Mark stephenson

In the Flow

Mark Stephenson is energized about energy

by Cindy Bernhardt

Mark Stephenson founded his company, Vermont Energy Contracting & Supply Corp., in Williston, joining his longtime interest in environmental policy and a respect for the can-do approach of the private sector.

The “urge to conserve” may be a relatively new phenomenon for some, but the issue has been front-and-center for Mark Stephenson for four decades.

As president, general manager and founding partner of Vermont Energy Contracting & Supply Corp. in Williston, Stephenson is helping to lead the charge toward responsible energy consumption in Vermont.

“I grew up in the ’70s, when environmental awareness was just beginning to take hold,” he says. “Resource consumption, and energy issues in particular, really interested me.”

That interest has struck a responsive chord with Vermont Energy’s some 5,000 clients throughout the Chittenden County and Stowe areas.

A full-service mechanical contractor providing plumbing, heating, air quality and air control capabilities, Vermont Energy services, designs and installs systems for homeowners, contractors and facility managers; but, says Stephenson, “the beginning and center of our business is selling conservation to our clients.”

Founded in 1984 by Stephenson and Marshall Paulsen, the company today employs 20 people and, last year, saw annual sales of $2.4 million. Chandler Ede joined them three years ago as junior partner.

Providing value and quality go hand-in-hand with Vermont Energy’s approach to business, says Stephenson. “Vermonters are practical people motivated to do right by buying something efficient. We help them meet their goals by offering quality choices, since quality is a big part of conservation. Products need to operate well, last to be a good value, function safely, and be efficient.”

A Dayton, Ohio, native, Stephenson earned his bachelor of arts in energy resource policy analysis through an individual major program at the University of Wisconsin. Pursuing such a program felt natural to him. Energy seemed one of the key components to the world’s struggle over resources, he says, adding with a grin, “and I was right.”

Originally focused on environmental awareness policy, Stephenson found he liked the private sector’s immediacy mind set of “We’ve got a project; let’s do it!” and chose to concentrate on the renewable energy industry.

After graduation, he installed and serviced windmills in Wisconsin and Illinois for Solar Specialists of Madison, Wis. “They were a quality-oriented company and a great model when I started my own business,” he says.

A trip to Long Island for his grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration coincided with Stephenson’s decision to relocate. “I traveled through northern Vermont, stopping at coffee shops to read local newspapers and editorials. When I drove over the hill by UVM and saw Lake Champlain I knew I was home,” he recalls.

Chandler Ede, Marshall Paulsen and Jan StowellChandler Ede (right) joined Vermont Energy as a junior partner three years ago. He’s pictured with Marshall Paulsen, cofounding partner, and Jan Stowell, business manager.

Stephenson’s first action was to accept what he describes as “my worst job offer” with a small local business. The six-month stint bore fruit, however, as it was there that he met Paulsen, who shared his interest in renewables.

He spent the next year building energy-efficient homes while planning Vermont Energy. He and Paulsen started the company shortly thereafter. “Taking that leap was like raising children,” Stephenson jokes. “There’s no handbook to guide you.”

The pair’s synergy has served the company well. “Marshall enjoys design and number-crunching, and I like organizing the business to build toward the future.”

At first, the company sold energy-efficient gas heating and solar water-heating systems. The transition from the Carter to Reagan administration, however, had ripple effects. “When renewable energy federal tax credits dried up, the country’s energy policy took a different direction.” he recalls. “So we completely revamped our business plan nine months after we started and launched our career as a mechanical contractor.”

Much has happened in the industry since then. Mechanical systems’ technology, relatively unchanged in the 1980s and ’90s, began responding to demands for greater efficiency. Concerns over global warming, rising fuel prices, resource conservation, and environmental impact furthered the press.

“The trend toward conservation is inevitable,” says Stephenson. “We started injecting that ethos into the market by selling high-efficiency products and began leading the charge.”

Servicing everything they put in place meant they learned firsthand that efficiency didn’t always mean quality. “It took a while to connect with brands that represented quality and backed up their products,” Stephenson says. Consequently, the company pared its list of preferred product manufacturers to six, all offering top-of-the-line products.

“Our clients understand the value of what we offer. They have environmental concerns and want a quality, long-term investment with energy efficiency.” Projects are custom designed to clients’ energy needs.

