After semi-retiring in 2003, Chris D'Avignon took a year off and rode his motorcycle around the West where he "saw steam generating plants in Wyoming -- in the middle of nowhere; windmills as far as the eye could see; solar fields. I saw it all first hand. I saw our future."
Back home in San Diego, D'Avignon got involved in real estate investing -- buying buildings, fixing them up and leasing them out. He became knowledgeable about energy conservation. Whether it was for heating or cooling, or using lights like LEDs, or meeting LEED criteria -- it simply became smart business to go green. For him, total cost of ownership mattered because he owned and managed the buildings as well as fixed them up.
He can get 10-15 percent more rent if the buildings are either LEED certified or be substantiated as being green. He can get rebates, and accelerated write-offs. By setting up PPAs (Private Power Agreements) with his tenants, he will become an energy distributor and possibly an energy generator. He can save money and make money at the same time.
During this same period, he began to feel a personal obligation to the environment. "I realized that as boomers we made this mess ... and we need to clean it up," D'Avignon told me. "I realized green was not going away; it's not a phase. I went from 'this is bullshit' to 'this is substantial' -- I saw the writing on the wall.
"It's about business, but about more than that, too. I've moved from pure capitalism to natural capitalism -- yes, Paul Hawken's book," he explained. "It's small steps toward a sustainable economy and making money and creating jobs."
Because D'Avignon is a successful serial entrepreneur -- he co-founded HiTek, a power electronics company, in 1992 -- he is interested in the numbers and the markets. By 2008 he was wondering how he could apply what he knows about electricity and power to this new green economy. He began looking for gaps in the market.
In February 2008, he went to Electric West, a conference for electrical contactors, in Las Vegas with these questions: Where are the opportunities now? Is it in manufacturing? How can I raise money? What is missing from this market? By using his engineering and sales talents, what could he do that would pay out in 10 years?
What he discovered was the end user doesn't have a clear handle on what all this green is and how to integrate it into their lives. It's hard to get good information, especially if you are an individual or a small business.
When solar salesmen came to his house, D'Avignon realized they didn't understand the systems they were selling and what different systems could deliver. He learned that the panels matter, the inverters matter, the control systems matter. They all contribute to performance and yet he, even with all his knowledge, wasn't getting the information he needed to make a sound decision.
Individuals and small business owners need a place to see and touch and ask questions -- about wind turbines, and solar panels -- and to learn what photons are and why they matter. They need a place to come and to find out what all this means for their house or their business. He could provide that place; he could filter the resources and offer education, products and services.
By May 2008, D'Avignon had his first store designed and his company, Terra Steward, was on its way. They incorporated in February 2009.
D'Avignon is now working closely with an SBA lender to secure the money to renovate a 33-year-old racquetball court for the first store. While the bank is not doing many start-up loans now, they are pursuing this project because of his experience, their relationship and the fact that this is a green project. Tom Welch, SVP & SBA Manager at Security Business Bank of San Diego "thinks that's where the economy is going to go."
By the end of the first year, D'Avignon expects to have two stores up and running, with as many as 175 employees -- which will all be new green jobs. The current plan is to build 102 stores nationwide, starting in California and moving on to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, Texas, Massachusetts, and Ohio.
These new green jobs range from system installers to office help, from management to knowledgeable store employees. Technically, the store employees might be called sales clerks, but the model is more like old-time music and bookstores where the clerks knew a tremendous amount about what they were selling.
D'Avignon has spent time forging partnerships and alliances. He is expecting the Sempra Energy emerging technologies group to use the building as a test bed for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy conservation programs and products. And he is working toward establishing La Mesa, Calif., (within San Diego County) as a micro-grid city like Boulder, Colo., that generates and distributes energy in a small area and would create even more green jobs.
So, what does this mean for you? The takeaways from D'Avignon's journey are simple:
• Build on what you know.
• Integrate your work skills and what you believe in.
• Learn what you don't.
• Look for the gaps or where you fit.
• Don't let the titles stop you.
• Build alliances.
• And go for it.