Call it the Tesla triumvirate. It’s no accident that Tesla drivers visiting the future metro Dallas location of green home improvement retailer TreeHouse will be able to rapidly recharge their electric automobiles from a bank of on-site Tesla Superchargers while they shop a solar-powered store graced with a central power core of Tesla Powerwall home batteries and Tesla Powerpack utility-scale energy storage towers.
In fact, this is all by design—a holistic end-to-end redesign and rethink journey about what commercial retail buildings should be and how they should respond to their customers and the environment—a process captained by Jason Ballard, president and co-founder of TreeHouse. And part of that journey includes the coup of successfully navigating his company to a unique relationship with Tesla as the first authorized retailer to sell the Powerwall home battery, a key component in homes that strive to be energy efficient.
For Tesla drivers visiting the new TreeHouse store in Dallas, they will be able to rapidly charge their cars with on-site Tesla Superchargers while they shop. The charging stations will be similar to these located in a San Marcos, Texas, shopping area.
Now, as we put forward in the first segment of this series, The Emerald Aisles of TreeHouse: Part 1, Ballard has clearly found his sea legs as he builds out the emerald aisles of his bricks and mortar startup brand.
Moreover, as we continued our discussion with the man, we were getting ever-stronger vibes that the small but growing company has risen above the usually chaotic startup culture and matured beyond its 5 years, particularly in the area of human resource management. Ballard and his leadership team have fine-tuned the mostly-big-company process of situational interviewing to smartly staff their stores with passionate yet skilled people capable of advancing their mission.
Here in Part 2, Ballard discusses many of the design, energy, water, and health details that went into planning this new net-zero energy store, how the company goes up against big-box retailers by staying laser-focused on helping customers achieve their goals, and how they methodically go about the process of recruiting and vetting new staff as they steer into new geos and markets. Read on.
DH: What do you see as the groundbreaking aspects of this new Dallas store versus your Austin flagship?
JB: I think the most groundbreaking aspect of the building is the way we are bringing together of a lot of things. So many of the issues are related to energy use: The sawtooth roof and the clerestory windows have the effect of reducing heat load and reducing light use, and where we do need artificial lighting it will be all LED.
Then we’re doing a number of water-saving features, everything of course including the toilets and faucets, but also all of the outdoor spaces. We’re installing a large rainwater harvesting system and so you can imagine a big outdoor area like you might see at a Lowe’s or Home Depot, and all of the plants will be maintained with rainwater captured from that giant roof. We’re also doing native landscaping not only to create a sense of place, but to reduce water use once again.
Jason Ballard, president and co-founder of TreeHouse, is navigating his company into the metro Dallas market. While based at the TreeHouse headquarters in Austin, Texas, Ballard spends one day each week overseeing the Dallas project, which is slated to open later in 2017.
So it’s energy, plus water, and the other thing is human health, where light plays a factor―and the building interior will be 100% no-VOC paint or natural plasters. There are some pretty big intentions to break up the space to reduce echoing so there’s a sound control idea, then air quality, and water quality through water filtration.
We are not only following the highest energy principles, but also water and human health and beauty. And so I think very few buildings have brought all those things together in a commercial setting on a scale like this building has done. It really is meant to lift the aspirations and the imaginations of what might be possible for your own home.
This building really is meant to lift the aspirations and the imaginations of what might be possible for your own home.
And, to our knowledge there will be no red-list chemicals in the entire building. There are few residential spaces and few commercial buildings where you can say without blinking there aren’t any known red-list chemicals in the building. We’ve done everything within our power to exclude those kinds of things from the construction process.
DH: In our walk-through, you described how you planned from the ground up to achieve net zero energy. How confident are you in your energy modeling and forecasting?
JB: We’ve actually designed the building to go beyond net zero, and it’s going to overproduce. In fact, the Dallas [electrical utility] will buy back some clean energy, and we’re even exceeding that. So we’re saying we’ll generate for our own building, we’ll generate enough for Dallas to purchase back for their grid, and then we’ll keep going and at some point we’ll literally be donating clean energy to the grid because it’s going to be so far beyond net zero. It’s going to be a massive amount of energy: Even in the darkest, dreariest days of winter, that building should still be 100% powered by solar.
DH: So this facility will be anything but a big-box store. But certainly you are competing with the usual big-box stores on many levels. How do you plan to attract customers, particularly those in metropolitan Dallas not predisposed to sustainability?
JB: In a sense, I think our business will actually succeed better with those kinds of people than the conventional home improvement retailers. One of the things we do that’s very different: We’re very good―I’d say something like 10X better than conventional home improvement retailers―in dealing with actual homeowners.
If you’re a sub-contractor or pro builder―and you do this every day, you know exactly what you’re doing, and you actually need very little help―typical home improvement warehouses work fine for them. Because they know what they need, they know where it is, and they get it and go.
But if you’re a homeowner, you remodel a kitchen maybe once every decade or two. You might put on a new roof once or twice in your life. You might put up a solar system once or twice in your life. So homeowners typically have very little native understanding about what it should cost, what all is involved, and I think conventional retailers are very unprepared to help them navigate that journey and that process.
Not your average big-box home improvement store: The Dallas TreeHouse building, designed by Lake|Flato Architects, features a sawtooth roof profile―which maximizes south-facing roof surface area for the solar panel farm and facilitates the installation of banks of north-facing clerestory windows.
We are set up to do that, and are focused like a laser on the homeowners themselves in helping them achieve their goals with their home. I think, in fact, in an educated, elevated market where you’re actually dealing with the homeowners, TreeHouse will succeed. And part of that is related to our mission: The things that we want to see happen―for homes to radically reduce energy and water and radically increase the human healthfulness for the home―are not the DIY projects.
