Insource Renewables Converts to Worker Ownership
Maine's New Rural Economy on Display as Local Contractor Addresses Maine's Brain Drain
Insource Renewables of Pittsfield converts to worker ownership to build a sustainable future for its company, its workers, and the local community
Pittsfield, ME – In 2009, Vaughan Woodruff returned to his hometown of Pittsfield with his young family and an uncertain future.
“We left Bozeman, Montana amidst the height of the housing crisis and came back home to Maine to give my stepsons a strong foundation of community and family,” said Woodruff. “Whether my company would be able to make it in central Maine was a secondary concern.”
His company was a one-man show specializing in solar energy and energy efficiency contracting. Woodruff has degrees in engineering and education, moved into his grandparents’ old home, and was confident that his family would be able to make ends meet even if his company wasn’t successful.
Over the next decade, Woodruff’s business – Insource Renewables – did more than make ends meet. The company grew to become one of the most recognized solar companies in Maine and began creating technical careers for local workers wanting to stay in central Maine.
One of Insource Renewables’ first employees was Simon Fitts, who grew up in the Pittsfield area and earned degrees from Eastern Maine Community College and Husson University. After moving his young family back to Maine after a stint in the Midwest, Fitts managed a local appliance store. He soon realized the only professional growth available to him at that company was to buy the store.
After reviewing the details of making the purchase, Fitts decided against buying the retail store."I have no regrets about passing on the opportunity,” said Fitts. “If I had purchased the store, I would have missed out on a unique opportunity to help build a company in my hometown.”
Fitts’ unique opportunity came as an employee with Insource Renewables. In late 2016, Woodruff approached Fitts and the rest of the staff about converting the company to a worker cooperative. This new structure would provide employees with an opportunity to become a member owner, participate democratically in major company decisions, and share in the earnings.
“Our workers already demonstrated the passion and responsibility that you’d expect of a small business owner,” said Woodruff. “Converting to a worker cooperative was a natural progression for Insource as it allowed us to all shoulder and share the financial risks and rewards of the work we do together.”
On February 1, 2019, employees bought Insource Renewables from Woodruff. Today, Woodruff, Fitts, and seven other employees are member owners of the company.
“Everyday, I work with a level of comfort knowing that, as a cooperative owner, I'm on a team of owners,” said Fitts. “I feel new pressure that comes with ownership, but that pressure is tempered because I know there are other owners towing the same rope with me."
Insource’s conversion to worker ownership is coming at an opportune time. Demand for solar across the world, and here in Maine, is increasing due to rising energy costs and the decreasing costs of solar. For Insource Renewables, collaboration and democratic governance are critical for managing growth in a manner that is sustainable for both its employees and its bottom line. Their new business structure is designed to give employees a direct say in what their growth will look like and to best capitalize on individual skills and expertise.
One of the company’s new owners, Ben Holt, is utilizing his degree in renewable energy management from Unity College to help Maine modernize its energy portfolio. Holt, who grew up in Skowhegan and wanted to stay in the area following college graduation, has been a key contributor to Insource Renewables’ growth and taken on key responsibilities that he initially thought he might have to leave the state to fulfill.
“After graduation, I was weighing my options to stay in Maine but also preparing to have to move out of state to find a job in renewable energy,” recounted Holt. “I was lucky enough to find a job in the state I’m happy to call home.”
Holt’s contributions to the company have opened up similar opportunities for other local youth. One example is Noah Perry, who is studying engineering at the University of Southern Maine. When he graduates in 2020, Perry will have a job with Insource Renewables. He has also already fulfilled his high school dream of owning his own business by becoming a member owner in the company.
“I've always wanted to pursue a career in renewable energy,” said Perry. “The opportunity to combine my engineering knowledge with my passion for renewables in my home state is awesome.”
Keeping young workers close to home has become a recurring theme of Insource’s growth.
When Dylan Dahlbergh graduated from Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, he went straight to work in a local cedar mill. Seeking a more promising opportunity, Dahlbergh approached Woodruff – his former middle school soccer coach – for a job. “Dylan was shocked that we would teach him how to do what we do,” recalled Woodruff. “It was clear that he saw the limited opportunities in the mill and wanted something more.”
Dahlbergh was offered an entry level position with Insource provided that he further his education. After a year and a half with Insource Renewables, Dahlbergh is enrolled in the electrical trades program at Kennebec Valley Community College and finding success in his studies.
“Working with Insource has given me an advantage,” explained Dahlbergh. “Hands-on experience in solar has really prepared me for my classes.”
Dahlbergh is now an owner of Insource and works part-time while finishing up his degree.
“Being a member owner gives me a very unique opportunity that most people my age are not offered.” said Dahlbergh. “I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of a company that I'm passionate about, while also being able to have a hand in how we grow as a business.”
Insource has also benefited from individuals who have run their own businesses and have joined the Insource team to improve their work-life balance and be part of a team of high-performing trades professionals. Angie Weeks Knapp of Harmony operated A K Electric for 12 years before joining the team at Insource.
“I connected with Insource Renewables through a mutual customer and could see we shared the same vision in small business,” recounts Knapp. When I heard they were working towards a worker cooperative, it seemed like a great fit. I could work with a team, and have a voice in the company’s operation.”
With Insource, Knapp has the benefits of being a small business owner without the demands that might otherwise cut into her time with her family.
Woodruff is excited about finding that same balance. “As my wife and I envisioned a move to Maine, quality of life was the driving consideration. Many small business owners with families struggle to find the balance of attending to their most important job – being a parent,” said Woodruff.
As a worker cooperative in a burgeoning Maine industry, Insource Renewables is demonstrating a new path forward for local economic development through investment in its people.
“Like many Maine parents, I want my kids to have the option to raise their families in central Maine without having to choose between home and opportunity,” said Woodruff. “To do so means retaining and attracting young people and investing in our communities. Each of us with the good fortune to have climbed a few rungs on the ladder need to reach back to pull up those wanting to come behind us. Hopefully the work we’ve done with Insource will provide one model for how to do this.”