one of the [00:29:30] things that we've found, is in working with a lot of roofers, and a lot of investors, have lost a lot of money investing, trying to figure out how to turn roofers into solar people. Is that roofers don't actually have a really long term and great relationship with their homeowners and solar is, if ever there were a long time relationship with a homeowner, it's in solar.

Abby Buchmiller: Right, absolutely.

Dave Anderson: So in that regard, you're working on the same part of the house, but in terms of the relationship with the customer, it's two polar opposites. Roofers are usually [00:30:00] one and done, you put a roof on, you never put another roof on. And if you're to your roofer again, it's because you're mad at them, because they did something wrong. Versus solar, it's a lot different, people absolutely put solar on, and you have a long term relationship with the solar provider. So we have found that the home services where there's some an ongoing relationship, are the most well equipped to add solar as a follow-on product. But we're roofing contractors in several of the states where we install, [00:30:30] part of it is a necessary evil, part of it is it's a new opportunity in line of business for us.

Abby Buchmiller: I see so many solar companies that don't drive as much focus on the relationship with the homeowner, and I just see it as such a missed opportunity for that reason, exactly. There's just so many other additional home services opportunities, throughout that timeline, that homeowner has a fantastic experience with you, as their home services provider, it's just a great umbrella.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. [00:31:00] And in terms of the financial markets, as well, when you talk to investors, that's one of the things that they're constantly trying to add, or trying to understand is, "What does the follow-on opportunity look like with your customer base?" And we believe, that first and foremost, it's the right thing to do, to provide a great world class experience from the time that you install, all the way through for the next 25 plus years, but outside of that, there really is a great business opportunity to be able to continue to work with that customer. I wish there weren't [00:31:30] so many supply constraint issues with batteries, because we get a lot of battery requests right now from our existing customer base, the ones we can't fulfill, just because it's hard to get our hands on enough batteries.

Abby Buchmiller: Agreed.

Dave Anderson: Did Empires start moving into batteries much before?

Abby Buchmiller: We did, it was market to market, but certainly Texas after the first ice storms.

Dave Anderson: Yeah.

Abby Buchmiller: Florida was a great battery market for us, as well.

Dave Anderson: Really, Florida? So California, obviously, has been our real critical market, and so most [00:32:00] of our batteries happen there. But obviously Texas, some of the suppliers actually, because of their limited supply, like Generac for example, they were essentially exclusively shipping their batteries to Texas. They wouldn't even consider shipping batteries anywhere else, because there was such high demand there, and it was easier to fulfill in one market, than working in all the different markets. So batteries is an example of an area where we're really bullish about, but also have to temper our own excitement, just because you can't get enough batteries to meet the demand [00:32:30] presently, which is a struggle in solar.

One of the things we absolutely have to talk about is, I don't know the statistics about this, but if you look across the major residential, or non residential solar companies, most of them have a male CEO. So obviously Sunrun had Lynn Jurich, and they've appointed another female [00:33:00] CEO. And then there was Empire, and Abby Buchmiller. So, I'm curious to get your perspective, as a female executive, in the renewable space. And what's really interesting about you, as well, and I found this out this morning actually, is you actually came from oil, as well. Again, don't have the statistics in front of me, but I would imagine that's an even more male dominated space, the oil space, but I'd love to get your perspective, as a female executive in the renewable [00:33:30] space, as well.

Abby Buchmiller: Sure, when people used to ask me this question often, at the peak of Empire, I almost felt like I was letting a group of people down, because I didn't have a lot of good stuff, because truthfully, I just didn't recognize it, or I didn't notice much of a difference. And I think that's both because coming up through a family environment in which the strong willed female of the group became a natural leader, is a great [00:34:00] jumping off point that I'm really, really grateful for. But I certainly look back on some of those interviews now, and cringe a little bit, because I feel like I've definitely had my share. I've had my share of perspective building experiences, as a female in the ring, for sure.

But I would say, in a general sense, I think that our industry is doing better, is doing very well at creating a nice open [00:34:30] landscape and environment for women. But I also see a lot of, maybe what I would call, misguided efforts. This one actually makes me think of Lynn Jurich, the first time I spoke with her. This is one that we touched on, but the Female CEO Awards, not necessary, just a CEO among CEO awards is really what we were looking for.