The growth of the green building movement followed this rise in efficiency awareness. “Consumers want to practice conservation and apply their principles to energy goals,” says Stephenson. “People began asking questions as information became more readily accepted and broad-based, and the construction industry is responding. The kinds of products and services we offer dovetail well with those objectives.”

Keeping ahead of the curve, Vermont Energy established Burlington Electric Co., Vermont Gas Systems and Efficiency Vermont as efficiency partners. Vermont Energy connects customers with these resources that, in turn, provide clients with information about energy decisions.

Raymond Karle and Barbara SustinVermont Energy employs 20 people and last year saw annual sales of $2.4 million. Raymond Karle is the warehouse manager and Barbara Austin is the office facilitator.

‘We think the best way to do business is to form partnership relationships with our suppliers and efficiency utilities,” says Stephenson. “They’re a huge part of our referrals, as they recognize we provide services they recommend for their clients.”

Over 45 percent of the company’s work last year came from repeat business. While most clients are homeowners or contractors, Vermont Energy also works with facilities managers who operate multiple systems.

Steve Conant, president of Conant Custom Brass and owner of Pine Square Properties in Burlington, is a seven-year Vermont Energy client. “Steve’s properties have 62 different mechanical systems, and we service every one,” says Stephenson.

“Mark’s a nice guy, a hard worker, an exemplary leader with long-term vision, committed to social responsibility, and he’s a family man,” says Conant. “That’s an awesome combination, and his values show in his business.

“I count on Mark to make recommendations that consider our energy investment and the safety of our tenants, and he’ll do the job right the first time.”

Since technological advancements mean more complicated HVAC systems, employee training has become a Vermont Energy cornerstone. Says Stephenson, “We think we have the best-trained company and have invested money to make it that way. Change is constant in this industry. We can’t survive and stay on top without consistent training.”

Fifteen years ago the company established its Training Account program, whereby $1 for every hour worked is contributed to each employee’s individual training account. Accumulated money may be used for classes, tools, or “anything an employee needs to better accomplish the job,” says Stephenson.

Training is twofold, focusing on product knowledge and licensing. Manufacturer-led training sessions are conducted monthly, and an automatic raise is given when technicians pass any of seven HVAC-related license exams.

“Employees improve their skill level and provide value by being better informed,” Stephenson says. “We’re not blowing up balloons here. This work is complex. Energy-efficient equipment is like a 3,000-piece Erector set, and how it goes together is key to efficiency and quality.”

Seeking expanded training space led Vermont Energy to relocate from Burlington a year ago. “We were hindered by lack of room,” Stephenson says. “This move will help us grow the company.”

The company is in year two of a five-year business plan with a goal of doubling its annual sales to $4 million by 2010. The plan was developed jointly with peer consultants provided by the Peer to Peer Collaborative, a program developed through a Vermont Business Roundtable study.

“Our aim was to retool and rethink our business, develop a blueprint for goals and work actively toward them,” says Stephenson.

According to Doug Griswold, president of S.T. Griswold and one of Vermont Energy’s peer consultants, “Mark was absolutely committed to making viable, rapid changes in the business plan to do things well while maintaining the bottom line. He’s passionate about what he believes and brings that passion to the business.”

Stephenson met his future wife, Linda Jones, when he attended one of her annual Christmas parties with a housemate of his. Linda is an abstract artist with an upcoming exhibit at the 215 College Artists Co-op in Burlington.

“I grew up with abstract art,” Stephenson says pointing to an abstract piece in his office done by an aunt, “so it made sense I’d be drawn to another artist.” This shared interest led Stephenson to serve as president of the Burlington South End Arts and Business Council for the last five years.

He and Linda have two sons, Cody, 13, a guitar and sax musician, and Clark, 9, an illustrator and guitar player. “The most important time for me is family time,” says Stephenson. A favorite pastime is canoe tripping together in Canada.

Stephenson has also been called “coach” by both boys’ soccer and baseball teams. “There’s nothing more rewarding than coaching kids,” he says.

Clearly Stephenson believes in community involvement. “It’s important to give back,” he says. “Business success is based on community support so we need to support the community.”

“I feel fortunate,” he says. “I love what I do and love knowing we’re helping people by providing a basic commodity that helps individuals, the state, and our environment.” •