Réal Bouchard (’15 MBA)

Jenna Marynowski, BAA Communications Committee Volunteer - 19 April 2021

Réal Bouchard (’15 MBA) is the CEO of BayWa r.e. Solar Distribution’s Canadian division. A 15+ year renewable energy industry professional, Réal shares how his Alberta MBA helped him grow his business, and dispels some popular myths about solar energy.

Réal Bouchard (’15 MBA)

BAA: How was student life for you? Were you involved in any student groups? What were your favourite memories? 

Réal: In September 2012, I began courses in the part-time MBA program, which was important because I was also working full time. In November of the same year, my wife and I had our first child. Needless to say, there was not a lot of time for extra-curricular activities, though I did manage to play with the intramural rec hockey team for two years, and the second year we won the division thanks to a few ringers on the team. In general, my favourite memories came from meeting and working with new people in the various classes for group work and assignments. 

BAA: Can you share how your career developed post-MBA to today? 

Réal: The same year I started the MBA program, I joined the board of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta (SESA) as treasurer, which worked well since my undergraduate degree and much of my work experience revolved around accounting. At the end of the first year of my term with SESA I was appointed Chairman of the Board, a position I held for the next three years. My desire to join the board was driven by wanting to give back and help the industry formulate a strategy to reduce “soft costs”, which is industry jargon for things like customer acquisition, permitting fees, and anything that is not labour or hardware. While with SESA, we worked heavily on our vision, mission, and strategic goals; all things where I was able to apply concepts learned from the MBA program in real-life scenarios. Ultimately, we focused on becoming the trusted resource for education and awareness of solar PV in Alberta. 

Fast forward a few years, I completed all MBA requirements in December 2015 and then graduated in May 2016, the same month I took an offer from a startup company as their CFO and eventually bought into National Solar Distributors as an owner. Being an owner was everything I strived for in my career to that point; the autonomy to make decisions, interaction with customers, suppliers, financiers, employees, and the ability to control your own journey. 

In July of 2019, we successfully sold National Solar Distributors to BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Inc. It was at this time I was appointed CEO for the newly formed Canadian division of BayWa r.e. 

The experience of leading a company through an acquisition process was valuable for all the owners to take part in. That entire process teaches you a lot about your knowledge of the business, much of which you may already have known, but forgot over the years. We represented ourselves and did not hire any outside consultants (other than legal), so the workload was quite heavy for a number of months while we all worked multiple jobs. 

BAA: Tell us a bit about BayWa r.e. Solar Distribution, its precursor National Solar Distributors, and your journey to get the business to where it is today? 

Réal: BayWa r.e. Solar is a distributor of solar photovoltaic (PV) parts. We now have warehouses in four provinces to serve the Canadian PV market. BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Inc. was formed in 2019 when it acquired National Solar Distributors Inc.  

National Solar Distributors was formed by my business partners in 2014. The motto of the company was “Canada’s friendly solar distributor”. It was a lot of fun to work with the team at National Solar Distributors to develop the business (that same core team still exists today at BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Inc.). We experimented with a number of different product lines and various brands, all in an effort to bring more value to our customers. Best of all, we created our own culture, one where we were happy to come to work every day. 

In 2018, we invested in a more robust enterprise resource planning (ERP) system which would provide us new capabilities for tracking inventory more effectively, and the longer-term potential for launching a web store for our customers. 

BAA: You've worked in the renewable energy space for the past 6+ years - what drew you to the sector? What has it been like working in the sector, and are there any misconceptions those outside the industry may have that you'd like to disprove? 

Réal: I’ve worked in the renewable energy space for the past 15 years. My career began in September 2006 with a small private company that supplied solar modules, batteries, and charge controllers to remote oil and gas well sites. The oil and gas sector gave us our start in renewable energy, and it remains a very important aspect of our business still today. I was lucky to get on with an upstart company through a close friend of mine. The sector is great, it’s filled with passionate people and, considering it’s relatively young, I feel we’ve grown together with our customers.  

There never seems to be a dull moment in our industry which is why we call it the “solarcoaster”. 

Some misconceptions or questions I hear often about solar PV: 

  • It’s expensive. There is some upfront cost to the purchase and installation of a PV system, but there are financing programs that almost offset your power bill with a loan payment (often in the form of “green loans” with very low interest rates). As individuals, it’s common that we have an investment outlook of 3-5 years, but look around and you’ll see businesses often have far longer investment horizons (10, 20, 50 years) and many of these businesses are already investing in solar technology as a way to continue with generating assets into the future.

  • What’s the useful life? All solar modules come with a 25-year warranty, and inverters are usually 10 year standard with an option to purchase an extended warranty up to 25 years total. Many lenders are then comfortable amortizing the cost of a system over the warranty period, meaning much lower payments than a standard 5 or 10-year term loan. Many systems will continue working beyond the warranty period but 25 years is a safe statement. 

  • It doesn’t work in the cold. Solar works well in the cold, just not when it is covered with loads of snow. NAIT conducted a study a number of years ago which is very relevant to the snow argument, where they show the amount of lost production by not clearing your solar modules of snow. Spoiler alert: on an annual basis, the lost production value was very low, and by quantifying that lost production into dollars for a typical system, your lost production would equate to about $20 per year. Any trained professional installer will explain to a prospective client that their system is designed based on an annual production output target which already takes into account lost production at night and during the winter months. Data availability on daylight hours by various regions is readily available on the Natural Resources Canada website, which makes designing a system’s output very accurate and trustworthy. 

There are plenty of other arguments about renewables, all of which I will not touch on here but if I can leave you with a message, that is to do your own research with the resources available to you and look at other countries to see the paths they have blazed when it comes to the adoption of these technologies. 

Our commitment is to sustainability and we respect the importance all generating technologies play in our electrical system today and into the future. 

BAA: How has your Alberta School of Business education helped you grow your business or as a professional? 

Réal: Quite frankly, our business would have had a very difficult time accessing more capital when we did if it were not for the network I was able to build at the Alberta School of Business, and therefore our story might be vastly different than the one I’m recounting today. At the time I began with National Solar Distributors in June 2016, the company was 1 ½ years old and they were experiencing an upward trajectory in terms of sales and growth; the business challenge at the time was figuring out how to fund that growth and it was one I fully embraced and was excited to explore with my newly minted professional network. Long story short, we were able to access financing through Canadian Western Bank and BDC, a direct result of relationships that were built throughout the MBA program. With the injection of working capital from both of those institutions, we were able to expand our operations from one western Canadian warehouse to an additional warehouse in Ontario and implement a more robust ERP system (as mentioned above). Both these achievements allowed us to play a more relevant role in the industry. 

BAA: Earth Day is coming up later this month on April 22 - does your company have any special ways you honour this occasion? 

Réal: Our parent company, with more than 20,000 employees, is proudly carbon neutral and deeply committed to helping others reduce their carbon footprint as well. There are a few articles we are publishing for Earth Day to look out for though I cannot provide details right now. Besides that, our company is involved regularly in supporting activities ranging from tree planting to donating equipment and resources for underprivileged regions of the world. If you want to see what we’re doing on Earth Day (and every day!) please follow our global channel on LinkedIn.

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