From outgrowing the family’s spare bedroom to currently employing 25 enthusiastic staff in just six years, Andrew ‘Andy’ McCarthy has guided Gippsland Solar on a rapid path to success. Andy recounts the company’s humble beginnings, the evolution of the solar power industry in the region and has some wise recommendations for budding entrepreneurs.
My wife grew up along the 90 Mile Beach, in East Gippsland, and we’d always hoped to make the move back (from Melbourne) to raise a family, and be closer to babysitters, I mean grandparents! The lifestyle here is amazing for my wife and I, and our three young boys. We have the snow, the beach and rolling hills – it has everything we could possibly want.
One thing I noticed on arriving was a general anxiety around the future of the power industry. Many of my close friends and family rely on the industry for their financial security. I have a lifelong involvement in the renewable energy industry, and initially there was certainly a reluctance to embrace our vision for the future. This has changed immensely over the past six years.
I didn’t intend on establishing my own business when I arrived, as we’d made the move to Gippsland so that I could work for another solar company. But it quickly became apparent that the company wasn’t a viable option for me. I’ve spent my entire life working in solar energy and battery storage, and throughout my career I’ve maintained a very strong focus on customer service. Therefore, to fully realise my vision of how well I wanted to care for customers, I needed to start my own business.
There were some very tough times to begin with. While I had a very clear idea of where the business had to go, I had the minor problem of having no money! My wife had just given birth to our first child, so my measly wage had to support our young family. The first 12 months basically involved living hand-to-mouth, even taking money off the mortgage to build the business. We continued to focus all our energy into customer service. We treated our clients extremely well, as we couldn’t afford to advertise; their recommendations to others were our best marketing. It took us about 18 months to really find our feet, and the rest they say is history.
Our business is changing rapidly at the moment. In the beginning, our entire business was focussed on installing 5kW systems for regular households, as the 66c feedin tariff provided a significant incentive. Since then the Government funded rebates and incentives have been reduced eight times, which have forced us to manoeuvre the business through some patchy times. Solar for business has provided growth for us. We’ve installed a 300kW system at BUPA in Traralgon, and a dozen 100kW systems in businesses such as Sale’s Sporting Legends Club, Fisher’s Pallets, Latrobe Valley Village, Rotafab, Carpet Country, Safetech and more.
We continue to see growth in battery storage systems such as the Tesla Powerwall or LG Chem, for example, as the prices for them rapidly fall. Currently we have over 100 battery storage systems in the market and are installing around three per week at the moment. Many new home owners are increasingly choosing to stay off the grid, and with recent technological advancements, this is easier than ever before.
Our success can also be attributed to the fact that we’re also more than willing to make significant investments. We’ve put eight new vehicles on the road in the past 18 months, and have increased from three staff members to 25 in only four years. I love employing new staff – giving someone a chance to show what they can do. In my opinion, there’s no better feeling than bringing an apprentice into the business, supporting them as build their skills and knowledge and then watching them flourish.
I’d describe my management style as very hands-on, and I was certainly guilty of ‘micromanaging’ too much in the beginning. But I’ve been lucky enough to build an incredible senior management team that treat the business as if it was their own. My Operations Manager, Lead Electrician, Marketing Manager, and Admin/Finance Manager have so much passion and ability to steer the business – it gives me the confidence to trust them wholeheartedly. Every single person in our team is doing an amazing job. It surprises me that we keep finding the most incredible staff to build on the vision I have for Gippsland Solar.
I feel there could always be more programs to help local businesses grow, especially new businesses, but I’ve been extremely impressed with the Economic Development Team at the Latrobe City Council. When we opened our second showroom in Traralgon, they were on the front foot, providing support and advice. They sought ways to help us build the business and employ more locals. They even nominated me for a Dynamic Leadership program with a business coach. The business coach helped me identify the key drivers for our business and we built short-, medium- and long-term plans for Gippsland Solar. We employed a further five staff and acquired another heating and cooling business as a direct result of their leadership program. Everyone has their own opinions of local council, but from my perspective, I couldn’t be more impressed. I recommend new businesses contact the Economic Development Team and engage with them from the outset of your business development.
There’s no way to sugar coat the damage that the closure of Hazelwood Power Station will do to the Latrobe Valley in the next few years. But I think most people would agree that this day would come, eventually, as the business case for Hazelwood is no longer sound. So while it’s a very tough and emotional time for many, the conversation needs to move to – what’s next?
Electric vehicles (EV) provide a great need for electricity, either coal-fired or renewable. The best estimates are that by 2025 there will be 200,000 EVs on the road, and we should get in at the ground level and be a part of this industry. I drive a Tesla electric vehicle, which I charge with battery storage and solar power.
We installed a public EV charging station at our showroom and have had dozens of EV owners Victoria-wide to recharge there. This kind of new-world tourism is a great opportunity that‘s right in front of us. For example, a recent EV owner came from the Yarra Valley after hearing about us. He then picked up three cases of Narkoojee Wine while he was touring around. With the next Tesla Model 3 (and similar brands) being priced comparably to other new cars, the market is ready to take off. We could also develop this idea into lithium battery manufacturing (and recycling facilities) for all of Australia and SE Asia.
I’d also love to see LED lighting and other energy efficiency projects being rolled out across the entire region. This could reduce electricity bills for homes and businesses, providing hundreds of jobs, improve light quality (which has a measurable impact on health and wellbeing), and provide many of the benefits.
The negative rhetoric, political point scoring and blame games are to be expected at such a sensitive time. If we’re to use this as a defining moment in the history of the Latrobe Valley we need to dust ourselves off, pull together, and work on positive visions for the future. The closure of Hazelwood doesn’t have to define us.
Currently, we’re working on a very exciting project, which will involve installing hundreds of solar/battery systems on Latrobe Valley homes, as well as a device that allows the grid to draw power from those batteries when demands on the grid peak. The energy companies win, as it’s cheaper to draw power from these systems instead of producing peak load electricity (they’re actually substituting the cost of installing the systems, such is the benefit to them). The network wins, because these systems provide stable, baseload electricity when required. The consumer wins, because they are paid up to $1 per kWh for the electricity fed from their batteries and they can recharge at the cheapest times overnight. These are the types of positive plans we need to work on and we are determined to take the lead in this area.
The first thing I’d say to other young entrepreneurs is to just have a go. Our local region needs more entrepreneurs, those who are willing to back themselves, and keep building the local economy. I often wonder what would have happened to our 25 staff, if we hadn’t built up the business from our spare bedroom. If we can find more businesses that can leverage opportunities and build on their vision, we could find hundreds or thousands of jobs in the Latrobe Valley.