How art, creativity, and impact
fuel CEO Erik Birkerts

Clean Energy Trust CEO Erik Birkerts reflects on his personal career journey and how art, creativity, and the drive to make real impact have shaped his successful business career.

For most of us there is a deeper, more personal reason we pursue the work we do. This reason doesn’t always reveal itself right away. Sometimes there are a series of events and “lucky breaks” that take us in a direction and appear somewhat random at the moment. Only in retrospect do they form a mosaic from which a picture emerges that begins to make sense. I love what I do and have found my professional purpose. I consider myself very fortunate. But, to borrow from David Byrne, how did I get here?

I come from a family of artists…writers, philosophers, painters, and one architect. The architect is my father, and he came to the United States as a Latvian refugee following the second world war with nothing but an education. My mother did as well, and I am the first American generation, learning to speak Latvian before English. As with many refugees and immigrants, my father was incredibly driven and built a celebrated career as an architect. But he was tough – a disciplinarian – an archetype of the old school European who believed children should be seen and not heard.

As a kid, I had an interest in the arts and architecture, and I grew up around dinner conversations with my father complaining about his business clients who had no vision or appreciation of aesthetics or design. He was very vocal in his worldview that the arts were a higher calling, much more so than business. So, as you may suspect, when it came time for me to choose my studies and set my professional direction, my act of rebellion was to go into business.

I studied economics in college and then went to New York to work in finance and eventually went to get my MBA. It was at this point that I began to reconnect with the creative pursuits of my youth. I found the disciplines of marketing and strategy allowed for ample opportunity to be creative. And, when I finished my studies, I didn’t go back to work in finance but decided to stay in Chicago and go into strategy consulting. As a young associate, I found myself increasingly gravitating towards client work with companies involved with building products.  Lighting manufacturers. HVAC companies. Office furniture manufacturers. Companies that made pumps, motors, controls.  Essentially things that went into buildings.

I eventually joined a small lighting company as an operating executive. This company was based in Wisconsin with about $10 million in annual sales. We had one project, though, that changed the direction of this company and, more importantly, the direction of my professional career.

We retrofitted the old lighting systems of a manufacturing company in Neenah, Wisconsin. We were thrilled to give them better illumination. That’s what we thought we were doing…giving them better light. However, when we commissioned the project, a funny thing happened. The next day the local municipal utility showed up because they couldn’t figure out why the electrical load of the facility dropped dramatically overnight! The proverbial light bulbs went off in our minds. We realized that our lighting delivered significant energy savings and that we needed to change our business model.

We quickly went to work and revised our sales process to sell energy savings and return on investment instead of lumens. Suddenly, we were killing it. We grew from $10 million in sales to $40 million to $80 million and, ultimately, $100 million. We took in investment from GE and then went public in 2007. At the time of our IPO we had installed systems in nearly 4,000 facilities, reduced electrical demand by 334 megawatts and indirectly reduced 4.5 million tons of carbon emissions. We were making money AND having impact. A true double-bottom-line!

Post IPO I spent about two years as the COO and then decided it was time to do something different. Life as an exec at a small cap public company is brutal, and I was burnt out. I took some time to consult with other companies and thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next. I was deeply disturbed by what was happening to the environment and very fearful for the future of my children. I studied different ways I could get involved with climate change interventions…education, policy and advocacy, driving greater deployment of existing clean technologies. The latter made sense to me given my experiences in lighting. But I was also concerned that today’s technologies would only get us so far. There still needed to be some breakthrough, game-changing innovations.

Around this time I met Amy Francetic, who was the CEO of a recently formed not-for-profit called Clean Energy Trust. Amy explained how their mission was to help build a vibrant innovation ecosystem in the Midwest and to help clean energy entrepreneurs be successful. This sounded appealing to me as it offered the potential leverage of helping to make a whole sector successful. Raise the ocean vs. just one boat. The organization was beginning to scale, and Amy needed a partner. She’s smart, so in the back of her mind, she was probably also laying the groundwork for a succession plan, which all good leaders should do.

I joined Clean Energy Trust as COO four years ago and then became CEO 15 months ago. I love the work that we do. We make investments in promising entrepreneurs, we provide mentorship, we work alongside them to help in their success, we open doors and make beneficial introductions, and we sit on their boards. These entrepreneurs go on to build companies, create jobs and deliver important societal impacts. What could be better?

Circling back to my father. He is now 90 and still tough and stubborn. What I do is not art to him – not by a long shot – but he has been increasingly asking me questions about my work. I take that as a sign that he is taking an interest and is beginning to recognize that my work does have a higher purpose and does deliver positive, lasting impact.

By Erik Birkerts | May 25, 2017