Solar Hall of Fame Series
How RPCS CEO Eben Russell is Adapting to the COVID Pandemic
RP Construction Services CEO Eben Russell sat down with SolarFeeds Magazine as part of their Solar Hall of Fame series for an interview about how RPCS is fairing during the COVID pandemic.
RP Construction Services, Inc. (RPCS) provides turnkey design, structural engineering, procurement/supply, mechanical installation, and specialty services to EPCs, developers, and municipal utilities. As the nation’s leading contractor and single-axis tracker expert, RPCS has completed more than 700 projects, totaling over 2GW, and helps customers meet their renewable energy goals with simple, seamless project execution. Connect with RPCS on LinkedIn or learn more at www.rpcs.com.
SF Magazine: First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Eb Russell: Thankfully, we haven’t contracted the virus. We have a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. It’s toughest on our 4-year-old daughter and on my wife. There’s only so much video conferencing one can do to fill the void. The 1-year-old requires constant attention as he is now walking and grabbing at everything which means my wife needs to play one-on-one defense while our 4-year-old, without the outlet of pre-school, continuously tries to reassert her original title as “one and only.”
Days are long and hectic. I made an office out of the company Ford Transit in the driveway.
SF Magazine: Tell us about you, your career, how you founded or joined this company
Russell: My first career, straight out of college, was as a financial advisor. It was 1995 and the World Wide Web was moving from a concept to mainstream. There were lots of high-flying start-ups. It was a transformative time; horses and buggies moving to automobiles.
History told us 2,000 car companies failed, 6 survived but they all bought tires from Goodyear Tire and rubber and tools from Ingersoll Rand. I had my clients avoid DoubleClick, AltaVista, Lycos and, instead, own the equipment makers Cisco, Juniper, Corning, Broadcom.
Entering solar in 2003, most startups were focused on residential installations, modules, inverters, development, and EPC. I looked for something boring, the solar mounting system, and decided single-axis trackers offered the most amount of metal or MWs per sale and there was no clear market leader.
In 2008, Array Technologies had 9 people and the iPhone. It was night and day, a better product. It still is. Over the next 6 years, I sold 2,500MWS into a 3,000MW total addressable market.
In 2015, market research showed that 1,000 projects would be built between 1MWand 10MW over the next 4 years, but it was clear that to capture meaningful market share, this market segment would need a turnkey provider: DIRECTV versus satellite dishes. RPCS was formed and we provided the DIRECTV-style offering to the sub 10MW market. It worked out. We managed to grab over 700 of the 1,000 projects.
SF Magazine: How does your company innovate?
Russell: We hire people, not positions. Great people continuously find new and innovative ways to optimize and improve.
Russell: Thankfully, solar has remained strong. It’s fortunate that our projects are outdoors where safe, social distancing is relatively easy to maintain and our crew has taken the virus seriously, making sure to travel in pods and follow all CDC guidelines.
SF Magazine: Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Russell: The inside staff moved to virtual and we quickly mandated that all calls be video calls to maintain community and connectivity. We gave the field crew time and pay to travel to sites by car to avoid airline travel.
COVID has been hard on all. From a work performance perspective, it seems most impactful to those with young kids who are now at home helping assist in virtual learning versus dropping the kids off and going to work all day. We have tried to acknowledge this reality. We see emails and team chats flowing through at all hours of the day and even weekends and don’t worry about voids in work or availability during the weekday school hours.
SF Magazine: How did your customer relationship management evolve?
Russell: It’s better. Everything is on video now and personal lives are exposed. Dogs are barking, kids are interrupting, and we laugh at the predicaments we are in. No one is worried about neckties and polished shoes.
SF Magazine: Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Russell: Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
SF Magazine: Did you benefit from any government grants or any business adaptation that help keep your business afloat?
Russell: A year ago, at the onset of the pandemic, no one knew what would happen to the global or US economy, so we secured a PPP loan. Thankfully, we haven’t had to rely on the loan to survive, but it’s been nice knowing the funds are there just in case.
SF Magazine: How would you predict the solar outlook of the post-COVID era in your country?
Russell: US solar is rolling. It’s now the lowest cost of energy, the easiest to deploy, the least variable as far as future cost fluctuations, and able to be installed at or near the demand. The future (pun intended) is bright for solar.
SF Magazine: What do you think your government can do more to accelerate Solar’s adoption?
Russell: The industry has done well to secure incentives, manage through the tariffs, and remove regulatory hurdles. Upgrading and modernizing the nation’s grid to handle and manage all the new generation is critical. Incentives that support this grid transformation are essential.
SF Magazine: Your final thoughts?
Russell: The industry has such good energy. We see our competitors more as collaborators, working alongside us to push the adoption of clean solar energy forward. #ComeBuildWithUs
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