We are focused like a laser on the homeowners themselves in helping them achieve their goals with their home.
You should not install your own solar system, it’s very difficult to install your own roof, and it’s very difficult to retrofit your own windows, so these are projects that are not actually very well suited to a DIY store, because the project themselves are not very DIY.
And so we have built our business to help drive forward those kinds of projects, and I think we’re quite good at it and it’s very different from the way our competition approaches the business.
DH: Talk to us about the Jason Ballard who shows up in the board room versus the Jason Ballard who walks into work at TreeHouse. Are they one and the same?
JB: I work very hard to be a unified person―and I think that would be a great question to ask my employees and my investors―but I try to be very transparently myself. I dressed almost exactly like you see me now, in blue jeans and boots and a collared shirt not tucked in when I went out and raised the money last year. Because I didn’t want an investor to give a guy in suit money and then come into the store later and see me as I usually am and say, “This is not the guy I invested in.” So if the Jason Ballard that shows to work every day scared them I didn’t want their money.
I also wanted people who were excited about our approach to the way we do business. We have core values around authenticity and honesty and transparency and simplicity and straightforwardness, so I try to carry myself that way and maybe that isn’t for everyone. I think that a lot of the investors in the community found it really refreshing.
I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I hope very much to not have to get into character whether it’s in the board room, whether it’s on the stage, whether it’s with employees, or at home with my own family. I hope to try to cultivate a unified self, so to speak.
DH: What can you tell us about how you have gone about building out your team, and what you look for as you are vetting new applicants?
JB: This is something we have gotten a lot better at as the years went on. The first thing we look for is a passion for and commitment to the mission, so you have to care about what we do. If you don’t think clean air, fresh water, a healthy world, and healthy spaces are important things, then you’re not going to enjoy working at TreeHouse―because what we’re doing is not easy. You must believe in what we’re doing or you’re just not going to survive the journey.
If you don’t think clean air, fresh water, a healthy world, and healthy spaces are important things, then you’re not going to enjoy working at TreeHouse.
The second thing we look for is a cultural fit. There are people who believe in what we’re doing who don’t fit culturally here, and surprisingly there are a lot of very mean people in the sustainable community. They can get very judgmental, harsh, unkind, and too many of them together can create a very toxic culture and toxic environment. We’re actually looking for a passion for the mission around sustainability and health.
On cultural fit, we’re really prodding to understand: How you feel about people who are different than you? How you feel about people who disagree with you? How do you respond to stressful situations? How do you respond to a company that’s changing all the time? So we’re trying to poke and prod not only the individual, but also through their references to find out if they are a good cultural fit.
Then actually the last thing that we look for is a skills or experience fit. I would rather take a very kind person who is incredibly passionate about the mission and teach them everything they need to know about solar, rather than a solar salesman who thinks everybody who drives a gasoline-powered car can go to hell and is unkind to their coworkers.
The TreeHouse flagship store in Austin, Texas, served as the prototype for many of the features incorporated into the new Dallas store design. This solar energy area in the Austin store is designed to facilitate in-depth consultative, service-oriented conversations with homeowners interested in upgrading their dwellings.
But a real home run is when you can combine passion with cultural fit and skills fit. So it’s not that experience doesn’t mean anything, it is just not everything in our business. That’s kind of how we work though people.
Luckily though, it’s not that hard to find people with experience in what we do because the home and home improvement is such ubiquitous industry. It’s not hard to find people who have been interior designers, who have been flooring installers. And so the experience thing is easier to find than you might think, so then we’re zeroing in on mission and cultural fit.
We really do try to operate like a family. I’ve rarely had to fire people for performance issues, it’s usually been about the inability to be happy and kind to other people when push came to shove, which is important to us. Life is hard enough without creating your own drama.
DH: How do your consultants differ from those in a Home Depot or Lowe’s?
JB: The company is people and it’s no better than its people, and we really do believe in taking that to heart. In most conventional home improvement companies the employees you meet may be kind, but in terms of their capacity to be helpful, they usually sort of glorify the way finding. They can tell you what’s over here and what’s over there and maybe a little bit beyond that, but not a ton.
Taking into account what I said about mission and cultural fit, we work very hard to find people who fill out those things and also bring the skill set to the table. So most people in the design side of our business, for instance, have backgrounds in interior design, in cabinet design, in paint so you’re literally talking to an interior designer.
It would probably blow up Home Depot’s business model to hire people of this caliber. We have fewer, higher caliber people that we scale up as revenue scales up.
On the performance side of the business, we’re hiring former solar installers, former window installers, and former building energy auditors. So that when you’re talking to a performance consultant at TreeHouse, you’re talking to somebody who is almost a building scientist and they are quite capable of engaging you in complex issues and speaking honestly and articulately about the best solutions for your home, and we pay them more.
It would probably blow up Home Depot’s business model to hire people of this caliber. But what we’ve done is have fewer employees―it’s not a thousand people walking around. We have fewer, higher caliber people that we scale up very slowly as revenue scales up, and we try very hard not to lean over our skis. And as far as way finding, just make the store intuitive to navigate and then you don’t need employees for that.
Coming in Part 3
In our wrap-up to this series, The Emerald Aisles of TreeHouse: Part 3, we talk with Ballard about how far he plans to extend his company’s service-oriented delivery model, explore how he is embracing virtual reality technology to accelerate the design and modeling of new stores, how the company takes a pragmatic and informed approach to the smart home, and insights on how they are attracting more so-called hero brands to join the TreeHouse product portfolio. Plus, a reveal about where they might be expanding after the Dallas store launches.