One of the hottest business industries many entrepreneurs decided to focus on and invest in is renewable energy. Often referred to as clean energy, it has enormous potential. But renewable energy also comes with its specific challenges, including on the financial and accounting side.
How can we learn about them? Sarah Wells, Senior Vice President of Finance and Accounting at Spruce Power, joins us to share details about the renewable energy industry and its specific challenges.
Sarah is an experienced finance leader with a demonstrated history of working in the renewable energy and building materials industries. With her vast experience in operational strategy, budgeting, modeling, and overall business analysis, Sarah is the right person to educate us on the topic.
Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we are talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately, get results, with your host Megan Weis. Let's jump right in.
Megan Weis: Today my guest is Sarah Wells. Sarah is an experienced finance leader with a demonstrated history of working in the renewable energy and building materials industries. Sarah is a strong finance professional skilled in external audit, accounting, Sarbanes Oxley, generally accepted accounting principles, and general ledger. She is a senior leader with experience in operational strategy, budgeting, modeling, and overall business analysis. Sarah, thank you so much for joining me today.
Sarah Wells: Thank you for having me.
Megan: Our discussion today focuses on your career journey as well as a look at the renewable energy industry and its specific challenges. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to learn from you. Let's get started.
Megan: Let's start with you, if you could just give us a little bit of background on your career journey and how it is that you got to the position you're in today.
Sarah: Sure. I started out the public accounting route and boomeranged, did audit for a couple of years, and then started a sales rep company and did that for about five years and decided that I very much enjoy the direct deposit hitting my bank account and the not feast or famine aspects of not owning your own business. I went back and I called up my friends and I was like, "Hey, I realize it's been years, a lot has changed in five years, but can I come back?" They were like, "Yes, come on."
I went back and did five years in audit, so I had a total of about seven and a half years in audit. Got an opportunity to leave to be a senior accountant at a seal manufacturing company, hung out there for five years. Absolutely loved it, loved everything about that opportunity. When it was time for me to challenge myself more, an opportunity presented itself in Solar at Spruce power. I joined here in November, 2018 and it has been a ride ever since.
Megan: What did that little stint of being an entrepreneur, what did that teach you? Both good and bad, I guess.
Sarah: It taught me I'm not as much of a salesperson as I would like to believe, although I do believe that every job actually has a sales component to it in the form of relationship building and building confidence and trust with both your peers, but also your internal and external customers. Maybe not sales in the way that my title is sales, but certainly there are some aspects. I realized that when you're selling a product and you alone are responsible for convincing a buyer that is important that they have your product on their shelves, that part, I liked less. I liked much more the relationship-building side of it.
Definitely glad to have moved on from that opportunity. The bad side is all of the things about owning your own business, didn't take a paycheck for the first 18 months and definitely ate a lot of ramen and didn't have health insurance. All of the cons and the risks associated with starting your own business definitely existed there.
Megan: I imagine that that's pretty scary. As you look back throughout your career, are there stories or moves that stand out in your mind as turning points?
Sarah: Throughout all of these jobs, there have been times when I've been tasked with something, asked to participate in a project or take on an additional role. Early in my career, if these extra projects or tasks were not more directly related to accounting, to the business of debits and credits and financial reporting, I would approach them somewhat a little annoyed. I was struggling to understand why this was important for me to be participating in this.
Some of those opportunities were much more painful than others and hard. They were just hard projects and every single one of those, I have leveraged in some way since I left that project. Now when I'm asked to take on a project or dip my toe in a process that I don't fully understand, I find that I've shifted my attitude and embrace them, knowing that I now have statistical data in my own experience that says, "I don't know how, but some way, somehow this is going to benefit me in the future." It was a mind shift for me that really turned a point in my career.
Megan: That's great. That's a very important lesson, I think, to learn along the way.
Sarah: For sure.
Megan: Let's talk about Spruce Power and what it is they do.
Sarah: Spruce Power offers customers financing for getting solar panels on their roofs. A lot of homeowners don't have 30 or $40,000 that they can liquidate very easily to put a solar panel on their roof. We provide the financing for that. These are 20 to 25 year contracts with renewable credits associated with them. It's exciting to be partnering with various credit agencies and banks and state agencies in helping this country progress and move forward on the renewable energy side.
Megan: That's awesome. Just personal note, I just put solar panels on my roof in November.
Sarah: That's amazing.
Megan: Everything you're talking about, I understand. It was about $40,000 and we financed it and we're enjoying the cost savings on our energy bill.
Sarah: That's right. Congratulations.
Megan: Thank you. What have been your proudest achievements since joining Spruce Power? You joined, how, three?
