PEP Solar is the nation’s first residentially available solar installer. CEO Bonnie Katz is dedicated to providing energy solutions to reduce dirty energy and improve air quality. Learn how Bonnie’s leadership has developed a successful, forward-thinking industry innovator.
Bonnie Katz: They have to like what you have to say, they have to like the way you talk, and they have to trust you. I think the longer we're in business, that longevity actually plays a very big part in the people that we get referrals from. Would you want to buy from a company that’s only been in business for five years, or one that's been in business for over 40 years?
Steve Strauss: Hi, I'm Steve Strauss and you're listening to the Bank of America Small Business Podcast, a podcast where we speak to small business owners about their journey and uncover useful tips for entrepreneurs and small business owners everywhere. Today I'm really happy to have our guest, Bonnie Katz. Bonnie is the CEO of PEP Solar.
Steve Strauss: Let me tell you a little bit about PEP Solar. PEP Solar was founded in 1978 and is regarded as the nation's first residentially available solar installer. PEP Solar has been installing solar electric systems since 1981, and its modern high end energy products provide the best comfort with the lowest cost, guaranteed production in the industry. PEP Solar is known as a forward-thinking industry innovator, and a leader that receives considerable recognition from the business community. PEP Solar also is well-known for its extensive history in its community for its innovative product lines, for its friendly and well-educated employees, and they pride themselves and the company prides itself in providing superior advanced energy solutions and experience. Bonnie, you're doing great work and we are really happy to have you on the show today.
Bonnie Katz: Thank you.
Steve Strauss: Can you tell us a little bit about ... I know PEP Solar is a family business. How did you get involved in the business, and how did you end up becoming the CEO of the business?
Bonnie Katz: Okay. Sort of a long story, but I'm going to make it short for the purpose that we're doing today. By the way, thank you for having me.
Steve Strauss: My pleasure.
Bonnie Katz: I originally started with Senator Barry Goldwater, who I met at an event. I believe he was running for office at the time, and he was concerned about the Navajos dying from asphyxiation from the kerosene on the reservation. How could I help them with solar? My father at the time was installing solar thermal, and we had no idea how to do that. So we made a movie on the reservation explaining what happened and why they were dying and how they felt about it, with an interpreter, and we took that letter and their information to Washington with Senator Barry Goldwater in 1981. We were appropriated money from the Code Talkers money, and with that Code Talkers money we went back to the Navajo reservation and installed over 200 off-grid solar systems that Motorola made our panels.
Steve Strauss: Wow. That's very early in the solar industry back in the early '80s, right? That must've been really innovative and challenging, I would assume.
Bonnie Katz: Yes, there were no residential solar panels that were available, but Shell Oil who was making solar for NASA and their platforms told me that if I could get a meeting with Motorola they'd teach them how to make them. So nobody had residential solar and panels at that time except for PEP Solar and the ones that Motorola made for us.
Steve Strauss: That's pretty incredible. It's great that you started out with a big contract and that great connection, that's certainly one way to start a business, but then that you and/or your dad, you tell us, were willing to take that risk on such a new technology. What motivated you to go in that direction, really, and not just have this be a one-off thing?
Bonnie Katz: Going up to the reservation was a mind changing thing on how people lived and that the elders had no idea what was going on in the world. They were burying their medicine and their food that was going bad and the kerosene was asphyxiating their children. The weavers, they were dying while they were working on their rugs. Somebody had to help, and I felt like that Senator Barry Goldwater had touched me and made me that person that had to go do it, so I did.
Bonnie Katz: That was the beginning of a ... Because we were originally in the cool storage business in 1978, but it was a new beginning for me and I really have enjoyed working with the Indians. From there, we went on to do rooftop solar. And here I am today. I'm the CEO of a small company now. We used to be very large, but we're small now, and I also am board member for AriSEIA, which is a ... The SEIA is a national organization. AriSEIA is for Arizona. I sit on that board and I help make decisions for legislation, work with legislators, and the utilities to make solar better in Arizona for my customers and other people's customers.
Steve Strauss: You know, I'd love to and am going to ask you about how your business has grown, but before we leave that Navajo story, can you tell us a little bit how what the work you did there changed their lives?
