Martin Learn’s path to founding the company today called HES Solar was built on a drive and desire to help his fellow man and place power into the hands of Californians.
Dr. Learn was a busy anesthesiologist in San Diego when he launched into his first environmentally-driven research effort. It was the early 80’s when Dr. Learn put his spare time and creativity into advancing the technology of piping sunlight directly into interior rooms of buildings.
“I had a solar research project with the California Energy Commission… I went to Los Alamos where I hired a couple of optical engineers that were really helpful in the design of the light pipes and heliostats [sunlight mirrors], and a mechanical engineer that helped with the design of the tracking system; because if you do concentration of sunlight you have to track the sun and keep it spot on.”
The engineering and execution of the effort had big challenges, and Martin Learn went up against large corporations’ research divisions in a project competition. “I was trying to build a couple of heliostats: Concentrated sunlight into a collimated beam that would be able to travel 100 diameters down the light pipe and only lose 10 percent.” The goal wasn’t to use sunlight to activate photovoltaic cells, it was just the challenge to tunnel the sunlight where it was needed; in effect, bending light. “When you have the light columnated you can manipulate it and provide lighting inside a commercial building anyplace you want it.”
Dr. Learn’s small team was in competition against giants, with Learn still maintaining a full time and often on-call career as a physician. It wasn’t surprising that he didn’t win, but it was a shock how close he came, “Well, there were 36 entrants into this competition, and I came in second. And there was another individual who was down in the rankings, but the one that beat me was SDG&E, and there were quite a few large companies and universities in the mix.
“I was very pleased to have come in second in the competition and really wanted to make that work. But there were some technical problems and some financial problems …. …we didn’t have enough money to build out the project.”
MARTIN’S FIRST RETIREMENT
About a decade later, Dr. Learn was ready to retire from medicine. When most educated, highly-trained specialists might step into more leisurely endeavours such as putting a dimpled ball into a hole in a really pretty lawn, Martin Learn went back to school. “When I retired, I went into an MBA program at San Diego State. I really enjoyed that… I mean, I like school. My last name is Learn, right?” His goal was to gain business knowledge. After he graduated it made great sense to take advantage of his medical expertise in his pursuit of starting a company.
“I actually went to China twice to try to do some trading of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals between China and here, but… I could see that I was just a footnote on their business plan, and I was not happy with that and I left them. They left me [as well].”
FIGHT THE POWER
Then Martin Learn saw something at the turn of the millennium that spurred him in a new direction. “Back at the time when there was this energy problem – I called it a contrivance – and it was largely manufactured by Gray Davis and the utility companies. And it was really a scam upon the people of California who ended up owing 12 billion dollars to pay off what was borrowed on that energy contrivance… And I felt like I was seemingly about the one person who was aware that that was happening. And I could’ve reacted, but I did not because I had my plate full. And also it would [have been] millions of dollars of lawyers [costs].”
Martin knew what it was like to be in a battle against deep pockets, and realized there was a better and more direct way to give Californians control of where their energy came from and how much it would cost. “It was my way of fighting back.”
Phil Salas, an employee at what is now HES Solar for more than a decade and who recently led the creation of the Service Department, had heard the story directly from Martin. “He started the company in 2001 and that was right after 2000 where they were having blackouts in San Diego… And the whole time it was all false. They had enough energy, they just were trying to create an emergency to justify being able to raise prices… it was all artificially done and he just saw that and it just angered him that this was going on and [he] wanted to do something about it. And I know that was one of his great motivators to, not only to do something that helped with the environment, but something that could fight against big corporate greed. And he saw that as a mission.”
2001: A MARKETSPACE ODYSSEY
Martin Learn officially launched Home Energy Systems on April 16, 2001. The company was real, and so were the struggles for any business just to stay in business. At the time, home solar was not widely accepted, the residential equipment had not been developed to the level we benefit from today. Just the concept of becoming an energy producer was alien to most homeowners.
“There were no official schools for solar at that time. I had to educate myself, and that’s [including] designing my own curriculum. I had to do it, and it worked. There wasn’t any place else I could get it at first… That is one of the things that these years have given me perspective on. There were a lot of people that didn’t believe that solar would work when they were believers in what SDG&E was telling them. And it was my job to prove them wrong, and that the systems work and last a long time and save people money. And they did.”