Dave Anderson: That was a perspective both you and Lynn had talked about?

Abby Buchmiller: Yes. She had won a Female CEO Award, I believe, [00:35:00] in San Francisco, or something in California. And I think that, I don't know about you, but I don't know any women that are really interested in being treated differently, or seen differently, we're up for the exact same challenges, and that's just how we want to look at it.

Dave Anderson: I guess I'm a little conflicted about that, because on the one hand, I totally agree with you, the job is the same, and your responsibilities to the job are the same. And the way that I think you're ultimately judged, [00:35:30] is how well you perform in that role. But the other side of me, I'm very in favor of promoting, or even encouraging, that certainly there's not a gender over another gender that's going to be able to perform better in position, as well. And so if you can promote some real powerful leaders, I'm okay with that, I guess.

Abby Buchmiller: Absolutely. And that's what I would say, is there's a lot of men in the industry, [00:36:00] and just everyone in the industry, providing platforms for women, which makes me very, very happy. I think that you having me on the podcast is one of those. Had so many men that I look up to in the industry, that I've learned so much from, who have provided me a platform that I'll forever be grateful for. And I think that it's just things like the women panel,, and I personally look at a lot of the shows and the groups, and the speakers and space. And I would just love to see [00:36:30] someone who's different serving on the CEO panel. Have a woman in there, right in the mix, because I think that it's the same thing that translates across creating a culture for your company. I think that if you can create an environment, or a culture, industry, company wide, where we recognize that people are different, because it provides a different perspective, or a different unique value.

And instead of saying, "Don't be different." Say, "You are different, and that's why we want you here. And here's how you can flourish. And here's [00:37:00] how your differences can help us all, as a company, or as an industry, be different, serve more people, speak to more people, and be more well rounded."

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I've heard it said, and I don't have any great data to support this, but it stands to reason, at least in my own house, that women are largely responsible for making a lot of the decisions in the home. So it seems to make a ton of sense to me, to have some diversity at the executive level, in terms of have great female and [00:37:30] male representation in terms of how you build the business. So I'm curious from your perspective, how can any business, I mean, take renewables or not renewables, just from your perspective, I'd love to, and I'm sure our listeners would love to hear, as well. How can a company try to increase the diversity, to have more voices at the executive table, more voices at the decision table, within the business? And why is that beneficial to a business?

Abby Buchmiller: [00:38:00] I think it's that, I think it's recognizing, that whether it is a woman in a group of men, or differing cultures and backgrounds, and even ethnicities, and even sexual orientations, just different walks of life, different experiences that build us differently, bringing about an environment where you have a lot of differing strengths. I am very opinionated, that everyone has [00:38:30] male strengths and feminine strengths, within them, you and me. You see a lot of women, I think that are in both, male run and male dominant environments, who are obviously very comfortable within their masculine traits, and strengths, and capabilities, and that's great. And I know many men that are very comfortable and fantastic, within their feminine traits and sides. But I think that if you strip all of that away, and say that we are a culture. This makes me think of an Empire memory, because I do think, that of [00:39:00] the things that we did well, this is one that I feel a great amount of pride for.

We called it a culture of empowerment, but I also lovingly called them, or our people, our tribe of misfits, because it really was an environment of, everyone feels a little different or a little outside of the norm, now and then. Everyone can relate with that emotion, and I think if you create an environment, just like in the home, or in a workplace, where bring your differences, bring those things [00:39:30] that make you unique, special, and different, and voice them, bring them to the table, help everybody see differently, think differently, act differently, be better in an environment where we can lift each other up, and also learn from one another, it just creates comfort, trust. It also breeds a lot of high performers, I've seen it myself. It is great for culture, not just to do the right thing, but also to run a profitable, [00:40:00] ahead of the times, business that is prepped for growth and prepped for health.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I think I'd love to dive in a little bit more to some of the culture building you did. I think one of the things that really attracted me to reaching out to you to have you come onto the podcast, at all, was you seemingly have some pretty rich engagement within the industry on your social [00:40:30] platforms. So you post to LinkedIn and people pay attention, I mean, it's really engaging people. People care about what you care about, or seemingly care about what you care about. Sometimes, they might disagree with what you have to say, but they want to hear what you have to say, which is interesting. So what were some of the things that you did really, I mean, you called it what you say, cast of misfits? Just an affectionate term, obviously, while you are using it.

