Silicon Ranch’s business model of developer-owner-operator means that our business partnerships are distinctly relational. As such, it seems only natural to introduce our team members from a more personal standpoint than their professional bios can convey. Leading out this team feature series is our President and CEO, Matt Kisber.
As the co-founder of Silicon Ranch Corporation, Matt Kisber played a vital role in creating the vision of Silicon Ranch and how it remains today. Silicon Ranch takes a long-term approach in establishing new solar facilities around the country by becoming strong partners to both our clients and to our clients’ customers. Matt established this framework from the company’s inception, and it continues to remain a distinguishing attribute of how Silicon Ranch conducts business.
Where are you from? Did where or how you grow up impact your interest in solar energy?
Where I grew up didn’t impact my interest on solar energy specifically, but it certainly defined my business focus. I grew up as the 4th generation of a family-owned retail business in Jackson, TN. From a very early age, I came to know about taking care of your customer. It was impressed upon me from a very early age that every business has a responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. This is likely what led me into public service. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1982, I returned home to Jackson and ran for a seat in the State House of Representatives and won, and went on to serve 10 consecutive terms (20 years) in the state legislature. In 2002, Governor Bredesen was first elected and asked me to serve in his cabinet as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development leading our state’s efforts at recruiting new industry and supporting existing industries.
From the start of Silicon Ranch, I believed it was important to bring value to both our customers and the communities where we do business. I know first-hand the very positive impact that economic development can have when companies go into communities and make significant investments. Consequently, our business strategy incorporates a focus on community development through the long term nature of the projects we develop, build, own, and operate. The jobs we create in building our solar farms, the taxes we pay to the local communities and the goods and services we purchase from local providers all contribute to growing the economy of the communities where we operate our solar farms.
When did you first hear about or take an interest in solar energy?
I first became seriously interested in solar energy during my tenure as Commissioner of Economic Development. The state energy office at that time was in my department, so developing energy strategies was a part of our business development portfolio. In 2008 when the price of oil was around $150/barrel and gasoline was $4/gallon, Gov. Bredesen tasked me with developing a jobs strategy around the renewable energy sector. Gov. Bredesen understood that, while renewable energy is about energy security, environmental security, national security, and many other things, at its core, it is about economic development. He believed that the states that understood this concept, and supported the development of this industry, would be where these companies would plant their seeds, create jobs, and grow.
With a clean energy jobs strategy and toolkit for Tennessee in hand, I began to recruit companies in this sector from across the country as well as across the globe. Interacting with these industries and thought leaders helped educate and inform me as to what was going on in the energy sector and gave me an idea of the future growth potential of economic development, job creation, and environmental benefits.
How did you arrive at the idea to begin Silicon Ranch?
It was 2010 and solar energy was still in its formative stages in our part of the country. Reagan Farr (who was serving as the Commissioner of Revenue) and I knew we wanted to start a business together after our service in the Bredesen administration. As we considered many different business opportunities, we kept returning to the belief that, in particular, the Southeast was well-positioned to embrace renewable energy and solar power, much like what had taken place in the Desert Southwest and West Coast. Equipment prices were high but were projected to decline as installations grew, and we saw an opportunity to do something akin to what HCA (Hospital Corporation of America) did in the hospital management space and, that was, to start a new company, in an emerging industry and be a part of developing this exciting industry. We strongly believed that if we developed reliable, long-term, strategic partners to support our core competencies and vision, we would be well positioned to become the trusted partner for utilities and companies who wanted to add solar generation to their portfolio for customers. Our strategy emphasized the importance of providing additional value to our customers in addition to the renewable electrons our projects generated.
Going into business with Reagan was something that made a lot of sense to the both of us. We had worked closely on large economic development projects such as relocating the headquarters of companies like International Paper, Nissan North America, ServiceMaster and ServiceSource to Tennessee, and landing large investments made by Volkswagen, Wacker Chemie, Embraer, Bridgestone, Bank of New York, among many others.
My background is in retail business and politics as well as marketing, and Reagan’s experience is as a tax lawyer and consultant having worked with two of the Big Four national accounting firms, so we complemented each other’s strengths quite well.
As Governor Bredesen’s term was coming to an end, he periodically asked me what I was going to do when our term was finished. Recognizing he is a successful business person and a serial entrepreneur, I knew we would only have one opportunity to pitch this idea to him. Once Reagan and I had put together an initial business plan working nights and weekends, we met with the Governor for dinner and presented the idea during the summer of 2010. The Governor was intrigued and offered us insights into starting a business from his previous experiences. At the end of the dinner, Bredesen offered to be an advisor, meeting with us on the weekends and assisting us as we worked on the business plan. Months later after we had refined our business plan he offered to join us and be our partner. That is when SRC really started to form and take shape. We started commercial operations in January, 2011 once we had completed our term in state government. Governor Bredesen maintains an office with us and is the company’s Chairman.
