By CARLA FLEMING (Originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse)
It was a pleasure to recognize Dr. Robert L. Wallace, President, CEO, and Founder of Bithenergy, Inc., as the Baby Boom Generation Awardee at Leaders in Energy’s second annual 4 Gen Event. The 4 Gen event honors four generations of leaders in the clean energy and sustainability field from four generations: World War II (1927-1946), Baby Boomer (1947-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), and Millennials (1981-2000). The theme of the event was “Leading Through Adversity.”
I had the honor of recognizing the Baltimore, MD native’s achievements in the clean energy and sustainability arena through the establishment of Bithenergy, a renewable energy company in Baltimore. It was established in 2009 as a “result of a vision and interest in solar energy Wallace developed as an Engineering and Applied Mechanics student at the University of Pennsylvania,” said Harry Holt, Vice President of Operations, Bithgroup Technologies, Inc., who accepted the award on his behalf.
After graduation, Wallace searched for a job in the solar industry, “but couldn’t get a job with any company doing solar,” said Holt. Instead, Wallace accepted a Field Engineer position with DuPont.
Visioning and Networking
Visioning and networking have always been a hallmark of Wallace’s career. As the fourth of 5 sons, Wallace’s strengths as a kid were in math and science. He leveraged his networking skills at the age of 16 and visited the home of a high school classmate over the weekend. He observed the success of the classmate’s father and asked him why he was so successful. The two words that stuck with him were “engineer” and “entrepreneurship”. At that point, the vision was set. Now, the hard work began— and he “work(ed) backward from the vision,” as Wallace is often known for saying.
After four plus years, Wallace left DuPont to attend Dartmouth College’s Amos Tuck School of Business. During his time there, he conducted research on women and minority-owned business entrepreneurs. He wanted to understand what the keys are for women and minority-owned owners to create wealth, yet give back to the community. Upon graduation, he worked for IBM before deciding to act on the second part of his vision and stepped out on his own as an entrepreneur.
His first company was a mergers and acquisition business in the Michael Milken era of finance that was characterized by widespread securities fraud in the late 1980s. Due to the downturn in the economy, the company ran out of money. Yet, Wallace dusted himself off and pivoted in 1992 to start Bithgroup Technologies, Inc., an IT solutions business named after family members, which continues today.
Later, in the context of the Obama Administration’s policy focus on clean energy, changes in state legislation, local utilities, and industry changes, Wallace conducted extensive research and made another pivot by launching Bithenergy. Starting with an investment of $300,000 and five people, he created the type of clean energy company he envisioned working for when he graduated college. Since that initial investment, Bithenergy has grown to 30 people and generated $7.28 million in revenue in 2014, in less than 10 years. They have over 30 MW of PV systems installed.
This year, Bithenrgy was recognized as the number one fastest growing inner city company by Fortune Magazine’s Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC). In 2014, they were ranked #49 on the Top 250 Solar Companies by Solar Power World.
Holt acknowledged that Wallace received lots of pushback on pivoting into solar at the time, including questions as to why would he take the risk when he already had a successful business model. Holt said Wallace was undeterred. He believes it is necessary for companies to look continuously ahead to understand the changes in the market, so you are disrupting the market instead of being disrupted.
Bithenergy has contracts with commercial clients, colleges, and universities. They won their first project with a military contract to solar power for a military base. Bithenergy is also pursuing international projects including offshore wind opportunities.
Wallace also shares his hard-won knowledge gained through corporate experience, research on entrepreneurship and experience as a serial entrepreneur by becoming an author. He has written six books and is writing three more books. One of his forthcoming books is titled “Green Gold”, which will explore how companies in the green industry can take advantage of strategic alliances and partnerships. He believes strategic alliances and partnerships are a growth mechanism used by large enterprises that women and minority-owned businesses, as well as green industry businesses, can emulate to grow.
4 Generation Awardees
Leaders in Energy proudly recognized Dr. Robert L. Wallace as our 2015 Baby Boomer Generation Awardee. He joins Bill Holmberg, Chairman, Biomass Coordinating Council, ACORE, as the World War II Generation Awardee (Carol Werner, Executive Director, Environmental and Energy Study Institute, accepted the award on his behalf); Sonia Punjabi, Principal Consultant, Energy Efficiency; DNV GL, as the Generation X Awardee; and Timi Komonibo, Founder and Executive Director of Style Lottery; Millennial Generation Awardee.
Shira Harrington, Founder and President of Purposeful Hire, was the keynote speaker for the event, presenting on “Understanding the Four Generations”.
Insights from Dr. Wallace’s Career
- A Vision Can Keep You Focused. So often people follow their passion for an issue or topic. What helps you channel the passion, which can be impacted by the multitude of no’s and ups and downs, is having a vision. It will help direct that passion and serve as your guidepost for determining if you are achieving your goals. If you are not achieving your goals, you can figure out how to pivot while keeping the vision front and center.
- Develop a Plan. A vision is a high-level guidepost for what you want to achieve. Breaking the vision down into something concrete—such as a business plan or a personal plan—can help you achieve the vision in digestible pieces. Realizing the vision is a long-term view, the plan should tie back to the vision.
- Networking is Critical. Opportunities come out of meetings with people. It’s a chance to learn about new business opportunities, identify new partners, and figure out what is the value you can bring to the table to help solve a problem for a partner. As Holt noted, “Part of Bithenergy’s success is due to making connections and meeting people. All we’re looking for is the connection to get in the door, and we can take it from there to sell ourselves,” he said. “By building relationships, the company remains in-tune with people, the market, and they’re building credibility, which, over time extends into loyalty,” said Holt.
- Take Risk and Disrupt. Maintaining the status quo can cost you your business. Just look at Kodak. Taking risk is about evolving the business to stay relevant in the marketplace. It doesn’t always mean you jump and just do it. Sometimes the type of risk—amount of capital, amount of resources needed—may mean you’re betting the bank in such a way that you can’t recover. That’s where strategic alliances and partnerships, developed through networking, become critical because you are adding skills and knowledge to the team to mitigate the risk.
Congratulations to Dr. Wallace for being recognized as the Leaders in Energy Baby Boomer Generation Awardee and showing us how to lead through adversity.
Carla A. Fleming is the Principal and Chief Mission Officer for Renewable Marketing, a marketing strategy consulting company. She is also a member of Leaders in Energy and Business Development and Marketing Consultant for High Road Strategies.