Bonnie Katz: Okay. Think of yourself as an elder out in the middle of nowhere, and no place that you can walk to. There's no... They're too far away. You need medicine, and you have meat, and you're burying your food and you're burying your medicine and you're afraid to take it because the desert is 120 degrees, and you didn't bury it deep enough. It was an awful experience for them, and they didn't know how to get help or where to get help.
Bonnie Katz: Now, Arizona public service had put some electricity on the main road, but it was so far away, Four Corners, that it was so expensive for them that after they got their first bill those that lived on the road, they cut their power off and wrapped it around the meters. So these people that lived way out, they had no idea and when somebody came out there, we gave them two lights. We gave them, if they had children, one of those little 3x3 TVs, if you remember, with batteries.
Steve Strauss: Yes.
Bonnie Katz: Yeah, and we gave them a little refrigerator with a car battery. Can you believe it? Because we knew no better. But now, they could have cold. They could actually have their medicine and their meat in cold. Their kids could watch TV. In fact, I remember the old woman. She walked behind a TV looking for the people. It was so funny. If you think about it, and you never saw a television, she's wanting to know where these people are that are talking out of this screen. That was a riot. To educate them on how to turn on the lights was very exciting for us, very exciting. It was so rewarding.
Steve Strauss: Well, kudos to you. Did your family have a background in small business and entrepreneurship?
Bonnie Katz: My father did, yes. Absolutely. Yes, he did.
Steve Strauss: Growing up, was it your dream to own your own business, or how did you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur as well, like your dad?
Bonnie Katz: I really just wanted to be a kept woman, and then I decided I needed to work. So I thought this was a worthwhile project for me to get involved in. I was very interested in the Indians, the Navajo nation. They're history of Arizona. I've always been very politically inclined, although I haven't really been in politics. But I wanted to see them get better. It wasn't right what was happening, and if there was a way to make it better for them to live, then we needed to do it.
Bonnie Katz: We also built some kit homes. We did that with the foam that we used when we did cold storage, only we put wood instead of FRP on them, like we did in cold storage. We put wood on either side and we did octagon shaped, like a hogan, and then we did a training class to teach the Navajos how to put them together so that they could have homes because a lot of them were still living in mud huts. Now, this was 30-something years ago, but come on. Living in a mud hut when you have money from the government that's available to make your life better and to know that I was part of making their life better was, like I say, very rewarding.
Steve Strauss: Let's talk about where PEP Solar is today. You've branched out, obviously, quite a bit since then. You mentioned rooftop. Tell me about your products and your business and what you focus on these days.
Bonnie Katz: Well, today we are currently selling with Shell Oil their product, which comes from Japan. We have, for many, many years, only sold American. And as the tariffs have come in and other situations that those companies that we used to buy from, it's not available to buy in the U.S. anymore so we're buying thin film from Solar Frontier, which is owed by Shell Oil, who has been in business for 71 years. They work great in our hot desert, in the heat here. They're probably rated better than any other panel that's made.
Bonnie Katz: We use these panels, and we try to build a superior quality system for our customers so that they have the best of the best that's out there today. Just recently, we went back to also having a U.S. product that we're buying from some people over in Texas. But we try to buy the best railing, the best everything. Everything that we have, we try to buy the best for our customers and do a stellar job so that they'll give us plenty of referrals. That's why we've lasted all these years.
Steve Strauss: Do you think that's what it is about your business that your customers love? Is it the products? Is it the service? Is it your culture? Why have you been in business for so long? What do you attribute it to?
Bonnie Katz: Building trust.
Steve Strauss: Is that right?
Bonnie Katz: People have to like you. They don't have to love you, but they have to like what you have to say, they have to like the way you talk, and they have to trust you. I think the longer we're in business, that longevity actually plays a very big part in the people that we get referrals from. Would you want to buy from a company only been in business for five years, or one that's been in business for over 40 years?
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Steve Strauss: You know, Bonnie, one of the things I love about your business is that it's not just about selling products, but you really are, it seems to me, a mission-driven business. When I look at your mission, it says PEP's mission is to reduce dependence on dirty energy, coal, and foreign oil pollution; improve the quality of air we breathe by utilizing an economically and socially responsible product line and manufacturers; to deliver an honest and consistent and realistic message; to meet our customers' requirements; and so forth. How important is the mission part of your business to your business?
