World Energy CEO Talks Growth and Profitability Amid Cleantech Downturn

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do more than $32 million in revenue this year. Last fall, World Energy made three acquisitions: Co-eXprise’s energy procurement business (enterprise software), Northeast Energy (efficiency) for $4.75 million, and GSE Consulting (energy management) for $8.6 million. Adams says the acquisitions are a mix of high-profit and high-growth businesses, so it sounds like the plan is to grow faster—but not too fast. “Steadily up and to the right,” he says. “That will hopefully get Wall Street’s attention.” (World Energy’s stock price has been climbing as of late, but it’s still just under $4.50.)

Here are some deeper highlights from my chat with Adams:

On the demise of cleantech businesses: “You’ve got big public failures like Solyndra and Evergreen Solar that have cast a pall on green energy,” he says. “Certainly the recession has curbed output of greenhouse gas. I don’t believe it’s less urgent, but the urgency has come down. We’re not spewing as much stuff, we’re fuel-switching from coal to natural gas for generation, so ‘there’s a lot of stuff that’s mitigating this thing and it’s sort of getting fixed on its own, so I don’t have to worry about it.’ There’s that sentiment.”

“To me that feels like macro cleantech, almost like macro economics—big, bold statements of policies and conditions. Like micro economics, we’re micro cleantech. We’re on the ground, doing it for each customer. We’ll broker solar credits in New Jersey. We run the auctions for the Massachusetts Solar REC program. What we’re trying to [say] is, let’s talk to you about how green you want to be. What’s available in your territory? Let’s put all of that in the mix and create an energy solution for you. We’re an energy management company, we’re not a cleantech company. But Wall Street needs a term it can hang its hat on, and you need a ‘tech’ attached to it, to create some kind of new interest and bubble or whatever. I think it was a big mistake.”

On the challenges of energy vs. Web businesses: “It’s not like you can get 800 million users [like on Facebook] in eight years. The contagion isn’t there. Everything with cleantech is attached to a building, or a pipeline, or a grid, or something physical. The adoption on that is necessarily slower because you need somebody to do something. It’s not like, oh, just log in, everybody just does it because everybody else is doing it. It’s been a real challenge,” Adams says. “But we have a pretty interesting way of looking at [energy management], and guess what, if you do it in the right order, there’s a multiplier effect. People go, ‘Wow, that makes a ton of sense, please do that for us.’”

On what World Energy has in common with Microsoft: “We’re at a ‘Microsoft Office’ moment in this industry,” says Adams. In the ‘80s, everyone used different kinds of spreadsheets. Then all of a sudden people switched to Windows in the early ‘90s, and Lotus 1-2-3 was replaced by Excel and Office. “There was one software company, with the same [user interface], that won the day,” he says. “Our thesis, what we’re building our future on, is gone are the days when an energy manager wants one company to do procurement, one to do efficiency, one to do demand response… We can be the Microsoft Office and claim all three beachheads. The market is huge.”

On Worcester vs. Boston: Adams talks about World Energy going from building to building, doing energy tests, and talking to customers. It’s not flashy, it takes time, but the company continues to grow. “Maybe it’s more of a Worcester business than a Boston business,” he says. “We’re grinders. We grind it out quarter after quarter. Eight quarters ago, two years ago, we weren’t profitable. Now we’re profitable. It’s about making money.”

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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