A new CEO is at the helm of a Springfield-based solar energy business in advance of the company’s plans to begin solar panel manufacturing by next year.
Caleb Arthur, owner and founder of Sun Solar LLC, hired Marc Lee this month to replace him as CEO. Lee, who will be moving to Springfield from Indianapolis, Indiana, has over 20 years of experience as a senior executive in industries such as biotechnology, defense, software and building products. Arthur said he’ll remain very involved in the company, adding he will be the chair of a three-person internal board of directors that includes him, Lee and chief financial officer Pete Fischer.
Lee started Sept. 20 with Sun Solar, Arthur said, noting he plans to turn more attention to the manufacturing side of the company.
“I’ll still have the vision of where I want the company to go and any major decisions,” Arthur said. “I can still have the major decisions run past me but not necessarily get bogged down in all the day-to-day decisions that a CEO has to do at our company.”
Over the last few months, Arthur said he felt he was getting spread way too thin to properly execute growth plans for the company.
“Sun Solar has continued to grow through the economic headwinds of higher interest rates, but we didn’t want to slow down with the manufacturing coming on board.”
The company last year reached $41.2 million in revenue, a 125% increase from 2021 and 210% over 2020, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. It employs 250, Arthur said, more than doubling its employee count of 114 in 2021.
Arthur said he and Lee met four years ago when Lee was CEO of Compass Group Equity Partners, a private equity firm out of St. Louis. He was considering a possible sale of Sun Solar at the time and spent several months negotiating with Lee and Compass Group. While the transaction never happened, Arthur said he was impressed with Lee, and the two became friends.
“He’s a CEO-level guy, and I thought that would be a good fit for him to come in and take the day-to-day reins of Sun Solar and continue growing it organically and looking at doing acquisitions and other things,” Arthur said.
Lee said discussions initiated by Arthur started a couple months ago as he was looking for a new opportunity after exiting his position earlier this year as CEO of PlateSmart Technologies, a Florida-based company that works in artificial intelligence security.
“If you’re doing business right, you make friends along the way and you value people. Caleb is somebody I’ve admired since I’ve known him,” Lee said. “There were a lot of good conversations, and it gained momentum from there.”
Lee said after PlateSmart, he relocated for a romantic relationship in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“Right now, I’m relocating down to Springfield to do this. I’ve got ties to Indianapolis now, so I’ll go back and forth,” Lee said, adding he’s familiar with the Ozarks as some of his family have lived in southwest Missouri for around 25 years.
Fischer, Sun Solar’s CFO, said as the company expanded to Illinois in June with its first office out of state, additional growth is top of mind. He said Sun Solar eventually wants to be a regional company with a presence in multiple states, such as other local homegrown ventures like outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops.
“Caleb has been the driving force behind Sun Solar since its inception,” Fischer said. “Marc was brought on to enhance what we already have and to help us grow and focus on operational excellence and to continue to bring that customer experience level up beyond what it’s been.”
Sun Solar’s 12,000-square-foot Illinois facility, which is split evenly between office and warehouse space, is in Cohokia Heights, near East St. Louis, according to past reporting.
After announcing plans in May to invest in solar panel manufacturing, Arthur said the decision to secure a facility is down to two states.
“We’ve signed a letter of intent for a building in Missouri and a building in Illinois, but we’re only going to pick one of them,” he said. “It’s kind of come down to which state is going to work with us the best to attract us.”
The manufacturing work would add to the company’s offerings, which include solar panel installation and leasing programs. Company officials previously told SBJ the investment to launch the manufacturing facility is estimated at $100 million.
“We’re getting ready to start ordering our manufacturing equipment, and that will probably be in our manufacturing facility by the end of the first quarter of next year,” Arthur said. “We’re looking at April to start getting ramped up and probably May or June where panels are actually coming off the assembly line. We’re moving very rapidly on that front.”
The two potential facilities in the St. Louis area will fulfill the need for a building in the 200,000-square-foot range, Arthur said. One of them is under construction and is supposed to be done by year’s end, and the other is a turnkey property, he said, declining to disclose locations. A decision likely will take place within 30-45 days, he said.
The manufacturing operation will do business under a different name from Sun Solar, but officials say they won’t reveal it until the site is selected.
“We’ve got a placeholder name right now,” Arthur said.
Fischer said the company has north of $20 million secured right now toward the $100 million investment. Arthur said a previously planned $15 million capital raise this summer with its customers is on hold.
“We still haven’t had that need yet just because of banking partners and tax credits from the federal government and stuff like that,” he said. “It still might come up. We’re waiting to see where the source of funds is coming from the most naturally right now. Some of that has to do with if we stay all in Missouri or if we expand and do our manufacturing in Illinois.
“By the time we pick our location, we’re probably going to know where we’re going to get the rest of our source of funds.”
Plans call for the manufacturing facility to eventually employ over 300 people, Fischer said.
“First year, we expect to have 170 employees,” he said.
As manufacturing plans continue to advance, little progress is being made in the legal case Arthur filed last year against one of Sun Solar’s former executives and a local bank. The lawsuit against ex-employee Adam Stipanovich, OakStar Bank and its renewable energy financing division, BrightOak LLC, alleges a conspiracy by the defendants to create a competing solar finance and leasing program with trade secrets that were in violation of a nondisclosure agreement, according to past reporting.
“There’s not been a lot of updates other than we’ve been giving information back and forth,” Arthur said, noting depositions should begin in the next couple of months. “We feel like we’re in a very strong position right now, and those depositions will get us to that next level where we can start moving the case to a trial date.”
After a decision on the manufacturing facility is made, Arthur said an additional office – and maybe more – in Illinois is planned.
While Sun Solar officials earlier this year projected revenue growth could reach $70 million to $80 million, the continued high federal funds interest rate, currently 5.25% to 5.5%, is tempering expectations, Fischer said. He said annual revenue is on pace for $60 million – 45% above 2022.
“It’s still a lot of growth but below where we thought we’d be earlier in the year,” he said.
Adrianna Norris became a first-time business owner with the opening of Finley River Chiropractic; PaPPo’s Pizzeria & Pub launched its newest location; and Huey Magoo’s opened its second store in the Ozarks.