Abby Buchmiller: Of course, I'm a misfit.

Dave Anderson: But [00:41:00] what were the things that you did to really build culture? But then also, I think helpful for other people to hear, how have you been able to promote your own brand as a business leader, and as a business executive?

Abby Buchmiller: I think, for better or for worse, I am who I am. I am, what you see is what you get. And I am very comfortable being authentic and giving you the real story. I don't fake [00:41:30] well, I don't really know, know how. And I share that, because I think that as a leader, when you create an environment where you can say, "Here's how I messed up today." Or, "Here's what I am not as proficient in, as I would like to be, here's where I'm learning and bettering myself." It creates a very human environment, where people can, again, show up as themselves, as their authentic self. I think in corporate, we see a lot of the advice is, "Don't share, don't overshare, don't provide too much in a meeting, be an [00:42:00] observer, make sure you're always coming across as maybe the smartest in the room."

And I think that building trust as a leader, comes across sometimes as saying, "I don't know what I'm doing today, or in this environment, but you better believe that I'm going to find smarter people around me. I'm going to level myself up. I'm not going to back down from challenges." But also just being real and authentic, outward facing, to the industry and saying, "Hey, I'm not a perfect human being by any stretch, but here's what [00:42:30] I am, as someone that cares a ton, has a great deal of empathy. I'm also a very smart person, very capable. And I'm also probably the hardest working person that you'll meet." And just showing up as that authentic version of yourself, especially in a leadership role, or in a place where I've had a platform given to me to be noisy about those few things, can be really compelling. Again, I think it speaks to everybody.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I hope I'm an authentic person, but I certainly haven't put myself out there, projected myself [00:43:00] into the internet the way that you have. And I hope this comes across as complimentary as I intend it to be, when I say that when Empire was really doing some amazing things, and finding a lot of success, you were able to celebrate that. And I think that it was really a call to arms for all of the people that were really embracing the Empire banner at the time.

But you also shared some, and I know that there were some darker times, as well.

Abby Buchmiller: For sure.

Dave Anderson: And particularly [00:43:30] at the end, I'm sure it was probably a really difficult thing. You invested a lot of your time being a business executive and business owner. I know that it's more than a job, and I'm sure those 600 plus employees you have, it's a heavy burden that you wear, realizing that these things really do impact people pretty significantly, as well. So you were pretty authentic about sharing some of that stuff, as well. And one of the main reasons [00:44:00] I wanted to have you come on, as well, rumors swell, and I actually believed, and embraced the authentic story that you were telling, and I thought it was fair that you were given as many platforms as possible to be able to share that true version, and let people know who you were, and that true story of how all things unfold in life and in business.

Abby Buchmiller: Yeah, for sure. I'll say that you hit it on the head, I think that being brave, putting yourself out there, is tough. And I think [00:44:30] a lot of what people fear will happen, is exactly what happened to me. Meaning, if it's not your best day, or if it's a failure on your hands, there's a lot of people that will take that and run with it. I think that to be a leader, to be a CEO, to be anyone in that space, and putting yourself out there on social media, to boot, I think that you just have to be extremely confident and comfortable [00:45:00] in yourself, knowing your true intentions, your true efforts. And you got to be aware that people aren't going to know the real story, because they aren't in your head. They aren't riding shotgun with you all day, every day. And all of the decisions that you make and keeping yourself true, and in check to those things, is really all you can do.

But I think to the point of women in executive roles, I think all I will share, is that I would [00:45:30] love to see our industry that is full of very great well-intentioned people that care a ton. I would love to also see, and I would challenge people in that space, to speak out or stand up against things that feel as though, maybe people aren't acting the way that they should. And what I mean by that, specifically, is I think that if you see activity, or if you see someone treating someone in a way that they wouldn't treat a male counterpart in the same industry, or in the same space, [00:46:00] you could probably assume that there's something to that.