Bonnie Katz: Very important. Very, very important. One thing when we go out to see a customer is we try to never sell them. What we try to do is educate them so they can make a good selection and decide what they want to do. It's a major thing when you buy solar. It's like buying a car. It's expensive, and you want to make sure that you're going with the right company and you have the right product. So my mission is very important because do we really want our children to breathe the coal air? When the slurries up in Four Corners where the reservation is, Four Corners, Arizona, gets into the water table, the babies, the little Indian babies die from the water. So we have to have an environment for everyone that's clean, that's clean energy, that's clean water, clean air. And that's going to be the most important things in our life for our great grandchildren. If we don't take care of that now for them, they won't be here. They don't have clean water.
Steve Strauss: Well, we all appreciate that. I'm wondering if you could share maybe some of the unexpected challenges you have faced along the way and being an entrepreneur. I know that owning a business is lots of things. It's fun and exciting and interesting and challenging, and it's also hard and challenging and a bumpy road many times. Have you had a couple bumps along the way? If so, what have you learned from them?
Bonnie Katz: I've had a lot of bumps along the way, and lots of wonderful good times and some very, very bad times. The only thing you can do when you have a bad time is that you need to set yourself aside from your business and you need to think about where you're at, and you need to think about what you need to do to make things better. And then you go and you get it done.
Steve Strauss: And that's what you've been doing-
Bonnie Katz: That's the answer. That's right.
Steve Strauss: ... for many years.
Bonnie Katz: Yes.
Steve Strauss: You also, obviously, are a very innovative and technologically savvy company. I'm wondering if that extends into your marketing. Do you do a lot of social media, for example? How is it that you find customers and keep customers?
Bonnie Katz: Well, we do marketing. My son is in the business with me, and he comes from IT. He has an architectural background, architectural engineer background with Motorola and IBM. Not Motorola, but American Express and IBM. He's really brilliant when it comes to computers and marketing, so we do social media. We belong to a lot of clubs. We visit a lot of places and we talk to people every day. If I'm standing in line at the grocery store, I'm talking to the person in front of me about solar.
Steve Strauss: What do you think your trick is for finding customers? What works for you that other people could learn from?
Bonnie Katz: Doing good work. Having satisfied customers brings more good customers.
Steve Strauss: Well, what about things you might have done differently? Anything that's happened to you that you thought, "Oh, this could be different or better," or something that we could take from that as well?
Bonnie Katz: Yes, communication. Communication is the number one key to, once you sell a job until you install it, is communicating with the customer as to where you are with their job. Even if they knew that it was going to take 90 days, you need to stay in communication with everybody and let them know at all times where you are with the job. It's kind of like you take your car into the garage. If they tell you it's going to be a week till it gets done, you still ought to call them in a couple days and say, "Hey, we just lifted up the hood, but we're starting work on your car." Same thing with us.
Steve Strauss: Do you have customers, do you have a lot of repeat business? How does it work in your industry?
Bonnie Katz: Not a lot, but we're finding customers, or we have customers that have sold their house and they are now moving into a new house and they want solar again from us, or they want it removed from the old house and moved on the new house. If they haven't had it very long, we can do that for them.
Steve Strauss: Bonnie, clearly you're doing many things right. You have loyal customers, you have a business that's been in business for a long time, multi-generational. Not an easy thing to do. And you're an innovator and you clearly get a lot of awards and recognition from the solar community and from your Arizona community. If you were to leave us with one or two pieces of advice that you think other entrepreneurs should know, what might those be?
Bonnie Katz: Number one is tell the truth. Never, never tell the customer something that is not true. And never talk about a competitor. Anybody asks me about a competitor ever, we always say nice things. Because it makes you look bad. You only talk good about your competitors and you always want to tell the truth. That's the main thing.
Steve Strauss: I'm sure your competitors have plenty of good things to say about you as well, because you have a very impressive business. Bonnie, if people want to find out more about you or about your business, where should they go?
Bonnie Katz: They can go online to pepsolar.com, or they can call us at 623-806-8806.
Steve Strauss: That's pepsolar.com.
Bonnie Katz: Yes.
Steve Strauss: Well, thank you so much, Bonnie. You're doing great work. We appreciate it and admire it and thank you so much for being with us today.
Bonnie Katz: Appreciate it. Bye.