Light Energy

The Wolfes see the road to energy independence as a huge economic opportunity

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

grosolar_leadEngineers Jeff and Dori Wolfe had parallel interests long before they began dating. Married in 1986, in 1998, they launched Global Resource Options in their home in Strafford. Named Vermont’s fastest growing technology, with a 3,500 percent five-year growth rate, the company now has about 160 employees and a presence throughout North America.

Working together is not for the faint of heart.” That’s Jeff Wolfe’s reply when asked what it’s like to run a company with one’s spouse. “We definitely had different conceptions of what the business was; where it was going; how big it should be; what constitutes success,” he says.

“During our first full year of operation, we did solar on five homes. Dori thought that was fantastic; I said, ‘Well, it’s a nice thing, but that doesn’t solve any problems.’”

“Picture my vision,” says his wife and business partner, Dori Wolfe. “One roof at a time, isn’t that good? In the meantime, we were farming sheep out in the pasture, gardening, and raising kids.”

The Wolfes might have had conflicting approaches, but their joint vision of the world’s future potential is clear from the moment they speak. It sparked the advent of groSolar, the White River Junction company they founded in 1998, now the largest 100 percent U.S.–owned North American distribution company in the solar industry, with offices and warehouses across the continent.

“Jeff is the most singularly driven, hard-working, focused person I’ve ever dealt with,” says longtime friend Kevin Ellis of Kimbell Sherman Ellis, a government affairs and strategic communications firm in Montpelier and, these days, groSolar’s public relations professional. “This is a guy with no MBA, no Ph.D., and he decided to grow a business for the right reason: He’s trying to save the world. Dori’s ideals are no less, but she and Jeff are very different.”

In light of this, it’s surprising to learn of their startlingly similar backgrounds.

Jeff grew up in Massachusetts. His interest in energy was awakened in his teens by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Solar energy intrigued him. Teachers and advisers suggested he become a mechanical engineer. He headed to Cornell University.

A native of Arizona, Dori spent most of her youth in the outskirts of New York City. Her father was “an inventor type who wanted to create the sustainable house,” she says. “He would talk about buffer zones and intriguing things and I would watch over his shoulder. He built the first passive solar warehouse in Westchester County. The bug was in me.”

Following her father’s influence and that of her high school advisers, Dori also decided to pursue mechanical engineering. She, too, chose Cornell, focusing on energy.

Although in the same class, they ran in different social circles and did not begin dating until 1984, a couple of years after graduation, when they encountered each other at a Harvard–Cornell football game.

Out of college, Dori had landed a job with a New York City firm working in heating, ventilating, and air conditioning

“New York City was not my place to be,” says Dori. She found another job with a small firm outside of Boston, which is where she was when she and Jeff reconnected.

Having graduated into what was “the worst recession in 20 to 30 years — the solar industry had gone kaput because Reagan had eliminated the tax credits and taken the solar panels off the White House roof,” Jeff had taken a job with a roofing contractor in Rutland.

“I thought it was the biggest waste of time ever for a degreed mechanical engineer from Cornell,” he says, “but I didn’t want to work in military aerospace, and working there I learned three important things: how to sell to homeowners; how to get on a roof and not fall off; and how to make a hole in a roof that doesn’t leak.”

By the Harvard–Cornell game, he was a candidate for a job where Dori worked.

“Here’s how I tell that story: I got him the job at that small firm in Waltham,” she says with a chuckle. “I was supposed to have met up at the game with my senior group, but was there all alone, and he was with his fraternity brothers behind me. I told my girlfriend I had met someone who had applied for the same job at the little firm I was at — same college, same industry, pretty good all-around guy; didn’t smoke; and he had on his wall a hand-made calligraphy saying from his old girlfriend, so he was sentimental enough — and I said, ‘I’ll take him.’”

They married in ’86.

Dori took a job with Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers (BR+A), but by 1989, with their first child on the horizon, the Wolfes made a decision to move to a more family-friendly environment.

“When I told BR+A we were going to move to Vermont to be poor and go to a single income,” Dori says, “they looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean, you’re moving to Vermont? Jeff can start up our office up there!’”

“I became the firm’s first-ever branch office manager, for a new office in Hanover, N.H.,” says Jeff. “We either traded up or traded down,” he adds.

“Definitely up,” Dori says. “I got to stay home and raise kids for 10 year: Jessica, born in 1989, and Sarah, in ’91.”

