Thinking green earns green for Fort Worth executive

A. Lee Graham

Since leaving his native Beirut, Abe Issa has savored corporate success, narrowly avoided bankruptcy and reinvented himself in an industry only beginning to realize its potential. Such determination landed the Texas Christian University graduate on the pages of Forbes and Inc. magazines this year, each praising the Fort Worth executive for reaping impressive profits after founding his latest company only three years ago. That’s when Global Efficient Energy began turning heads and gaining customers.

“We offer what no other company does,” said Issa, 31, whose confidence is backed up by revenues that have risen from $5 million to $40 million since starting the firm from his bedroom in 2011. Since then, Issa has grown a company offering energy-efficient doors, windows and solar panels, as well as home retrofits and new construction services. The firm has become an industry player with several offices in Texas, Louisiana and Florida and others already planned. When not spending time with his wife, Marissa, and 18-month-old daughter, Katherine, Issa logs flight time visiting company offices while scouting potential new locations. The ambitious executive sat down recently with the Fort Worth Business Press to discuss alternative energy in an oil and natural gas town, striking gold with “green energy” and taking his firm public.

What led you to specialize in green energy instead of traditional oil and natural gas? Even in 2011, that must have seemed a risky move. Even while I was in college, I was in real estate working 70 hours a week in my senior year and taking 15 to 18 hours a semester [Issa sold homes through AC Properties before becoming its vice president a year after graduation]. Toward the end, we were doing a lot of renovations and energy-efficient windows and insulation.

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What about the recession? How did that affect your real estate involvement? The recession didn’t affect me until 2010. I almost went bankrupt. I personally almost lost everything. During that time, I started thinking, ‘What’s the next big industry?’ I was already doing green improvements to some of the homes [I sold], so I did research and realized that the green [industry] was in the infancy stage and green and the clean energy industry were going to be the big thing in the future. Three to six months after I almost lost everything, I came up with the idea for Global Efficient Energy.

Before we get into that, were you always interested in energy? What led you into real estate and then into this industry? I was born overseas in the Mediterranean, in Beirut, and moved here at the age of 5. I grew up super poor in a family of five in a two-bedroom apartment. I worked my butt off all through school to do real estate. I went from being extremely poor to having a lot of money to losing it once and building it back up with this clean energy company.

The green energy space has become quite competitive in recent years. What do you offer that other competitors do not? The difference between Global Efficient Energy and other companies like SolarCity [Corp.] and RGS [Energy] and other renewable energy companies is we’re going to homeowners’ homes and giving them a free energy audit. The reason we do that is it allows us to identify inefficiencies in their homes, and we advise them on energy conservation and energy efficiency and solar energy. After we do that, we present them with a clean energy plan that can save them up to 80 percent on their power bill. They’re able to use their savings to cover their investment. There’s no out-of-pocket money they have to pay because … the money that a homeowner saves off their power bill ends up covering their payment for the bank. They are able to see a return on investment on day one that they can’t get otherwise. I’ve structured a model where that happens immediately. We are the only company out there that provides a whole home solution, a turnkey solution. No one else does what we do. Some do windows, some do solar and installation, but no one does the whole home solution. We’re a one-stop shop. We’ve done over 5,000 installations in three years.

Have most of those come from homes or from businesses as well? The majority 85 percent residential. The reason why is because the residential solar market now is hotter than any other solar market out there. Incentives and bank financing are available and barriers for entry are less [homeowners installing a solar energy system before the end of 2016 receive a federal tax credit of up to 30 percent of the cost of such systems]. We originate the sale, we build the energy-efficient solar project and we install it ourselves.

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From windows to rooftop solar panels, many products are aimed at conserving energy and saving money. If you could name one, what’s the single most effective tool a homeowner can use in being green? Insulation is the single most effective means to conserve energy because 80 percent of homes out there are under-insulated.

How is your own home retrofitted to conserve? I’m in transition now, looking for a new home.

What led you to pursue green energy in a town rooted in oil and natural gas? First of all, I grew up in Fort Worth and went to TCU. My friends did oil and gas because that’s what their parents do out here and I was the one who ventured out to do something else. I saw an opportunity there. I thought, this is something people need.

Not every relatively new executive lands national coverage in Inc. and Forbes. Why were you chosen instead of other new entrepreneurs? The reason why was we’re the fastest-growing private green-energy solar-energy installer in the country. They took notice. Yeah. Forbes saw that we made over $40 million this year. They said that’s fantastic. Not even SolarCity did that within their first five years.

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So how did you manage to fund the company in the first place when you were first starting out? I started the company with $1,000 and no outside investment and no private-equity money. I am the 100 percent owner.

When did you see your first profit? We made a profit within 45 days.

Wow. Yeah. This company was built on hard work. Two and a half years ago, you had no idea what green energy was. People who thought of solar often had such a misconception of it. Prices have really dropped now, and I can educate the client on what they may need.

How many employees did you have just starting out? Only three. We started out of my home, then 60 days in my first office in Hurst. I was there for five months, and now we have two Fort Worth locations (an 8,000-square-foot headquarters on Gravel Road and a 10,000-square-foot marketing office off Handley Ederville Road east of Texas 121). We lease the space.

Was it difficult finding clients? What services did they primarily want? It was easy for me. I understood how to set up banking relationships because of my real estate experience. We’ve got a fantastic academy I designed, a sales academy that’s a huge reason for the success of the company, and our sales team closes, on average, four times better than the industry average in the solar market.

Looking ahead, do you plan on opening new offices or hiring more employees in coming months? We now have over 300 people working for us full time. The plan is, by the end of 2015, we will have 29 locations in 12 states. I’m also thinking about taking the company public, by the mid to end of 2015.

Why go public? The market cap. The valuation behind solar companies is huge right now and you’ve got companies like SolarCity that are trading 20 to 30 times what yearly revenues are. There’s a lot of money being raised for solar and clean energy. It’s a hot industry. It might make sense to go public than be acquired by a strategic buyer.

How many offices do you now have? We have eight in five states: four in Texas – in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

Do you try to visit all of them or delegate day-to-day management? I have a strong manager in each of those locations, but I try to visit once a month.

More information on Global Efficient Energy is available at