When COVID-19 shut down businesses across the nation at the start of 2020, American Sentry Solar (No. 200 on the 2021 Top Solar Contractors list) CEO Joe Tunney had flashbacks of the Great Recession of 2008. He remembered what it was like running a small business during that difficult financial time and wanted to help companies facing similar hurdles and uncertainty in 2020.
In Maryland, solar companies fell under the “essential business” category and were allowed to resume operations after an initial economy-wide shutdown. To help local businesses, American Sentry launched its Small Business Recognition Program that gave every homeowner who went solar between May and December 2020 the chance to donate $1,000 to the small business or local charity of their choice.
American Sentry didn’t just set up a faceless transaction either — it offered homeowners the chance to surprise their business of choice with the donation in person. Homeowners chose to donate to businesses that meant a lot to them, ranging from doggie day cares to local restaurants.
“Each one was very emotional and extremely rewarding, because once the business owner actually realized, ‘Not only is this real, but hey, here’s my customer!’…some of them recognized them just by coming into their sub shop or karate studio,” said Kevin Carmen, CMO of American Sentry Solar. “A lot of times, it would end up in tears.”
One such donation came from homeowners Joni and Brian Newby, who said they chose American Sentry as their installer because of the Small Business Recognition Program. They opted to give the $1,000 check to their favorite comic book shop, Captain Blue Hen Comics in Delaware.
“The owner of Capt. Blue Hen’s is a personal friend who has helped me out in the past and it was great to be able to repay his kindness in some small way,” Brian Newby said in an email. “Plus, it was great to see my friend again during a time period when social interaction was so minimized.”
Joe Murray, owner of the shop, said when he saw Brian and Joni walk in on that August day during a pandemic, he was floored. He hadn’t seen them in over a year.
“Knowing they had thought of us and they wanted to reward us for having brought Brian on when he was between jobs brought a tear to my eye and was worth almost as much to me as the $1,000 check,” Murray said in an email. “Coming off of being completely closed for 2 1/2 months for the lockdown, and after the PPP had run out, that money was much appreciated and gave us a little cushion, which did wonders for our stress level helping to stock some sparse shelves with product.”
While many of the homeowners had existing relationships with the businesses they chose, some did not. Carmen said those donations were sometimes even more powerful.
“I think the best ones were when the business owner didn’t recognize the customer. Obviously, the business had made such an impact on the customer, and now they kind of were bonded for life,” he said.
One-thousand dollars may not seem like a ton of money, but for businesses like restaurants that experienced a hard and immediate blow from the pandemic, that cash covered some essential elements.
“Most of the time, you would literally hear people say, ‘This is going to help make our payroll for the next two weeks,’” Carmen said.
Although sales was not the goal with the program, Carmen said some small business owners did express interest in going solar, either at their place of work or home, after meeting the American Sentry team during the donation presentation. Carmen said he wouldn’t be surprised if their installers worked with some of the people they met during 2020. Captain Blue Hen’s Murray said he’s thinking about adding solar to his home after his experience with American Sentry.
Overall, 194 homeowners went solar in the eight months American Sentry ran the program, making for almost $200,000 of donations to local businesses. Three dozen homeowners opted not to nominate a business, so American Sentry will donate the $32,000 of unclaimed SBRP funds to businesses of its choosing.
“With all the crazy/bad stuff going on in this world right now, it was fantastic to have American Sentry offer us this opportunity to bring a bit of joy to someone who needed it. I hope other businesses take note and create their own community support incentives,” said homeowner Brian Newby.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2021 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.