These days, it’s rare to find a business owner who hasn’t been drawn into the green industry’s sweeping groundswell — if only in a small way.
Company executives know energy conservation can trickle down to their bottom lines and marketing departments know that their green efforts can draw favorable attention.
But while the industry’s momentum grows as a national movement, it also is populated by a diverse cast of local players.
The decision to go green can be subtle and understated, like when warehouse developer Jimmy Connelly picked recycled glass for countertops in his recently completed Ladson building.
But they also can morph into full-blown businesses brimming with potential.
For example, the wheels of innovation are churning on Daniel Island, where entrepreneur Paul Cutler is pursuing patents on energy-saving product ideas he’s stewed over for years.
Others are using technology to open a portal to others who want to incorporate green practices into their businesses but don’t know how to navigate that increasingly complicated labyrinth. Such is the mission of a Mount Pleasant software company called Green Wizard.
Here’s a peek at four Charleston-area entrepreneurs who’ve planted roots with the green movement.
Taking an early stand
On sunny weekends when no one is working there, the Half-Moon Outfitters distribution center in North Charleston produces power for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. instead of using it.
“We were the first ‘net metering account’ on SCE&G’s system,” said Beezer Molten, president and owner of the retailer that caters to kayakers, backpackers, hikers and other outdoor-sports enthusiasts. “Our meter runs backwards on those weekends.”
The 9,800-square-foot distribution center, built in an old grocery store on East Montague Avenue, produces 14 percent of its power from two rows of solar panels atop the roof.
It is a model of energy efficiency, so much so that it was the first structure in South Carolina to capture the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation. That was in 2007.
The building incorporates not only energy-efficient bulbs but motion sensors that turn lights on and off. It also harnesses natural sunlight and shade for heating and cooling. Stormwater is collected for flushing toilets and irrigating native plants.
The warehouse also is equipped with low-flow water fixtures, a reflective white roof, extra attic insulation, salvaged building materials, and desktops made of compressed sunflower seed husks.
The building is so energy-efficient, it cost 6 cents per square foot for electricity compared to 37 cents per square foot for Half-Moon’s store in Mount Pleasant in July. Heating and air use less energy than the lights, Molten said.
Because of the east-west configuration of the building, large windows on the east and south capture the winter sun and specially installed awnings block out the summer’s most penetrating rays.
Molten expects the extra money he invested in the energy-efficient features will be recouped by 2014 through savings.
“Given that our stores are centered around the outdoors, we want to do what we can to help the environment,” said Molten, an avid outdoor enthusiast. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Businessman Paul Cutler had one of those light-bulb moments two years ago. And his determination was that he’d had enough of compact fluorescent bulbs.
The moment happened as Cutler, president of A.M. Conservation Group Inc., hovered over the sink washing dishes.
Born with a creative mind and always harboring an admiration for the simple genius of inventions such as the Frisbee, the New Jersey native found himself buying energy-efficient products from overseas, shipping them to his Clements Ferry Road warehouse and reselling them.
It’s a relatively safe business because his clients, mostly water and power companies, are almost always looking for energy-efficient trinkets such as shower timers or personalized thermometers.
But this particular night after dinner, Cutler was fretting over another business deal he’d lost over compact fluorescent bulbs, a price-driven commodity. In this case, he simply couldn’t compete on costs, and the loss pushed him to sell products he had more control over.
His plan: Develop, manufacture and sell three of his very own inventions.
“I don’t always want to be losing business over price,” he said from his Daniel Island conference room with three neatly packaged products placed in front of him.
He started with an idea that came to him while cleaning the dishes. The Dish Squeegee is a carefully angled, wing-shaped piece of plastic that scrapes dishes without the use of tap water. The kitchen gadget is made in China, and Cutler went through great lengths to make it two colors.
It’s what he envisions dangling from the aisles of grocery stores, selling for $4.99 each.
So far, mail order catalogs and home product conventions have praised the product, but retailers want proven success before they carry it. Cutler has only sold about 20,000 units since they arrived in January.
