Online solar equipment company grows while offering non-traditional staff benefits

Wholesale Solar first opened its doors in Mount Shasta nine years ago with two employees. Today, the online solar equipment sales company has grown into two large storefronts, a warehouse, and 29 employees.

With alternative stand-up workspaces, regular bonuses, and fully-funded insurance premiums, Wholesale Solar’s story is not the norm during these times of widespread economic distress.

Owners Ellen and Mark Coleman founded Wholesale Solar in New Mexico as Taos Green Solar in 1992. It began as a home-based offshoot of Mark’s “green” construction business. Once their website was established, the Colemans realized they could move anywhere and decided on Mount Shasta, a destination they’d been visiting for 31 years.

Wholesale Solar sells solar equipment to contractors, homeowners and businesses through its website, wholesalesolar.com. They do not install the systems.

Their sales come from throughout the United States and Canada.

“We cast a wide net,” explained Ellen Coleman from her office last week. “We bring in money from all over, and that helps... It turns out our name was very well chosen. It’s a term a lot of people use to search for solar electric equipment.”

The bustling business is located in two North Mt. Shasta Boulevard storefronts – the old kitchen store and the former site of Sacred Mountain Spa. Phones ring constantly and keyboards clack like crazy as orders roll in for solar equipment.

The employees
Ellen said the company employs five senior salespeople and five other salespeople in various stages of training. Seven people work in their Ream Avenue warehouse, where most of what they sell is always in stock.

They have a bookkeeping/accounting department of three, two web developers, and a couple product managers and purchasers.

“Most of us help in multiple areas,” Ellen said.

Salespeople answer the phone and educate customers about what they’ll need to make electricity from the sun and how to get their money’s worth. All their salespeople must be knowledgeable and friendly, Ellen said.

“It’s a hectic job,” she admitted. “There’s more work every day than our employees are able to do... they all work really hard.”

Ellen credits their employees for helping the business grow.  “We don’t just have good website management, we have excellent website management by Dustin Bartholomay,” she said. “He makes it easy for people looking for solar equipment to find what they need in an extremely competitive industry.”

Ellen said Wholesale Solar caters to those who want to do something good for the environment as well as those who just want to lower their electric bill.

Americans use more electricity than any other country in the world, she said. But once people start making their own electricity from the sun, they generally learn to make due with less through some lifestyle changes.

Customer reviews on their website come from far and wide, praising the company and its employees for their support while designing solar energy systems. Many cite Wholesale Solar employees for their patience and ability to provide useful information to people who are unfamiliar with solar technology.

Prosperity despite the economy
Though they’re doing well, Ellen said the company is dealing with the recession just like everyone else.
“The pricing of solar is coming down, which is good for homeowners, but at the end of the day there’s not much profit,” she said.

The business, however, continues to thrive because of their hard work and dedication.

In order to compensate their employees as well as they can, Ellen said they pay a wage “that’s competitive with larger towns for the same position,” then give bonuses  based on their revenue for the quarter. Despite recessionary times, she said they’ve been giving bonuses regularly.

Wholesale Solar also pays the entire premium for all their employees’ health, dental and vision insurance, provided by Community Health Plan of the Siskiyous.

“It's great to have health care insurance that also has alternative health care options, such as acupuncture or chiropractic care,” said Suzanne Scull, a Wholesale Solar employee since August 2009.

Because they want their employees to live a healthy lifestyle, the Colemans offer non-traditional, stand-up desks – some even have treadmills to walk on as they work. Some employees forego chairs and sit on big rubber balls while at their computers, which are more ergonomically correct.

Isaac Cunningham, a Wholesale Solar system design and sales employee since May 2009, said he’s only used one sick day during all his time there. He has an alternative work station with an adjustable keyboard that allows him to stand or recline on a large rubber ball.

“I attribute this to a healthy work environment and lifestyle,” Cunningham said. “I believe that I am much more effective in my phone conversations because I stay on my feet and stay active all day long... I don't experience the negative health effects which come from longer periods of sitting.”

In her office, Ellen said she stands most of the day and feels much healthier for it.

“We have several employees that ride their bikes to work. During lunch, we take walks, and if you work here, it’s not that difficult to get a day off to go skiing in the winter,” she said.

When employees are feeling stressed, they are able to relax in a small outdoor area that has been transformed from a common alleyway to a cozy little spot, and very other Wednesday, all the employees meet next door at the Homegrown Cafe for  organic coffee and muffins before work.

“We try to be as supportive and family friendly as possible,” Ellen said. “We have employees who are a wide range of ages, from early 20s to those in their 60s. We’re lucky... I feel we have the best employees.”