And so I think that, I personally, when I touch back on, looping back to that story of cringing, when I say, "Oh, there's not a lot to say about being a woman." I hadn't been burned by some of those things, and I think the higher you fly, or the higher you climb, the bigger the stones are that anybody wants to throw, whether you're male, or female. But I also think that some that were thrown at me were special [00:46:30] stones, because of me being, maybe, different. And I'm personally, 100% at peace with that, but I feel like I want to help others that come behind me. I'm more protective, and I'm more outspoken when I see things that I just don't feel like are right. And so I have a new found, I would say passion and mission, for creating an environment that I feel like really truly supports and inspires women to [00:47:00] not be shy, and to step into male driven spaces, and really just careers, if that's what they want, and if that's their passion, and I think that we can do more.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I think certain industries, and I don't know exactly why this is, you could point to a lot of different reasons, and you could get some statisticians and people that understand the demographics better than I do, to get on and really talk about why certain fields become fairly homogenous. [00:47:30] And we could certainly speculate, or even use some intuition, as to why that is. Some of it is geographical, and so I was actually talking with a good friend of mine, and I won't mention who he is, didn't get his permission to share this, but he's been the CFO at several publicly traded companies. And I was asking him, so we're here in Utah, and most of the business that he's been the CFO for have been based out of Silicon Valley, but he was the CFO here in Utah.

And he was talking to me about some of the [00:48:00] unique challenges of hiring in Utah, and having diversity, because Utah is a fantastic place to do business, but it's also a very homogenous environment. And so I was talking to him like, "How would we, as a business, approach or trying to add additional diversity, when the truth is, that our hiring pools are fairly homogenous."

And he had some, I think, pretty good advice, which he said at every role, depending on what tier it is within the business, they require, [00:48:30] they never imposed hiring requirements, like you had to hire different ethnicities, or different genders, but they had minimum requirements for how many people from every diverse group had to be interviewed.

And I thought that was a pretty interesting perspective, and the thing is that its pretty easy, if you throw an advertisement out, and you get a handful of respondents, and just by virtue of the fact that we're here in Utah, we're going to get the [00:49:00] demographics that are consistent with Utah apply for that position. And if you really want to be a diverse organization, you have to be fairly deliberate about making sure that you don't close any of those hiring opportunities, until you've sampled from a diverse group of people. And that was something I've always been like, "Hey, get the best person, whomever it is. Ethnicity. Gender."

But I think, as a company, you might be missing something if you get the best person, and [00:49:30] you don't force yourself to look, to become increasingly diverse within your organization. We're a national business, and Utah's hiring pool doesn't necessarily represent the distribution of different homeowners that we're going to work with.

Abby Buchmiller: That's a great point.

Dave Anderson: And again, to the point, if women principally make decisions, [00:50:00] house and purchasing decisions, it seems to me, as a business, you'd want to have a diverse perspective within the business, to be representative of, at a minimum, your customer base, outside of the fact that it's probably just the best way to run a business anyway.

Abby Buchmiller: Agreed.

Dave Anderson: So it's hard for me to really advocate for compulsion around these things, like you have to have this many men, or this many women, or this many ethnicities, because I really do believe, I'm a meritocracy kind of a person, I want to reward people for [00:50:30] their good behavior. But, I think as a business, we can all behave better at trying to be diverse. And it really serves our business as well, to do so.

Abby Buchmiller: I love that. I think what I would add to that, is that a lot of members within your organization, will recruit for you, from a perspective of tapping into their tribe. Meaning, you have a strong female at executive level, or a higher level, and [00:51:00] they're naturally going to bring others like them, that are wanting to build with like-minded people. Same with other cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, I think that they will reach out to their own pool. And we definitely saw a lot of that at Empire, for sure, where we brought a lot of people in that wasn't a lot of purposeful recruiting, it was a lot of our team, a very diverse team, strong team, saying, "This is the place to be everybody." And waving the flag for us and saying, "Come here, build here, be part of this family, this is a place where you can thrive." And so I think that's where [00:51:30] your culture can also lift past a lot of those traditional recruiting methods.

Dave Anderson: No, I totally get it. And I think we actually see that, too. So in terms of promoting from or recruiting from your tribe, we actually, at one period of time, we were about 50% of our customers were Spanish speaking. And so we, out of necessity, had to hire a lot of Spanish speaking people, and as a result, you end up getting a lot of recruiting from a tribe. So we had Spanish speakers [00:52:00] coming in, and so a lot of our recruiting happens, word of mouth, people like working here, and so they try to bring friends and family along with them, as well.