His two other products are a $7.99 WallPlate Thermometer that takes a room’s temperature and a $5.99 Plug Guard to eliminate drafts from electric outlets.
But in Cutler’s eyes, it’s The Dish Squeegee that holds the most promise. He’s asked his employees to come up with ways to enhance its market appeal. Among the ideas: an orange version called “Fresh Squeege’d” and a soft pink version to raise awareness for breast cancer.
The Dish Squeegee earned Cutler a booth at the Emmy Awards this month, enabling him to hand out the product to dozens of celebrities in the hopes they will use it and rave about its water-saving virtues later.
“Maybe this is my Frisbee,” he said.
When Jimmy Connelly built his warehouse and distribution center in Ladson, he wanted to open under internationally recognized green building certifications. But he soon realized the financial constraints he faced as a small-business owner.
By then, he’d researched the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, also know as LEED.
“I took all those ideas and implemented them until we ran out of money,” he said.
Connelly’s C&C Warehouse near the Coastal Carolina Flea Market brings a contemporary approach to cargo transfer. The 75,000-square-foot operation valued at more than $3 million includes a line of ever-expanding solar panels on the roof, recycled denim insulation and a 24-foot ceiling fan that spins and shuts off automatically.
The restrooms include waterless urinals, and Connelly hopes to soon use reclaimed water in all toilets. A panel on his warehouse wall shows how many pounds of carbon dioxide his system saved this month.
The goal: to one day generate enough electricity not only to power his own business, but to make a little money in return by selling the energy back to SCE&G.
The company recycled more than 300,000 pounds of cardboard last financial year, uses reclaimed bamboo as a natural landscaping barrier and relies on sensors to detect when natural light suffices. Even the offices use minimal carpet, opting instead for stained concrete, and the lobby countertops sparkle with recycled glass.
Nearly all of C&C’s customers come from outside South Carolina, and half of them span the globe.
Connelly grew up visiting his grandfather’s warehouse business, which served the old Navy base. When he opened C&C in 1995 in North Charleston, he took that model and focused on port contracts.
Before moving to the new building in April, Connelly and his wife discussed the next step for C&C. Connelly decided: “When I build a facility of my own, it’s got to be for the future.”
A software solution
Adam Bernholz learned how difficult it was to sort and compare green construction materials a few years ago while trying to build a home on Goat Island using recycled wood and other sustainable products.
He has since channeled those frustrations into a promising technology firm that rounded up $1.2 million in funding from early-stage business investors this past spring.
His three-year-old Green Wizard LLC targets the building industry by creating what he says is the first and largest online clearinghouse for the rapidly growing green construction industry.
The main selling point of the Mount Pleasant company’s software and website is that they offer a free one-stop database where architects, engineers and contractors can instantly search thousands of eco-friendly products and specifications, compare prices, make purchases and take care of the documentation that’s required to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s increasingly popular Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design standards.
“People don’t want to go to 20 websites. They want a common platform,” said Bernholz, who previously started and sold a business-services firm.
The market potential is huge, said Bernholz. He noted that most new government buildings must earn a LEED rating. That’s a primary reason Green Wizard is focusing on commercial construction for now. He estimated that the size of his company’s initial target market is $50 billion and expanding at an annual clip of least 60 percent.
“There’s a lot of need,” said Bernholz, whose title is chief executive officer.
Green Wizard, which has secured multiple rounds of startup financing, generates revenue by charging fees to premium subscribers and to manufacturers that want to list more information about their products. Since its site went live in March, the firm estimates that its users have represented projects totaling $800 million in value.
Bernholz has brought on some experienced managers to help him grow the business, including former Benefitfocus chief operating officer Jerry Lepore, who is president and COO.
The company sees itself employing 75 workers in the next two years and it hopes to get to the next level within three to five years. That could mean either a sale to a larger company or an initial public stock offering.
Given where the building business is heading, Bernholz sees “Google-esque” potential for Green Wizard.