As an experienced U.S. small business in the renewable energy technologies space, we have mixed feelings about the SolarWorld Americas anti-dumping case against Chinese imports of crystalline silicon solar cells.
It's curious that the CEO of SolarWorld, Gordon Brinser, has spent money sending us information regarding the company's complaints against anti-dumping. That’s right, folks: nothing in the mail from SolarWorld for years, and then all of the sudden we are getting letters from the CEO. The company's complaints come from a one-sided and skewed perspective. This account is our experience with SolarWorld and other suppliers.
I remember when we called SolarWorld several years ago and asked them to do business with us. We were a small, patriotic American company trying to do business with a larger American manufacturer. We inquired about a small order of 10,000 watts to complete a project we already had in our portfolio.
Where did that lead us?
What we have found is that a lot of American “big player” companies have a very strange approach to sales, and maybe this is what is leading to their failure.
In our experience, all of the big U.S. solar module manufactures have one approach: they sell their modules to only a few big distributors, and the more you buy, the bigger the discount.
But today there is an interesting twist coming from global competitors around the world. China will sell directly to just about any consumer or business, and, boy, do they know how to give you the best customer service -- not to mention how easy they make it to find them. We receive hundreds of emails a month from Chinese manufacturers selling all kinds of renewable energy products and we spend time talking with them on Skype and via other international communication tools. It costs us nothing but a little time.
How many phone calls or emails do we receive from U.S. manufacturers? Not one. American companies don’t give us the time of day unless it is an order for millions.
So, to become profitable, we do what any company would do. We buy from companies with good customer service and good follow-up, prices that are low enough for us to make a profit, and a location that allows them not only to deliver the product but also to regularly keep us informed about what they can deliver on a monthly basis. Most importantly, we choose partners that can refer customers and projects our way. It’s a win-win situation. We have not been able to establish such a relationship with SolarWorld or any other solar module manufacturing company in the U.S. -- not one call, not one email, and not one customer reference from an American manufacturer. Oh, and that 10,000 watts we needed? Well, there was never a follow-up call from SolarWorld because apparently the order was not big enough for a player like SolarWorld to bother with.
This is by no means an isolated event. We have had American companies in many different fields ignore our requests for information and products, forcing us to look internationally to help grow our business.
So how about those big Home Depot distributors and large installation companies that SolarWorld is doing business with? Most of these distributors do nothing but push product -- and don’t even do that very well anymore. They know very little about the product, which they mark up by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent to cover the costs of their large warehouses and overpaid staff. With an already struggling industry and an expensive product -- what margin does that leave the installers?
The turnover rate of the American distribution network has been enormous. In the six years we have been in business, we have not been loyal to one American master distributor, because they just don’t stick around for very long: customer service has been inadequate and their markup takes away from our hard work and profits. In most cases, they don’t show any appreciation for us doing business with them.
So where are the American manufacturers today and who are they selling to? Are American businesses really doing business with each other? Are they making each other profitable and setting up win-win situations? Are they helping each other grow? Maybe they should put a stop to the favoring of larger order sizes, volume discounting, and preferred distribution channels. The old way of doing business is no longer working -- and the big players continue to do things the old way. But today, American businesses and consumers have the option to buy global direct. How else are we to compete with the big players?
We have now graduated to bigger and better things. We started working internationally and consulting on green energy-related projects globally. Most of our suppliers are no longer based in the U.S. because we could not get the U.S. suppliers to give us the time of day. You can call us unpatriotic or 10 other names. We simply call it survival. We tried to do business here, but realized it was hopeless. Maybe a company like SolarWorld should look at who they are doing business with, who they have turned away in the past, and how business is working today.
We need to dig deeper to understand what globalization really means and to better grasp the real problems with our economy. Just because companies or big players like SolarWorld have the money to get started does not mean they will be successful in the long run. Before we cry for protectionism and tariffs, we really need to sit back and look at how we are doing business with one another.
Darius Tarsio is an electrical engineer with over 10 years of experience wiring residential and commercial electrical systems and over five years of experience in semiconductor research, design and testing. He is the CEO of Helios Electric, a solar and renewable energy installer and designer in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro Area. Here's an example of the company's work: