In June 2021, Nor-Cal Controls announced the promotion of Rob Lopez from Director of Business Development to CEO. Rob has grown—and grown with—Nor-Cal almost from the beginning. We sat down with Rob to ask him about his journey and where he sees Nor-Cal and the larger power generation industry heading.
1. Tell us how you started at Nor-Cal and what your journey has been like to CEO?
My parents, Bob and Carolyn Lopez, formed the company back in 2006. For the first few years it was just the two of them, with Bob doing engineering jobs in the field and Carolyn doing the financials. I was working on my bachelor's degree in business administration with a concentration in Management Information Systems (MIS), and they asked if I could help write a business plan, get a website up and running, and help Carolyn get set up with accounting software so she could create estimates and invoices for jobs.
At that time I was working for a financial aid firm, starting as a web developer/programmer, project manager, and then eventually moving to webmaster for the company. It was a large corporation that moved a bit too slowly for me.
Towards the end of 2009, my dad started getting very busy with new work requests. He began trying to convince my brother, Ian, and I to join Nor-Cal because he trusted us and wanted to work with us. Growing up, I hadn't been especially interested in power generation, but as he told me more about it my interest grew. I also saw it as a great opportunity to become an entrepreneur—which was always an aspiration I had—in an exciting new industry. I decided to take the leap and joined Nor-Cal as employee number three.
Back then, we were only doing traditional power generation projects for fossil fuel power plants. These required us to be at the actual project site. So, the day after my honeymoon in 2010, I went straight to Venezuela to support my first project with the company. We were there for about three months, working up to 16-hour days nonstop. The project involved taking two barge floating power plants from the U.S. and docking them in the country's capital of Caracas, which was experiencing rolling blackouts at the time. I went straight into the field—shadowing, learning, studying, and helping out wherever I could.
I spent almost three years in the field supporting engineering, up until we started doing solar. We began getting more projects and customers, and there was an increased need to help with project management and proposal requests. I began supporting those roles, but soon got so busy that I created job descriptions of what I was doing and we hired from there.
Those first years with the company were extremely valuable. Having an engineering background has helped me excel in all of my roles. But my passion has always been more about business development and creating relationships. I naturally fell into that role and built our business development department, which today handles all proposals, sales and marketing.
With my interest in business development, vision and strategy, and Ian's strength in operations and project execution, we're a good fit for the roles we have today.
2. What are your favorite things about working at Nor-Cal?
I love that it always feels like we're still in startup mode. We're growing rapidly and continually improving our processes, so there's always something to do and no chance to get bored. It keeps things interesting. It's also a fast paced environment, both in the company and in the industry, which I really enjoy.
I also love the culture we've created. We have a great team of people who all share the same core values. Our intense hiring process is focused not only on skills and experience—which are of course important—but on character and cultural fit. We want people who actually care about the quality of their work, who have a strong work ethic and integrity, and who want to take care of our customers.
3. To what do you attribute your success the most?
My drive and passion for what we do keeps that fire lit for me. You have to put in the time and tenacity in order to succeed, and be willing to take calculated risks.
It's also important as a company that we stay nimble, flexible and adaptable, even as we grow. This has proved even more crucial over the past year with the changing market conditions, remote work requirements, and supply chain issues due to COVID-19. We've had to adapt to the circumstances like everybody else, and I feel we've done it well. We've also been able to scale successfully because of our constant focus on process improvements.
4. What's something that you've failed at, but it taught you an important lesson?
I don't really see things as failures, but as lessons learned for improvement. We've learned many lessons as we've grown the company, and we've always adapted and improved as a result. This gives us fuel to keep moving forward.
For example, there was a time early on when we were so busy that we were hiring based mostly just on skillset and relevant experience and less on cultural fit and a character assessment. What we found is that when people aren't a long-term cultural fit for the company, they typically don't last.
Now we have a rigorous recruiting and hiring process to make sure that a candidate is the right fit for the role and for the company culture. We'd rather bring someone in who is a good cultural fit and who meets our core values, and then provide the necessary training to get them up to speed. If we'd had this mindset earlier, I think there would have been less turnover early on in growing the company.
5. How do you approach making decisions for the company?
We have a great leadership team and many processes in place to help aid in decision-making. But there are sometimes situations when I have to make decisions quickly, such as project escalations that need my support. My approach is typically to seek to understand first before jumping in. I gather all the necessary information, put our customers at ease, and then get with my team. I consult with them to get the full context and background, and then we come together to make the best decision possible.
It's important to understand the urgency and move quickly, but patience is important, too—having all the information and not making assumptions. I trust my team and they're integral to making decisions.
6. If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
This may be a cliche, but probably Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. I love how they both started from nothing and built empires. They're also focused on adding value and trying to make the world a better place. I believe that when you do that and set the right intentions, business success comes as a result. I also admire their passion, innovation, and work ethic.
7. Where do you see Nor-Cal in five years?
We will continue to make our customers our main focus—supporting them in the best way possible and treating each project like it's the only one we have. Showing our customers how important they are to us is first and foremost.
While we will keep focused on the core solutions and services we deliver today, I see us doing more control system retrofits and maintenance on existing systems in the field, doing more energy storage projects, exploring microgrid opportunities, and finding better ways to support grid reliability.
International expansion is also on the near horizon. We already have some opportunities in other countries, and strong interest from additional customers.
Put Nor-Cal's experience, passion and dedication to work for you.