What is your role and responsibility in furthering Silicon Ranch’s mission?
My role as President & CEO is primarily to be involved in setting the overall strategy and developing strategies and action plans to fulfill these objectives. I share the overall management of the company with two other members of the senior management team, Reagan (Farr) and David (Vickerman). As such, I am directly responsible for the business development activities for SRC, which include day-to-day operations with the business development team, meetings with our customers (both present and future), working with our strategic partners who provide the financing, construction, and industry relationships that allow us to be successful.
Speaking of partnerships, SRC does not attempt to be all things to all people. We very much focus on the relationships where we can create long-term value for our partners. We recognize that we have to earn every project.
Part of my responsibilities is assisting in the design and delivery of the “Solar Plus” we bring to our customers. We bring to every project the focus of a long-term owner, as well as a partner, asking our clients how we can make this project a success for them — not just success as a solar energy solution, but also a solution that also provides added value to our clients and their customers. We call this “Solar Plus” and we find it is usually a very specific objective to incorporate into the project community education, customer engagement, and developing individualized programs that fulfill their specific goals and objectives.
What has been a particularly rewarding or interesting energy project you’ve worked on?
Now you’re trying to ask me to pick my favorite child! They’re all my favorite. What has been personally rewarding is that many of the projects we’ve successfully deployed began with partners saying that there was no way this could get accomplished. We’ve taken on projects where others weren’t having success, and we turned them into successful projects for our customers and their communities. As a result, the projects have been embraced and used by our partners in their community development promotions.
With Aerojet Rocketdyne, for example, we were called to develop a win-win solution for Aerojet, Ouachita Electric, Arkansas Electric, and the state of Arkansas. All of those parties have taken great pride in the solution we created and the project has garnered state and national awards for all parties involved. This is representative of the success we’ve had with so many of our projects.
Each solar project is like a tailored suit. It has to be designed to fit a particular need, a particular customer, and a particular community. We excel at this. We have repeat business because we do it well, and we work in a cost-competitive manner. The result is we bring good financial, environmental, and economic development benefits to our customers.
When I’m able to take my family to one of our projects and show my children one of our solar farms and all that it means, I feel very proud of the contributions we are making to communities and their citizens. It’s such a positive experience for everyone involved.
What do you find most inspiring about solar energy technology?
One of the reasons I was, early on, excited about the concept of SRC was to be starting a new company entering a new, emerging technology industry. The solar industry is still relatively young and we are now about to be 6 years old. In the solar industry that makes Silicon Ranch a veteran!
We started Silicon Ranch at an opportune time, as we have witnessed solar energy become cost competitive with fossil fuel generation, as well as seeing the economic contributions to our regional, national, and global economy. Surveys show that many Americans and a majority of millennials are making consumer decisions based on companies’ initiatives around sustainability and solar energy is a highly visible platform demonstration of that commitment.
My son is 16, but he looks at the sustainability practices of the companies where he shops. It is discussed in his science classes at school. He first came home in fifth grade talking about our family’s carbon footprint and how were we going to reduce it. It’s a whole new mindset. Companies that embrace sustainability, and specifically that use solar generated electricity, have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. To be able to help companies and utilities take advantage of that and make a positive contribution to the environment is not only exciting, but also personally rewarding.
What makes Silicon Ranch unique from competitors in this industry?
We begin with a focus on the customer, we tailor each opportunity, and we deliver a solution that provides a long-term partnership between Silicon Ranch and our customer. We ensure that we’re providing good value today, tomorrow, and 30 years from now. We plan on being there to support the relationship as we have developed a solar project and sold it with a long-term promise at the core. Unlike a lot of developers who sell their projects to third parties, every project Silicon Ranch develops stays in our portfolio, we actively manage it, and we continually communicate with our customers about how to leverage this platform to advance their company objectives. In this respect, I believe the Silicon Ranch approach is unique in this industry.
How do you spend your spare time outside of work?
With a 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, I spend a lot of time attending school and sporting events, and I enjoy that. As a family, we enjoy playing golf, going to the beach, and traveling. My family are beach goers, so when we want to decompress, we head to the coast.
I also enjoy photography. I took it up in junior high school. Photography allowed me to work my way through college as a photographer for the Jackson Sun newspaper and as a freelancer for the Associated Press. I was also a co-owner of a camera store back in the 80s. I am an obsessive picture taker when on family trips which sometimes drives my children crazy. I started a new family tradition when my daughter was born in 2004. I made a photographic picture book of our family’s year in photos and it is the only present that brought tears to my wife, and now I do one every Christmas as it has become a family tradition. It’s a great way to capture the wonderful memories we make throughout the year.