As he went about his mission in his own way, he met a lot of customers who became friends. As Bob Maycomber recalled, “He was a leader in the earliest days of residential solar energy. Many other companies have followed his lead, helping combat climate change. Martin is a good friend and a leader of men.”
Phil Salas started working at the company in 2010 when installing solar panels suddenly made sense for another reason, “In 2010 they [or customers] could see that it might be a 7 to 10 year payback, but it was still a payback. Which is a long time to wait compared to now. Also what was very interesting was … in August of 2008 or so [with] the market crashing, some of our very, very smart customers realized that their money was safer in solar, and [was getting] a better return in solar, than it was in the market at the time. …And year after year things got better. The equipment got better, the panels got better, the price got better.”
Still, explained Martin, “It was a difficult road. I calculated at one point that I was paying 60 dollars an hour to be employed by myself.” [Laughs] “And that was taxable.” [Laughs]. “So no, that didn’t work out too well. But after a while, I kept trying to hire managers and the one that worked out best was Ross Williams. He’s smart, he had construction experience, he’s honest. I liked him. Still do.”
“Meeting Martin for the first time was awe inspiring.” recalled Ross Williams, who today is the CEO and owner of HES Solar, “Our first ‘interview’ was more like a get-to-know-you session where Martin told me tales of his past and why he started the company. I was immediately intrigued and inspired. I had never met someone like Martin. I mean, here was a guy who retired from being an anesthesiologist, went back to school, got his MBA, and launched a company in response to a crisis. I’ll never forget that ‘interview.’ I did almost zero talking, but somehow landed the job.”
It didn’t take long before Ross was an integral part of the company. Working with Martin Learn made a big impact on the future company owner “What really struck me initially about Martin was his passion. He just oozed it. I felt like you couldn’t have a conversation without talking about solar. Wherever he went, whomever he would talk to, it came up somehow. He’d bring it up. He’s the quintessential passionate person… He just can’t not talk about it. It’s pretty cool. I’m actually pretty similar now. I often warn people when they ask me what I do, ‘This is going to be two hours of your life!’”
Martin further told, “SunPower, who was coaching us, said, ‘You guys need to have a commercial division and a residential division.’ At that time, I took the residential division, knowing I wasn’t going to make as much money as if I had taken the commercial division, but I did enjoy sitting at the kitchen table talking to people. I call myself an educator, rather than a salesperson, and most people agree with that.”
Martin built a special rapport with people and was always applying his knowledge to solving problems. “We have known Martin Learn for nearly 20 years.” recounted Bob Macomber. “He has always been inquisitive and would consider the best practical solution to a problem. He designed a portable power station for use in emergency power outages and displayed his design at Earth Day celebrations many years ago.”
Ross saw the same daily, “Martin is a phenomenal visionary. He always sees five or six steps ahead of most. He’s a great idea person, and he can just see the bigger picture in a really good way and inspire people to see it like he does.”
IT’S NOT ALL SUNSHINE AND RAINBOWS
The company succeeded, but that didn’t mean it, or the solar industry, was without challenges or adversaries. Martin fought battles important to San Diego residents but that had repercussions of a much larger scope.
Ross Williams was with Martin on many of the political and regulatory battles that Dr. Learn fought. “Martin’s extremely intelligent. In a political setting he’s like an encyclopedia, so he can tell you step-by-step why we’re at where we’re at right now in California in this energy state. He can tell you about all the regulations, all the bills that have passed, all the winnings, all the losings, all the SNAFUs, the Enron thing. He talks a lot about how Californians are still paying for that; we, Californians, are paying for that. So he has so much detail and he knows so much in depth about how everything came to be that he’s almost impossible to argue against because he’ll just blow you away with facts. He just knows it all… So it’s interesting to see him up against someone who thinks they know what they’re talking about. He’s just like, ‘Well what about this thing that happened over there?’ ‘And. ‘This impacted X, Y, and Z,’ and, ‘Two years later it did pass but it didn’t have this thing in it,’ all these things, it’s pretty impressive.”
Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar & Storage Association, an organization dedicated to a cleaner energy future, worked alongside Martin over many policy battles. “Martin has always been one of my favorite allies in the solar movement. Every time I onboard a new colleague, I say, ‘You have to talk with Martin down in San Diego.’ Martin embodies integrity and sincerity in everything he does. From his extensive experience, he always has ideas for how to make our work better. But Martin’s value goes well beyond good ideas. (There’s no shortage of people with big ideas in this industry!) Martin is unique in his willingness to do the grunt work, like picking up the phone to schedule a district meeting with a legislator. He’s never too good or too busy to do the work that it takes to build a movement. He understands that big societal changes don’t happen because someone had a good idea. What makes a garden grow is the weeding, watering, and feeding of the seed, not the seed by itself. The everyday pick-n-shovel work is what produces change. And if today’s fights are any indication, we’ll be picking and shoveling for a while. The world needs a million Martin Learns.”
SOLAR TREK, THE NEXT GENERATION
The company fought, grew, and flourished. It had started with a mission and was built on ethics and principles. Then in 2015, fourteen years into his second career as business owner, Dr. Martin Learn, who still today keeps current with his physician’s license, was content that he had found the right person to hand the company reins to completely. He sold the business to Ross Williams and remained on as a company officer, but no longer an owner.
“I felt that he [Ross Williams] had actually gotten better than I at managing the company. And he has continued to learn. He pulled me away from strictly academic activities… My intent was to get the technology, get on a firm footing and do what I could do to help the industry to get their feet on the ground, and they did, thanks to the state of California.”
“Martin’s mission still lives with us today,” said Ross Williams, the company’s current CEO. “We exist to fundamentally change the way the world is powered.”
Phil Salas saw the same from inside the company, “When he sold the business to Ross… I don’t think he did it out of trying to make a profit or anything, I think that he was genuinely wanting to see Home Energy Systems succeed and saw that Ross would be a great person to make that happen. And I think that’s why he made that decision to do that; he could feel confident that the work would continue without him. Which is also very selfless, so I have a lot of respect for Martin and I consider him a very good friend.”
HES, HIS SOLAR COMPANY
Home Energy Systems changed its company name to HES Solar, and the company has, as of 2021, reached the milestone of 20 years in business as a solar installer, having installed 20 million watts of solar panel power.
In 2020, Martin Learn’s start-up earned the SunPower National Commercial Dealer of the Year award, the manufacturing giant’s highest honor. That same year, the residential division was invited, and accepted, the company’s highest partnership level. In early 2021, just months shy of HES Solar’s 20th Anniversary, Dr. Learn retired, again, with his hopes still high for the future of solar and the satisfaction of starting a thriving business.
From his vantage today, how does Martin Learn feel about the thing he started? “I’m grateful that it has survived and is doing well. And it’s doing better than well: really well. And it feels like I’ve accomplished another thing in my life, and this is one that I really wanted to accomplish because I’m feeling like somebody had to do it and I just stepped forward. It got to a point that I realized I could do it, and I’m very happy about it. I’m also happy that I’ve had the business, became profitable, and got to hire a lot of employees.” At the time of this story, HES Solar employs over 50 full-time employees and is hiring and expanding.
“Doctor or Solar Company Owner?” Martin was asked which has given him more satisfaction. After a quick burst of laughter he answered, “Good question. Well, I’m hands on and one-on-one in anesthesia, and I’m doing a house at a time with a family in solar and it’s just amazing… So both did, but they were different sets of composition [of knowledge]. I had more fun, I probably got more satisfaction from solar, a job well done and finished…” as far as building the company from scratch when an industry around it was still in its infancy? “Well, it was work, but it was easier work, and if you make a mistake nobody dies.”
“I still talk to him often.” Ross Williams said, “Even though he’s fully retired now – and I actually commend him for doing that. I didn’t think he was going to be able to, I honestly didn’t. So I commend him for actually retiring and wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to come back. Our relationship is great. It never really changed.”
Phil Salas caps the real-life fairy tale of Martin Learn’s journey perfectly, “When I see movies or TV shows portraying doctors and they speak about their oaths, I wonder how real that is. I believe in Martin’s case not only did he take that oath seriously, but carried it over to other aspects of his life. And I think that you have that type of oath where he felt like he needed to take care of his fellow man and, you know, that’s why I think he had a passion for solar because it’s doing that in a different way.”