Matt Lisac and Matthew Lannigan had already been in Edmonton’s burgeoning solar industry for a decade before making the weighty decision to pursue their own venture in 2014. And after their previous employer, a multinational solar PV (photovoltaic) distributor, had sold off its parts distribution business to a competitor in favour of owning and operating power-generating solar plants, they identified a unique gap in the market and developed a new company together.
“Neither of us really wanted to go work for the competitor,” remembers Matt, who is Co-Founder and Director of Operations. “I talked to a lawyer friend, and we found out that we didn’t have any non-competes and didn’t have to go work for the competitor if we didn’t want to. We could start a new company and essentially keep operating the same [previous] company. It was a no brainer to just go ahead and do that.”
Get down and scale up
From there, National Solar Distributors was born. Later, they were joined by a third former co-worker, Réal Bouchard, who rounded out the executive team by adding valuable experience in the world of finance. Since then, they have grown as a provider of high quality solar PV systems and services for a range of industries and use-cases, including everything from modules and equipment for personal RV campers to complex oil and gas projects to large solar farms. Choosing to operate solely as a distributor has afforded Matt and his team the opportunity to foster deep relationships with their customers. However, it also presented a unique set of challenges during their first year in business.
“The distribution business is really capital intensive and you need to scale up really quickly, Matt says.
“To make any money, you have to make use of economies of scale. We had to get our numbers up across the board pretty quickly, otherwise you end up digging yourself a hole really fast and becoming at-risk of going out of business.”
Even with Matt and his team scaling National Solar Distributors as quickly and efficiently as possible as a matter of survival for the nascent company, revenue and profits still didn’t always keep pace with the required cash flow. As such, outside capital was obtained to maintain the level of growth Matt and his company needed. He adds, “Managing inventory and staff and cash flow, as well as dealing with growth, was challenging. But having a good relationship with a bank like Canadian Western Bank (CWB) was key.”
Know where you stand
Aside from the veteran knowledge of the solar PV industry and a commitment to relationship-driven customer service, Matt believes that it is a diligent understanding of exactly where they stand in their customers’ value chains that has contributed to his company’s success. The decision to operate exclusively as a distributor contrasts with much of their competition, who simultaneously distribute parts while bidding on installation and generation projects, leading them to bid directly against the customers they serve.
By choosing to remain a parts distributor, Matt knows he delivers invaluable peace of mind — a choice he knows has been instrumental in maintaining long-term relationships with his customers. A natural extension of these partnerships has also been the feedback on the products the company offers, an input that, when combined with internal consultation, allows them to make the best choices regarding optimizing their inventory. “We have big decisions around products that we carry because we try to stay really focused on what we carry so we don't have multiples of the same thing. Every time we choose to work with a new manufacturer, we take a big chance,” explains Matt.
By maintaining this feedback loop, National Solar Distributors is able to offer the right products, from the right manufacturers, at the right time. Because at the end of the day, it all comes down to the task at hand. “We are stocking products to help our customers do their jobs better,” Matt says.
National Solar Distributors and CWB
For Matt and his business partners, they’ve found that CWB operates differently from other institutions they have dealt with in the past. Matt and his team appreciate the level of thought, care and excitement CWB approaches their banking relationship. “They’re a lot more hands on, they care about who we are as people, they care about the market we’re in and have adjusted accordingly along the way. CWB also looked at our historical financials and our future pipeline. Not everyone does that. They spent the time to do the proper due diligence to learn who we are,” says Matt, “They really impressed upon us that they're here to help grow businesses. And they follow up with their actions 100 per cent.”
CWB is here to support companies throughout every stage of their business. Speak to a CWB advisor today to see how they can help your business grow.