Bradford H. Dockser – Co-Founder & CEO, Green Generation Solutions

Bradford H. Dockser is the co-founder and CEO of Green Generation Solutions, LLC, which engineers and implements comprehensive integrated energy efficiency solutions that lower operating costs while improving sustainability on behalf of a diverse set of clients worldwide. GreenGen helps its clients use energy as a driver of value across all asset types in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

During his more than two decades of real estate investing, Brad was a principal with national real estate investment firm, MacFarlane Partners, overseeing activities of their mid-Atlantic business; partner and chief operating officer for Western Development Corporation, a leading retail and mixed-use property development firm in the DC area; and managing director for Starwood Capital Group’s international operations, overseeing direct investments, operating joint ventures, and financing activities in France, Germany, and other European nations. Earlier, he was responsible for the firm’s Asian operations, which included making property investments in Japan and Hong Kong, as well as leading the recapitalization of Sansiri Property Corporation, a publicly-listed property company in Thailand, for which he also served on both the executive committee and board of directors.

Brad began his real estate career with JMB Realty, then the largest real estate firm in the United States, and later with CRI, Inc., which was the nation’s largest owner of multifamily residential properties at the time. While at CRI, he oversaw the creation and financing of Capital Apartment Properties REIT (CAPREIT), a privately-held real estate investment trust based in Washington, DC, that focused on market-rate apartments in the eastern U.S.

Brad received an A.B. cum laude in economics, as well as a Master of Business Administration, both from Harvard University. He serves as the co-chair of the Urban Land Institute Washington Sustainability Initiative and vice chair of the ULI Redevelopment and Reuse Product Council. He is also a member of the US Green Building Council, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), and the Asia Green Building Council Steering Committee. Brad is a mentor for the Cleantech Open, the world’s largest clean-tech accelerator. He is a former director of the Harvard Club of DC and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington and a past member of the Harvard University Asia Center Advisory Committee. He was also founding director of the Greater Washington Exploratory Committee, DC’s bid committee for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Tell me about your early career.
I spent the first 25 years of my life in real estate private equity. I came out of college and started at a firm called JMB Realty in Chicago, which was the largest real estate firm in the United States at the time. My focus, and what I loved, having grown up in real estate, was the transactional nature of it – identifying investment opportunities, seeing where value is created, and then having the opportunity to acquire property. My earlier career, where I spent pretty much a decade, was deploying capital and creating value.

How did the concept for Green Generation Solutions come about?
The real estate and private equity businesses were historically very simple. They were finance-driven, revenue-driven, and most of the focus was on growing rents, driving occupancy, and growing the top-line. There was very little focus on operations or asset management. In 2008, as the recession took hold, all of a sudden, people’s top-lines collapsed, and bottom lines deteriorated. It turned out that there were some expenses that we were really good at lowering – insurance, real estate taxes, contracts. Yet, the energy line, which was historically one of the largest expense lines we had, was something that we didn’t really touch or think about. For two reasons, 1) we were led to believe that it was non-controllable. In that regard, we didn’t really think that there was much we could do to impact it; and 2) in order to really think about it correctly, you need to have a little bit of an engineering background or technical background. Most real estate people and private equity people didn’t really have an engineering background. So, we set out to see how we could really impact the energy line, because technology had become much more powerful from an ROI perspective, and we could impact our bottom line.

Our goal at the time was very simple: simply to hire someone who could help us with technology. We found hundreds of people to talk to that were touching us in different ways, but they were either consultants who wanted to get paid to tell us what they saw, but not actually implement or execute. Or they were trying to sell us a product – buy my window, buy my motor, buy my thing and you’ll save money. And our conclusion was, what real estate and private equity really needed and wanted, was something that you didn’t see in the market. There were two aspects to this. The first is that they wanted more of a solutions-based approach rather than a product-driven approach. One that was ROI-driven and technology-focused on building envelope, mechanical systems design. But then also things like sequence of operations and policies and procedures. The second aspect is that they wanted that solutions-based approach to integrate implementation with execution. You had to link the two.

The most fascinating thing is that, at the end of this process, as I was talking to my friends at different real estate shops and private equity firms, and I asked them, “Who’s your incumbent energy solutions provider?” Every single one of them looked at me and said, “What are you talking about?” There was nobody focused on helping these firms with energy in this manner…really helping to think about energy as a financial transaction. So, we saw this big gap in the market, and we started the firm in May 2011.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was interesting. We had to do a lot of work to not only train the people in what we were doing but also what the opportunity was. Many of them were already tainted by an initial push to already be more sustainable, but without a return driven or ROI-focus on what sustainability would actually be doing. They were leery of spending more money to be sustainable without any ROI proposition. The beginning was really helping people to understand the business case. We focused less on the fact that this was really good for the environment, but instead that this would be something that would drive their cash flow and asset value.