Sarah: A little over three years ago. When I joined, we were in the middle of a very aggressive reorganization. We were moving operations and corporate operations from a bay area office to Houston to join an existing call center, an underwriting team that we had here. When I started, everybody was new in accounting. I inherited three senior accountants and an AP clerk, who had not very much experienced in solar themselves.
We also decided to move auditors that year from big four down to mid-market. I knew nothing about solar. I had just come out of steel manufacturing. While accounting tends to be the same, the technical standards are the same, there are some things very unique to solar that I needed to very quickly get my head wrapped around and bring a team up to speed.
There were a lot of challenges around getting processes documented, developing processes, getting processes documented. There was a steep learning curve for everybody. There was a high demand for immediate process improvement.
We were not going to survive without immediately looking for low hanging fruit and identifying how we could do this better, faster, more accurately document it better. All of those things came all at the same time. It was honestly a pretty rough six or nine months, and again, another time where I just shifted my attitude and said, "This is hard, but I can do hard things, and this is going to serve me later, and I'm just going to put my head down and help the team get through it and we're all going to be better on the other side."
It took till most of 2019 to get through those audits. At the end of it, we all looked at each other and said, "We did it." I thought we made it. Immediately with only like two months left in 2019 said, "Now, what can we do better next time, because the audit starts back up again in two months?" Every year we've done that and we just chip a way. We've also since built our team up. When I first started hiring and trying to build the team out, I would tell those first accountants, |I have no career path for you, full disclosure. I can't offer you a promotion in X number of months or years, I don't know what the next 12 months looks like. That there's a lot of stuff to fix.
If you would like to come hang out with us for 12 or 24 months, I would really appreciate you bringing your talents and your skills, and maybe we'll figure it out along the way." A lot of people were willing to take that chance and I'm forever grateful for that because inevitably, over the 12 to 18 months after that, we were able to identify lanes, within the accounting department, how we could have a rotation program and start to build out our scope and move past just debits and credits.
Megan: Yes. I think those rotation programs are awesome. They're good training ground for future leaders.
Megan: Just out of curiosity, what have the last two years look like for you? Have you seen demand increase or decrease? How has COVID affected you guys?
Sarah: COVID was very interesting for us during that time period starting summer 2019 through the end of 2020, we actually did nine acquisitions. In the world of solar, there are projects and these projects are typically in partnership under a limited partnership. It's limited because there are federal tax benefit and attributes associated with investing in solar in America. They typically have five to seven-year time limits.
What's happening in solar as it's going through those first rounds of the federal benefits had expired is the investor is no longer interested in holding the assets. They've gotten what they want out of it. Their goal was to contribute into the renewable energy efforts of this country. In return, they would get these federal benefits and when it was over, they were going to flip their investment and sell it.
That all happened within 2019 and 2020, we had just done a huge reorg. As I mentioned, we refinanced our senior facilities and were able to access capital and the capital markets surprisingly during that time for us were very open. We went through nine acquisitions, and in almost all the cases, it was that the federal attributes had been used up and the investor was ready to flip their investment. We were very, very busy. We grew by 72% during that time period. Yes. We did not slow down.
Megan: Yes. Sounds like it's been an exciting couple of years.
Sarah: Yes, it has.
Megan: You have a history of working in the renewable energy space and you nuances, but what nuances have you seen in this industry compared to others?
Sarah: Solar is organizationally incredibly complex. Because of the partnerships, the limited partnerships and the federal tax attributes ascribed to these investments, the legal entities required to protect those investors and how they all roll up are incredibly complex. One project that we may own probably has four or five legal entities surrounding it with five or six bank accounts, all need tax returns, probably a couple of audits and you that expands very quickly. We are up to 14 or 15 projects.
We have over 80 bank accounts and it's administratively incredibly complex. What we've been trying to do at every opportunity is flatten the organization everywhere we can, consolidate entity use, eliminate bank accounts, find more efficient ways for treasury to flow, so that we're just not adding on a snowball effect that we're trying to be as efficient as possible.
Megan: Let's talk about talent. It's such a hard topic right now. It's not easy to find, but when you are interviewing, what skills and traits do you value most in the members that are joining your team?
Sarah: Early on, we realized that there was a certain type of accountant that we were looking for. We were either looking for somebody to have of previously worked in solar, which there are not very many. We did happen to have one when I arrived. She was already there and that was a blessing, but we also realized that it would benefit Spruce if we hired either former auditors or accountants who had worked in an audited, highly controlled, structured environment because the pace and the volume, especially as we were acquiring those entities, required somebody that could parachute into the unknown and figure it out quickly and get to work, identifying risk and gaps and things like that. In the world of audit that is taught very early on, it's like a special skill.
