MOVE FORWARD: Why This Software CEO Moved Into Solar Energy After Sniffing A Growing Market

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Mark Tuke

MOVE FORWARD is a series outlining the approaches of successful leaders to taking a business strategy on paper and making it a commercial reality. You’ll find links to more articles at the foot of the post.

Mark Tuke looked out from his house at Coogee near South Fremantle at an ocean of blank roof spaces drenched in sunlight.

Not one of them had a solar panel and the sunlight went unharnessed.

“It clicked that there was this huge opportunity, especially in Australia, that had not been tapped into at all,” he says. “And I felt I could make a difference.”

That was July 2008.

A friend of a friend had asked him to take a look, apply his commercial eye as a software company CEO, at the solar panel installation business.

“I really didn’t know what solar was,” Tuke said. “I knew you had these little cells on a calculator as I kid which helped power it, you see them on yachts occasionally and you see them on the side of freeways.

“I remember thinking: you can use these panels to power entire homes and potentially entire businesses. And they kept saying, ‘Yes, that’s the way it’s headed’.”

He went into the solar panel business with a staff of one, himself. He now has 55 plus, depending on the scale of projects coming up.

Revenue in 2012-13 was $20 million and his company Sun Connect operates across Australia, mainly doing larger commercial projects.

The business was meant to be a side-line but in six months it was turning over so much money Tuke had to disengage from his work at a software company. In a year he was full-time.

He didn’t have one of those business plan which goes into every aspect of the opportunity with market sizing and forecasts.

He did, however, have a very good sales and market plan.

“I put a lot of thought into it and like most people when you get a sense of the opportunity you start to extrapolate and plan,” Tuke says.

“It was a time sensitive opportunity and it turned out that getting in six months sooner made a huge difference.

“I had a decent plan. I always could have done more, but I balanced that with agility.”

The initial plan was to take advantage of a market created by government subsidies such as feed-in tariffs, to encourage homes to buy solar panels.

Tuke, now aged 35, grew up at Carine, a northern Perth suburb, and his parents were small business operators. This influenced his thinking as he spent holiday time doing work for his parents’ trucking delivery company.

He tried university (twice) but what they taught didn’t help what he wanted to be – an entrepreneur.

Tuke has six key people who joined him at Sun Connect early and who are still with him. One of them is his oldest school friend.

They all head off for an annual get-together (the last was in Malaysia) and bring with them high performers for the year.

“Some of them I knew as former co-workers from other companies, a couple I knew socially whom I knew to be trustworthy and high calibre individuals,” Tuke says.

“They are all essentially department heads now including my general manager, my installation manager, my operations manager, my finance/accounts manager and one or two others.”

After initially tapping the high growth domestic roof top market, Sun Connect is now a commercial specialist, offering long term contracts to companies giving them assurances on maintenance and warranties.

“We’re talking up to 20 years for contracts,” Tuke says. “We’re not just there to make a quick buck, we’re there for the long term. The main thing is piece of mind for our customers. There’s no risk.”

Electricity from solar panels gets more cost effective each year as the cost of equipment comes down and the price of mains power goes up.

A problem in Australia is that none of the equipment is manufactured here so any warranties become an issue if there’s a problem.

“You end up with a warranty which may be four or five years but the person who has sold it to you has gone out of business,” Tuke says.

“This happens a lot with the smaller operators. What are you going to do? Fly to China or Germany?”

Tuke’s company solves this by taking on the maintenance, long term.

He believes Sun Connect is the first company in Australia with more than 100 commercial grade/scale solar clients on its books.

“The commercial sector is still embryonic so us having done it for the last two and a half years ironically makes us early up-takers,” he says.

Again, he attacked the market early, this time before most.

He doesn’t do a lot of sitting back and enjoying the spoils.

“I tend to analysis and critique where it is I should have been more successful,” he says.

“I think I spend more of my mental space and time figuring out how I could have done better and what I should do rather than patting myself on the back.”

More MOVE FORWARD profiles:

  • How SiteMinder’s Laser Focus Helped Make A $30 Million Funding Round Easier
  • How Australia’s Newest Health Insurer Plans To Grow From Zero To IPO In Four Years
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