Abby Buchmiller: I remember my thought to circle back to. I used to shop a lot of our HR systems, we had a strong HR team, for sure, who's always looking out for those things, but I would mystery shop different people within our organization, and ensure that their titles, and that their salaries, were on pace and that there wasn't any trends. And I think it's a smart [00:52:30] thing to do as a leader, to just take a peek at those things, get pulse read for yourself, in making sure that the opportunities that you feel that are, there are genuinely living true.

Dave Anderson: So, what did that look like? I'm curious. That would be something I'd love to do myself.

Abby Buchmiller: There're tons of HR systems, we happen to use Bamboo, was one we were on a long time, but you can go into their reporting dashboards, and you can pull all of those different stats, based on sex or gender, some of those other things [00:53:00] that you're tracking within your system, of course, but you can pull and look for different patterns. And so for me, it looked a lot like, of course, for women on my team, I am a woman that has been absolutely paid lesser, even by my family members, because I was female. And it's it is what it is, there's some generational pieces at play. I just want to do better than what I've had done. So in shopping different tiers, and experience levels, and just [00:53:30] get real with your data for a minute, and just look at the metrics that you're tracking.

Dave Anderson: Yeah, I think most people, and I hope that this is true, I think most people want to do better. I certainly do, but I think it requires you to be deliberate about it, because I think, to your point about just having your own experience, maybe being paid less even when you were in your family's shop, those thing, [00:54:00] I would guess that maybe it was over discrimination. I don't know, but I would guess, it probably more commonly is just somewhat unintentional, but it just happens.

Abby Buchmiller: And I think it's deep ingrained traditional thought processes. I've seen women, very much responsible for paying other women less. And I think there's this underlying, "They aren't maybe the breadwinner or there's a secondary earner."

And just really weird things that [00:54:30] I think are one of those you have to stop and get real with yourself and go, "Am I applying something here that doesn't make sense?" That's one, but a lot of it I chalk up to generational, I think we are doing better.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I don't want to just say that I'm doing better, I do want to be deliberate and take those actions, and I think that we treat men and women fairly in the business, which isn't to say that we are performing those audits at the same level. We do hire [00:55:00] an outside company that helps us to make sure that we're behaving well. That helps us, but I think there are some proactive things that any business can do to ensure that they're one, becoming increasingly diverse within the business, to be representative of the customer base that they're working with. But then two, that they're doing things to fight against any of those ingrained traditions that might exist. And certainly Utah, again, is part of this homogenous environment, it's a male dominated [00:55:30] labor force here. And so I think that, if ever there were a place, I think maybe there's some big responsibility for us here in Utah to do that.

Abby Buchmiller: I love that.

Dave Anderson: But anyway, so I could keep you here for at least another hour, but I would love to just talk a little bit about, what's next for Abby? I know there's a lot of people that are wondering that, as well. And so I know that you've got a very bright future as an executive, I hope that you spend as much of that energy that [00:56:00] you have in renewables, just because I think it's great for our industry, but what's next for Abby?

Abby Buchmiller: I appreciate that. I'm taking my time to decide, I think that of the many, many blessings that came to me from the Empire experience, one of them was getting a real read on what lights me up, where my passions are. And just like everyone else, I want to feel like I'm in a spot where I am creating an impact, [00:56:30] making a difference, and doing really great things. And so it's got to be something that lights you up a lot, and I don't know that in my career, I've ever stopped and asked myself that, truly. It's been a matter of someone needs to take lead here, there're difficult conversations to be had, I'll jump in, because that's something I'm a little more comfortable with, and I've definitely more served a role of see a need, fill a need, then, " [00:57:00] What do I love doing?"

And I think at Empire, for me, the most fun I had, was building a culture, building a brand, not just marketing, not just paid marketing, but building something that meant something to people across the board, was so rewarding and so fulfilling. And so jumping in immediately, I've popped up a few new brands, I want to get in the ecom space, [00:57:30] I'm playing with, because I got to feel like I'm learning and expanding. But I think that being able to be a creator creating value, is just really fun, and I think there's such a good opportunity to also inspire other people through what you create, and to do bigger, better, neater things with the value that you're creating. And specifically creating an impact [00:58:00] on the world, and so those are my big wild dreams.

