Day in the Sun

Art Aylesworth, Carmanah Technologies Corp.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

It wasn't long ago that mentioning solar power at a cocktail party would have scattered the socialites and left you talking to the wall. In fact Art Aylesworth, CEO of Victoria-based Carmanah Technologies Corp., is the first to admit that he was among those who viewed the fans of this green alternative to conventional energy as a pony-tailed fringe of off-the-grid science geeks in self-imposed exile. Not anymore.

On a sunny August afternoon, Aylesworth parks his pristine black Infiniti G35 next to Carmanah's production facility in Saanich. Inside, the pace is feverish as workers hustle to fill orders and assemble Carmanah's patented solar-powered LED (light-emitting diodes) lighting systems for specialized markets around the world, whether it's illuminating bus shelters in metropolitan London, lighting a military airstrip in the Middle East or powering a navigational buoy for the Brazilian coast guard.

"I call it playing with a tailwind. This is the first business I've been in that when we talk about it people are genuinely interested or feel that they have to be," Aylesworth says. "I think the trine is right for this technology. There's a real groundswell of support for this."

If sales growth is an indication of success, then the tailwinds have indeed been blowing strong since Aylesworth joined Carmanah in 2000 as CEO. In under six years, the affable 54-year-old seasoned manager has guided the company from annual revenues of just over $1 nullion and a staff of a dozen to annual sales of $39 million and a workforce of 200-plus. The company has also enjoyed yearly revenue growth of nearly 70 per cent, a rate that would make any shareholder giddy, and now has more than 250,000 solar power system and LED lighting installations in 110 countries. In 2005 the company acquired Soltek Powersource, absorbing 65 new employees into its fold. In addition, Carmanah parlayed a $10,000 cash prize for the Global 100 Eco-Tech Award handed out last year in Aichi, Japan, into an annual bursary for engineering students at the University of Victoria.

Impressive as this record is, Aylesworth is quick to say you're only as good as the people around you. Among his employees, Aylesworth is casual and convivial, able to infuse humour into direct and concise discussions about business activities. He credits this personal style for his success as a manager, along with an ability to see the best in people and play to their strengths. That's why he makes it his top priority to stay in touch with the company's staff, which is expanding at a dizzying rate. As he whisks through the production facility, he stops to chat with employees and ask about summer vacations, making a point of engaging people directly. Then he checks in briefly with Tim Lo, Carmanah's director of manufacturing, who is under intense pressure these days as the firm ramps up production while settling into this new larger facility - a move made just last March.

"Tim's one of those guys that doesn't complain. If he does, you know there's a problem," Aylesworth says, glancing at his cell phone before dashing back out to his car to make a 3 p.m. sales meeting back at the company headquarters near the old Vctoria shipyards on the Gorge waterway.

The company slogan - "Change the world with us" - is bold. However, Aylesworth is no environmental iconoclast on a crusade. Instead he's a guy who recognizes when a good idea's time has come.

Born and raised in Calgary, after finishing high school Aylesworth entertained ideas of becoming a pilot. He earned his commercial licence but instead of taking to the skies he joined his two brothers at their retail stereo store in Calgary. He took to business like a forest on fire.

"I liked the fact that you could buy some stuff, organize it, then sell it for more than you paid for it," he says. "I love that."

Eventualiv he worked into a one-quarter partnership and after seven years sold his shares in the business. In 1982 he moved to Victoria with his wife because he wanted to be close to the ocean. His friend Greg Nelson, owner of Sharp's Audio-Visual, courted Aylesworth with an offer to open an outlet in Victoria. He accepted the challenge, and while managing the store, started his own business, Island Displays, which specialized in designing and setting up displays for conventions, trade shows and other events. The fact that Island Displays' business dovetailed perfectly with Sharp's electronic expertise was no accident. It also meant that Aylesworth was running at full tilt, in effect managing two full-time concerns at once. In 1996 he sold Island Displays and by 1999 had climbed into the president's chair at Sharp's.

"I felt like I was ready for a change again. I wanted one more big career in my life," Aylesworth says.

That's when he learned about an upstart company that was carving a niche in the emerging solar-powered LED lighting market. The brainchild of David Green, a physicist who first became interested in solar-powered LED lights for his sailboat, Carmanah was formed in 1996 and went public the following year. At the dawn of the millennium, the firm was in need of an astute manager who could oversee growth. Aylesworth was intrigued.

He admits that until then he had given solar energy little thought, but signals in the marketplace, such as peak oil paranoia and an increasing public appetite for green energy, told him the fit and time were right. "Sales were growing but there was nobody really selling, so I knew there was something good here," he says.

A few minutes past 3 p.m., Aylesworth strides into the boardroom where his local sales staff is assembled. A concern about a worldwide shortage of silicon caused Carmanah to stockpile solar panels and now the company wants to off-load some of this excess inventory. Sales managers and reps from Calgary, Washington, Oregon, Utah and California are on the line for a conference call. Aylesworth opens the meeting by announcing to his team that he probably doesn't need to be present, a nod to the confidence he has in his employees. However, when a rep from Santa Cruz frets about dumping product on the market at discount prices and the message it will send to Carmanah consumers - that of a company in financial trouble, which is far from the truth, Aylesworth engages the issue head on. It's a subtle nuance, but he's careful to ensure that the concern has been heard and the feedback appreciated. Macro issues discussed, he leaves the meeting to allow his staff to hammer out pricing details and promotion language.

Aylesworth enjoys people. In fact he calls himself a student of people. He claims not to read any of the tomes on management or HR that crowd the business shelves at the local bookstore. He reads, he says, to fall asleep at night and forget about business.

Though today he's firmly at home on the West Coast, he gazes back toward his Alberta roots, where his core values were nurtured on that gritty combination of self-reliance and integrity. When he was a child in a family of eight kids in a small house, his parents encouraged strengths and talents, but the kids had to earn their stripes. Aylesworth espouses an almost Jimmy Pattison-esque prairie sense of responsibility instead of entitlement - a core value he tries to impart to his staff from shop floor to senior management.

"I figure if you can welcome someone to your dinner table that's a pretty good measure of whether or not you can work with them," he says.

As for business mentors, Aylesworth doesn't have to look far. His brothers and family instilled him with a strong sense of work ethic and loyalty. Greg Nelson of Sharp's Audio-Visual taught him to seek and nurture the best in his employees. And David Green, Carmanah's visionary founder, showed him that even in the absence of absolute certainty and waterproof data, a decision is better than no decision at all.

"Whenever I need a shot of courage I take David Green for lunch," Aylesworth says with a laugh.

His instincts were right on target when he decided to join Carmanah in 2000, and if he wasn't a solar-power convert then, he is now. Lofty goals are embodied in the company vision statement that hangs on the wall above the receptionist's desk: "To create positive change in the world through innovative sustainable technologies, practical solutions, social responsibility and bold leadership."

And while changing the world, Aylesworth ensures that Carmanah is going to grow in what seems like a boundless market, make a bunch of money and increase the share price.

"This is a fun business to be in. It's global, technically complicated and changing all the time. It's tough but it's hard to replicate and that's good for us," Aylesworth says, before dashing off to a one-on-one with his VP of finance.