What we found is we have some very successful accountants who do not have prior audit experience, but they came from a shop that was audited and highly controlled and mature. They were able to benefit from those same skillsets. That is how we formed, what we believed would be a successful team, especially in times of volatility in acquisitions. The number one thing that I always say when I'm interviewing is just be curious. The second that you decide you are no longer curious and you stop asking those why questions, then you're becoming complacent and we should all just acknowledge that and then we can move on successfully. Complacency is not a great spot to be in for an accountant.
Megan: Yes. I always say, once you become complacent, stop asking questions, stop wanting to learn, that's like death pretty much.
Sarah: It is. I would even go so far as to say, from an accountant's standpoint, when somebody tells you no on any item, processes, or requests, always challenge it. Like, "How no is your no? Is it really a no, is it maybe, can we meet in the middle?" what you'll find is that most people actually are willing to work with you. Maybe they just don't know how to access the data. They don't even and know where to begin. You can help them get through it and bridge the language gap. Most people do not speak gap accounting, but you can speak to them and ask them questions to understand processes and operations in a way that uses no gap accounting language. You just have to kind of figure out what their language is and bridge that gap for them.
Megan: How are you retaining these employees in this current hot market?
Sarah: His very complex. I don't know that we have all of the right answers figured out. I would say that culture is very important for Spruce. I think it is for most companies. I don't know that we're necessarily doing anything unique, but there are a couple of things that we are really focused on. One, making sure that we are hiring people who are purpose-driven, meaning there's something greater than showing up to work every day that drives them and that fills their soul. In doing that, you find that they'll start to bring those passions to work.
When you find other people who are like-minded in, whatever is important to you, growing gardens or rescuing pets. When you find that your peers who are in the trenches with you on the hard stuff, happen to also like skateboarding as an example, then those people are, you can get past a lot of tough days at work when you have a common item like that. The other thing that we really push on is just a shared respect that we are all human beings and Sesame Street ethics still apply. Be nice.
Megan: Yes. You wouldn't know that a lot of times these days.
Sarah: It's actually quite simple. I hope that the team that we've built, not only within the accounting department, but within Spruce enjoy being here and enjoy doing the work that we're doing and understand the greater purpose, and the mission. If they don't, then I hope that they find a way to move on in a way that serves them. Sometimes people leave and it breaks your heart and you really wish that you could have worked out, but I never encourage holding anybody back because you never know when their paths are going to cross with yours again. You have to just be willing to take that leap.
Megan: Yes. That's great advice. At Spruce Power, you focus on clean energy solutions. In what ways does this focus influence your overall operational strategy?
Sarah: Operationally, we actually function very much like a bank. Because we are providing financing, the servicing that we are providing to them looks and feels like a loan, similar to what you got for your house. The added benefit is that we will send a truck out to take a look at their panel or look at their meter if something is not operating the way that we would expect. Operationally, our challenges are actually more specific and aligned with a bank where we're dealing with credit applications and reporting to the credit bureau, and making sure that the customers are paying on time.
That's not unique to Spruce Power. That is actually how all of the solar companies work is that although we are in service to renewable energy efforts, we are the financing leg of that. Similar to how oil and gas started off with there's oil under the ground. How do I extract it? What would I use it for? From that, we developed hundreds of what I would call sub-industries. There's upstream, midstream, downstream, and the safety aspect. That's similar in solar. There are the manufacturers of the panel. There are the manufacturers of the meters, there are the financing. We are a small part of a really big pie.
Megan: I'm just curious, do you guys monitor the solar panels as well once they're in place?
Sarah: We do. For your own good, yes, we do.
Megan: Last year, you guys expanded your business model to offer energy storage and EV chargers to your customers.
Megan: What went into the decision to offer these products?
Sarah: Our operations at the time were heavily on service, and so it was just looking for a way for us to expand our offering and EV chargers felt like made the most sense for us. There are a lot of challenges and it did not take off at the pace that we were expecting, although we are still doing it for sure. The challenges are that the battery manufacturers are either running into supply chain issues. We launched this right as supply chain was starting to become problematic related to COVID, and then all of the chips shortages that we heard about.
Particularly, some of the battery main manufacturers also manufactured panels. They were feeding their own supply before external customers. That put us at the back of the production list. We couldn't scale it the way that we wanted to. Although again, we're still working on it. That is a challenge and it's a challenge for everybody. There's just not enough installers. There's not enough supplies. I think that it's still a very immature aspect of solar and I would expect it to continue to grow in 10 or 50. At some point probably in about seven to eight years is going to figure itself out, get past the toggling around and actually running and then walking, and that's going to happen very, very quickly.
