This Solar Power Plant Company Succeeds by Firing 10 Percent of Its Staff Every Year
Depcom Power is off to an explosive start in the solar industry thanks in part to some specific people-management practices.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy DEPCOM Power
How do you build an insanely fast-growing solar company? Start with a bunch of executives from all across the energy industry. Create a system that rewards top workers and eliminates underachievers. Add plenty of sunlight.
That's the formula that has helped Depcom Power's revenue soar nearly 39,000 percent over the past three years, landing it at No. 5 on Inc.'s annual list of fastest-growing private companies. The company builds solar power plants for utility companies across the U.S., from Oregon to North Carolina. Last year, the startup pulled in $219.6 million in revenue in just its fourth full year of operation.
All according to plan. Depcom wasn't founded solely with the environmental benefits in mind. "We're in this to drive the cost down to be as competitive, or more competitive, than gas," says Jim Lamon, the company's CEO. "You're never going to be sustainable if it's just a niche--it's kind of cute, it's nice, it's clean. Low cost was always the goal."
The company achieves that goal using a new ultra-thin and efficient polysilicon, which helps keep costs low for the utility companies and thus for customers as well.
Lamon worked as an exec in the coal and gas industries for two decades, all the while reading up on the rising efficiency and declining costs of silicon solar panels. He eventually moved to Tempe, Arizona-based solar company First Solar in 2008. Along with nearly a dozen other energy industry veterans, he formed Depcom Power in 2013. Since then, Lamon has poached nine of his 11 direct reports from First Solar.
Depcom operates under principles of equality across all levels: All employees have the same benefits, like severance packages, and all are given shares of the company. The Scotsdale, Arizona, headquarters contain no offices, only cubicles.
The company also employs a form of extreme meritocracy known as a "vitality curve," first made famous by then-General Electric CEO Jack Welch. Workers evaluate their peers on an annual basis. The top-rated employees--based on those ratings plus factors like sales, customer service score, and safety records--receive the biggest year-end bonuses. The bottom 10 percent are let go.
DEPCOM Power CEO Jim Lamon.CREDIT: Chris Hinkle
The system might sound harsh, but Lamon says it's part of what keeps operations efficient. The company provides severance pay and helps its departing employees find jobs at other companies.
"It comes down to having a strategic plan and having everyone buy into it," he says, "and making sure it's well communicated." Also important, Lamon says: "Getting the right butt in the right seat." Of the nine employees he poached from his former employer, none are in the roles they initially occupied at Depcom. Instead, they've been moved around to positions that best suit both their skills and the company's needs, a philosophy the startup puts into practice often.
Though it's doing all it can internally to succeed, the company now finds itself in an industry that's in the Trump administration's crosshairs. The president announced tariffs on solar panels imported from countries like China and South Korea back in January, which has squeezed profit margins for many companies. Last year, the industry shrank for the first time since the Solar Foundation began tracking its size in 2010.
Still, nearly 70 percent of Depcom's equipment is American-made, so the company is less affected by those taxes than most. Lamon says setting a realistic budget has helped the company stay fiscally responsible. The fact that extra profits at year's end are distributed as bonus pay also keeps employee morale high.
"Everyone buys in," the CEO says. "We've been successful quickly because everyone's on board, and everyone's always doing the right thing."