And right now, I'm just taking everything a little bit of a day at a time, and trying to fill my cup doing those things that make me very happy. But there's so much knowledge that you gain in the solar space, especially, I don't know, getting kicked in the face a few times. That it gives me a lot [00:58:30] of joy to think that I can share a lot of those lessons learned, with people that are battling in the trades, and trying to do better, and to grow, and to push the movement forward. And so I love solar, I love that we're in an environment that creates such a strong why. And so, I'm still compelled by that, and trying to find my right fit.

Dave Anderson: Yeah. I think for a lot of people, their career just happens to them. And they look back [00:59:00] and they're like, "Wow, that was 30 or 40 years of my life." I'm glad to hear you're being deliberate about your next move, but you've certainly been a strong advocate for our industry, and a bold personality in our industry, as well, which is great. And I think that we'll certainly link to all of your socials that you share with us, for the podcast. I think it's worthwhile for our listeners to [00:59:30] give a follow. And again I was sharing, in all honesty, that I think that for the last little while, when Abby speaks, people are listening.

And I think for anyone that might try to cast shade upon anything at Empire, one thing that you certainly couldn't cast shade about, is that you guys definitely worked hard in the period of time that you guys were operating to build a strong culture, and to promote overall renewables, and always a really strong [01:00:00] advocate for renewables. And you can go back and look, I've liked and shared some of your comments over the years. And so I've appreciated your perspective as a female executive in the space, I've also appreciated your perspective as just an executive in the energy space. And, so thank you for that, but I might just ask one last question for you. So what are the things that you think are your big value drivers, that are going to drive the next stages of your career?

Abby Buchmiller: [01:00:30] My own internal value drivers? I think that I understand how to create a community and a following, and find people that are looking for the same thing. And so that's another way of saying a value driver is building a brand from the ground up. And [01:01:00] that's my zone, that's my comfort zone.

I also feel like creating within the home services' industry, within solar, a greater opportunity to turn what we know, as probably the most painful thing that you can do in your home, to bring a contractor in and try to ask them to help you fix something or improve something. I think that it's just a blank landscape, where you add the right type of intention processes, [01:01:30] and also a really strong why to, and I think there's a lot of work to be done in that realm. But specifically, gosh, I don't know, it's a tough one. I love that question, because you got to be a little stumped on it.

Dave Anderson: I think, just echoing some of the things you've said. So building a brand is really about mobilizing people around an idea that they already have. And so, I think people generally [01:02:00] want to save money in residential services, people generally want to do well and be good stewards of their environment, and of the world. I think people generally want to make good decisions around their homes. These are the things that really involve people, and the reason I've had as much fun in the residential space, and as much fun as I have in the renewable space, is because at the end of the day, we're not trying to change people's minds, but rather trying to mobilize people around a common idea that they already have within themselves.

And I think that's where real strong brands come from. If you look at the most influential [01:02:30] leaders over time, those are the people that have been able to mobilize people around the movement, and that's really what a brand is. And I think that you've been fantastic about that.

Abby Buchmiller: Thank you.

Dave Anderson: And again, I think when we spoke a while ago, we've certainly spent time as competitors in this space, and we've had dealers that have worked at your business, and in my business, or both of them at the same time, and they've played us off on each other. But the truth of the matter is, that both of us were better for having the other in the arena at [01:03:00] the same time.

Abby Buchmiller: Agreed.

Dave Anderson: And I am very hopeful for Abby's future, for Abby Buchmiller, that she spends time within renewable energy, just because I think having really bright, strong willed, passionate people in the industry is really what is going to help propel us from that 6% residential penetration, to that 52, ultimately, 100% renewable energy here in the country.

Abby Buchmiller: [01:03:30] Agreed.

Dave Anderson: I think you've played a critical role already, and I think that you've got a much longer story to tell, over the next coming months and years. So thank you so much for coming on, it's absolutely fascinating to talk with someone that's had the experiences that you've had. I'm absolutely excited to follow, and find out what's next for you. And I think it'd be a great world, if somehow I could figure out a way to do additional work with you, outside of just being frenemies in this space.

Abby Buchmiller: Let's do that. Thanks, Dave.

Dave Anderson: [01:04:00] But again, thank you so much for coming on.

Abby Buchmiller: I appreciate it.

Dave Anderson: Appreciate it.


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