They found a place in Hartford. Dori exercised her creative side, even writing a couple of kids’ songs with the energy bent: Think It Through and What’s a Watt? “I’m an engineer — a given — but I had fun with them,” she muses.

In 1994, Jeff went to Chicago to open a BR+A office. He became a partner and designed award-winning buildings, while Dori remained in Vermont.

By 1998 he was ready for a change. “I designed energy-efficient buildings,” he says, “but you get to design what the owner wants to pay you for; and when the budget comes down, the marble tile gets to stay in and the efficiency goes out.”

Following their hearts, the Wolfes launched their own renewable energy company — Global Resource Options LLP — having no idea how they were going to make it work, although, quips Jeff, “Dori was more prepared for this, because she had one business class in school; I had none.”

They worked from a spare bedroom of their rented house. Jeff continued consulting to help cover expenses, and Dori taught piano. “By the beginning of 2001,” says Dori, we were earning our keep without consulting.”

“Our salaries dropped precipitously,” says Jeff. “By then, climate change had whacked us on the head — the urgency of it. That was one of the major factors that got Dori to go with my vision of growing the company into what it is today and more.”

They bought a house in Strafford and built an addition for Jeff’s parents. “The world headquarters for Global Resource Options was a little bedroom, and by mid 2003, we had six people in that room,” says Jeff.

“Our seventh employee came to interview on a Saturday,” Dori says, laughing, “so no one was in the office. He saw all these desks and said, ‘You expect me to work here?’ Fortunately, by the time he came on, we had moved.”

By that move — Labor Day weekend 2003 — the company was doing commercial and residential work in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. In January ’04 — by then doing business in Massachusetts also — the company became a solar distributor, buying directly from the manufacturer and reselling to other dealers on the East Coast. “In 2004, we brought in Paul Coughlin. He’s still with us as senior vice president of strategic sales in New Jersey,” says Jeff.

In September 2006, the company obtained its first round of venture capital and launched the groSolar brand.

Ellis recalls with glee how he began working with his friends and neighbors the Wolfes. “Jeff called me one day and said, ‘Can you come over? I need to be able to write a press release.’”

That press release, says Ellis, “turned into, ‘How do we change the name to something snappier? How do we create a brand for this company? How do we then expand the reputation and story into these new markets?’”

In 2007, additional management was brought in: Jim Merriam as chief operating officer, and Jamie Resor as chief financial officer — “a godsend to the marriage part of this,” says Dori.

December 2007 and February 2009 saw the second and third rounds of investment capital. Acquisitions helped expansion nationwide — Energy Outfitters in Oregon; Chesapeake Solar in Maryland; the residential division of Borrego Solar Systems in California and Massachusetts. Today, the company has about 160 employees.

Being able to let go of some of the management burden meant that Dori could return to a 7:30 to 5:30 workday, leaving time for her volunteer efforts, and Jeff could dedicate more time to his passion, which is policy.

The company has evolved with the technology, Jeff says, “but sometimes, more important has been the policy side.” To that end, he maintains close ties to organizations such as Renewable Energy Vermont, New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association (which he helped found), SURGE (the Sustainable Energy Resource Group), and the national Solar Energy Industry Association (where he chairs the PV division). At press time, he was in Copenhagen, Denmark, about to present Al Gore’s climate slideshow to the participants of the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

“One of the fascinating things is I can walk into the statehouse and people know me — and know us — and all the things I was telling them 10 years ago have come true.”

Of the elements necessary for attacking the issue — “technology, cost, and culture,” he says — “the technology is easy: We don’t have all the answers today, but we have plenty of answers to get us years down the road and have time to anticipate the other answers.”

The cost is easy, he continues. “The energy industry is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s that industry we’re seeking to reform and change — quickly — thereby creating the biggest single economic opportunity mankind has ever seen, bar none.

“What’s hard is culture. If we had the right culture — and I use a very broad definition of culture — people would be running out to buy solar for their rooftops today. It’s really affordable — costs less than your granite countertops, less than your SUV.

“So as Dori says, what I fear is that we don’t attack climate change, because if we don’t, our economy will become a second-rate economy.”

He points to a purple bracelet on his wrist. “This says, ‘Never surrender.’ The daunting challenges we have ahead of us are easy to surrender to, because there’s so much money, politics, and culture against us, that doing what I firmly in my soul believe we have to do to survive keeps me driven.” •