Megan: You did this expansion through strategic partnerships?
Sarah: Yes, yes, yes.
Megan: What advice would you have for FNA leaders looking to drive strategic value to grow revenue and increase margin?
Sarah: I think accountants typically lean towards when they're trying to drive value. I think that we naturally lean towards cost-cutting. I would offer up that that's actually, while you should always be making sure that you're reevaluating your cost structure, that's actually not always the first place and the most impactful way that you can drive value. My view is that continued automation development in the infrastructure of the company is going to be the long play on driving shareholder value because you'll be able to scale faster. You'll be able to take out the manual aspects of operations that slow down the assembly line.
If somebody is sick and they can't, in the assembly line analogy, can't put their raw materials on the belt, all those opportunities where we can take those human touches and use them for something better. In accounting, that would look like deeper analytical skills. I don't need my accountants spending all month reconciling 80 bank accounts. I actually would prefer them to be helping me understand what happened in the month relative to budget and prior year and how can we advise operations specifically in the way of collections and the aging, and making sure that we are keeping our exposure to bad debt as minimum as possible.
Really shifting the organization's focus from tasking, although you certainly have things that you need to task into providing timely advice, actually does add shareholder value. Couple that with automation and integration, now I'm presenting to the shareholders a completely consolidated platform. In a lot of places, that's a heavy investment that requires quite a bit of capital. Unless the shareholders are willing to make that investment, then they're missing out on that ROI on the back end of that.
Megan: I think a lot of people are afraid of automation. Automation's going to steal my job but I would argue that it's doing the task that nobody really wants to do, to begin with.
Sarah: That's right.
Megan: Within finance and accounting, how do you prioritize what you're going to automate?
Sarah: Things that are not a driving value. Again, like bank reconciliations. When I started the team was literally spending all month reconciling bank accounts because of the volume. There were so many bank accounts. None of them were integrated with our ERP. They were uploading or manually entering and then figuring out what the transaction was and how to code it into the ERP. That was not the best use of their time and talent. That was like an easy opportunity. "Can we integrate the bank activity into our ERP? Can we create a mapping so that our ERP will recognize 85% of these transactions and know where to code them, limiting the amount of time that we are slogging through all of these transactions and trying to figure that out?"
That was an early win. Where we've moved since then is around the consolidation. I mentioned that our organizational structure is incredibly complex. We have over 60 legal entities in our consolidation. We very quickly recognized that Excel was not the best option for us when consolidating our financials. We made an early decision to adopt one stream to make sure that we were not spending those man-hours doing that. We could quickly consolidate it, get the answer and move very quickly into the analytical review.
Megan: Lastly, as a SVP of finance and accounting, what is currently keeping you up at night?
Sarah: Specifically, we have a big deal that we are trying to close that I can't disclose more about. That in particular, very specific is keeping me up at night. Beyond that, how are we going to grow? How are we going to continue to grow Spruce? How are we going to do that with products? How are we going to do that with services? My brain moves a mile a minute. I've imagined every possible scenario in which this might fail and making sure that I can identify the red flags along the way so that I can try to prevent the failure. It's this juxtaposition. I keep up at night around, how can we grow and how would I know if we were failing and how fast could I recognize it and best prevent it?
Megan: I think it's important that you know how things might fail. You need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst as they always say.
Sarah: That's right.
Megan: Sarah, thank you so much for being my guest today.
Sarah: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Megan: I really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing about your experiences and all of the resulting insights. Thank you again for taking the time to be here with us today. I wish you and Spruce Power all the best. It sounds like you're both doing amazing things.
Sarah: Thank you. You as well.
Megan: To all of our listeners, please, tune in next week, and until then, take care.
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In this episode, we discuss the nuances of the renewable energy industry, skills and traits for accountants in the renewable energy sector, how a clean energy company functions operationally, among other interesting topics.
The Nuances of the Renewable Energy Industry
The solar energy industry is incredibly complex because of the limited partnerships, the federal tax attributes ascribed to these investments, and the legal entities required to protect those investors. The secret to dealing with it is to be as efficient as possible in managing projects.
“While the technical accounting standards tend to be the same, there are some unique things to the solar energy industry”
Looking for Solar Accountants
In terms of talent, Sarah looks for accountants that worked in the solar industry, either former auditors or accountants coming from audited, highly controlled, structured environments. Another important criterion is being constantly curious.
“Complacency is not a great spot to be in for an accountant”
See how we can help your renewable energy company reach new heights with our customized accounting solutions.