What was your marketing strategy?
The marketing strategy was actually quite simple and remains the primary one today. We have no marketing or business development people. It’s simply myself and my wife, who I met at JMB Realty out of college. She went to Michigan and I went to Harvard College and then Harvard Business School. We mostly focus, given our background, on real estate, finance, private equity funds, and REITS. As a managing director, combined with my decade at Starwood Capital, has actually given us tremendous reach to every major private equity firm, real estate investment fund, and REIT. So, we don’t have a marketing strategy in a traditional sense, and we don’t advertise. We don’t do cold calls, and we don’t do shows. We just work with the people we know, and help them understand that there’s a category of spending that they haven’t focused on. We talk to them about when they buy a building or company, and ask how much time they focus on market share, business plan, revenues, etc. 80-90% focus on the revenue, and very little time is spent on the expense side. Despite the fact that, with some companies we work with, their energy spend exceeds $50 million a year. So, just a 10% decrease is $5 million in EBITDA, and now you’re talking about putting a multiple of that. We like to talk about $50 or $60 million more in equity that’s being created. So, it’s a very personal approach where we really just speak with people who we know, and we know really well.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
During the first five years, we saw top-line revenue growth that exceeded 170% per annum. So, the growth was really substantial. We had no doubt that would not be a sustainable growth rate, but we remain focused on profitability and triple-digit revenue growth.

How do you define success?
What we love about our business is that we have a double bottom line where we are helping the environment and our clients. We’re helping people drive the value of their businesses, so they get a financial and economic value return. By reducing consumption of their energy, we’re also giving them an improvement in sustainability metrics, which is good for the community, the region, and society. We love this double bottom line kind of approach. I think success for us, first and foremost, is how do we help companies use financial metrics to do things that drive really important societal environmental outcomes. We loved that we changed the conversation from being more sustainable to how we can drive the value of our business to where we should be doing anyway and give you sustainability at no additional cost. If we don’t link sustainability to financial outcome, it won’t happen. So, it’s getting firms that are very financially-oriented to think about what we’re doing and getting them to recognize that there’s a whole lot of return for it.

What is the key to achieving that success?
I think the key for us is that we help people understand that this is about driving a financial return. It’s not about planting trees, or taking cars off the road. It’s really about doing something that while it’s good for society, it’s also good for them. We’re lowering their operating costs, and we’re increasing their valuation. One of the premises we had in the beginning was that sustainability didn’t have great momentum because the cost wasn’t linked to ROI. We simply changed the conversation in that regard. We understand energy very well, and we understand real estate and capital markets – cap tables, balance sheets – this energy conversation, and we understand the capital markets piece to that. It turns into a financial discussion, instead of a sustainability conversation, which made it really easy for them to understand. We use their vocabulary – EBITDA, cash flow, enterprise value, promote – to incentivize them to make a decision that’s in their own interests and also the interests of a broader community.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To understand other people’s perspectives. To understand the different stakeholders and their viewpoints. Our success has greatly been because we have experience in the shoes of our clients. We are by no means the first energy firm to come about. We often run into people who don’t mean to be rude but say, “How are you different from all the people that have been calling me about this? I got calls from somebody who does what you do every single day”, or “We already work with someone.” It has been client-centric and solutions-centric, rather than product-centric. It’s about creating products around the people you work with, and how do we put ourselves in their shoes to do things that are important to them.

What are some quotes that you live by?
What I tell everybody in our team, and everybody that we work for, is that, “It’s direction first. Velocity second.” We’re not in a rush. We start by figuring out what they want and find a way to implement just one project. The first one always takes time for people to understand what we’re doing, and get comfortable with it. It’s critical that we get the compass in the right direction, because if we go rushing in the wrong direction, then we’re just going to end up in the wrong place quicker. So, it’s this concept of spending a lot of time figuring out what we want to get to, and then slowly building velocity towards it.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read a lot. For the next four years, I’m trying to read, in sequential order, presidential biographies, obviously starting with [George] Washington. I’m actually just finished John Meachum’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I think it’s really important to understand different types, models, and visions of leadership. Every president was a leader in some form, but even people who are perceived as bad, somehow set the foundation for the next president to be successful. I’m very intrigued by this executive leadership, presidential idea of leadership. Otherwise, I read a lot of contemporary literature. Karen Russell has written some interesting books. Gary Shteyngart, Carl Hiassen, and a whole bunch of non-U.S. writers as well.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
As an entrepreneur, I take everything personally. When you hear the word “no,” you take it personally, especially if it’s from someone you know. It’s hard to understand, but it’s a business decision. Nobody is saying they don’t like you, but it’s really about the business opportunity. The biggest frustration that we’ve had, and it’s recurring, is that in any given day, whatever we do is important, but it’s never the single most important thing for our clients. I would say that every day, there’s a decision that we want to make that somebody else defers, or something comes up, and that’s really frustrating. That’s really difficult to not take personally and to keep the direction.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
It’s very simple: I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in our ability to drive the value of businesses and assets, and I believe that we’re also doing something that’s vital to our communities, our country, and our world. If we don’t do these things, in tandem, we’re not going to get the level of buy-in and action that we need.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t do it. I think the biggest challenge entrepreneurs face is that we’re always thinking about what’s going to happen, and I think ultimately what we’re all frustrated is that we don’t fully anticipate that everything will take longer than it is supposed to, and you’ve really got to believe in what you’re doing. You’ve got to have the balance sheet to carry it forward, because everything will take longer than expected. If you look at a thousand business plans, you won’t find a single business plan that’s achieved goals as projected, or even faster. Everything takes longer, and you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.