Abe Issa Overcomes to Soar Again • By Paul K. Harral, Photos by Glen E. Ellman • Fort Worth Business
His are of men with machine guns patrolling the streets as he went to school and the sounds of war. “I remember one time in the middle of the night, there was this huge loud explosion. I think it was like a rocket or something that went off. You could feel the building shake. It was pretty scary. From what I remember, I was sweating pretty bad, and there wasn’t really anything the family could do about it.” Stories about Issa, the entrepreneurial phenomenon whose companies have ranked on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America, always mention that his family moved to the United States from “war-torn Lebanon,” as though people automatically understand what that means. Let us refresh your memories. From 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese civil war resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities – that in a country of about 6.2 million people – and has been followed by years of social and political instability. Muslims make up 54 percent of the population, split evenly between Sunni and Shia, and Christians are 40.5 percent, primarily various kinds of Catholics and just over 6 percent from other Christian faiths. Issa and his family are Lebanese Christians and lived in a Christian section of Beirut.
“I remember one time my dad said there was, like, a mortar shell that landed not too far from where we were and he ended up getting, like, shrapnel in his arms. He still has it today stuck in his arm,” Issa said. George Issa decided to get out. His first marriage had been to an American woman, Alice, who lived in Fort Worth. The elder Issa called her. “He was, like, ‘Hey, I need plane tickets. I need to get my kid out of here. Can we come stay with you?’ She said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely. Come stay with us.’ Mom didn’t like that too much at all,” Abe Issa recalled. Issa was 5 years old when the family came to the United States. He doesn’t focus on the war, nor does he have nightmares or flashbacks from it. He’s been back to Lebanon twice and doesn’t have much interest in going back. His work and life are here now, and he’s bent on making the most of it. His mother, Margo, now lives in Beirut and his father spends half the year there and half the year in the United States.
Issa speaks highly of his parents, but he says there were few similarities between them and what he admits was a “driven, ambitious child.” Issa and companies he was or is associated with have been on the Inc. list three times. Mr. Issa grew up in Fort Worth, attending Mary Louise Phillips Elementary School, William Monnig Middle School and Arlington Heights High School. He paid his way through Texas Christian University, graduating with a finance degree with a real estate emphasis.
He learned early that he had a passion and a talent for sales. Selling chocolate as a fundraiser in middle school, he didn’t sell just to his parents. “As soon as I was done with school every day, I would go knock on doors in neighborhoods and sell out every single night. I would do it until it got dark. I wouldn’t get home until 8:30 or 9 o’clock. Every night. I’m 12 years old at this point,” he said. In sixth grade, he won, he recalls, $250 for his efforts. “I think it fed me. No one had ever given me any money before. Maybe my dad would give me a dollar. Having that money, it was like a pretty cool feeling. Hey, I want to go do more of this,” Issa says. People in Fort Worth don’t quite know what to make of him and his success. Some worry that perhaps he, like Icarus, may be flying too close to the sun. But if there is pressure on him to do that, it is self-imposed. The pressure to succeed didn’t come from his family, and he’s not completely sure where it did originate.
“What’s strange to me is as a child it was there. It was almost an innate feeling where I was automatically driven and ambitious. There was competitiveness about me where I wanted to do the best at whatever it was that I was doing,” he said. “In elementary school, whatever subject, I wanted to win an Ann Brannon award. I wanted to get a first place ribbon, a second place ribbon, whatever it was, and that continued on.” And he liked the money.
CARS, CREDIT AND COLLEGE
It was a matter of priority for him in high school -- play sports or get a job so he could buy a car. The car won, and he had to earn the money to make the payments. He worked at UPS, but even then he was conscious of financial issues. “I got a couple of credit cards so I could build some credit in high school and be able to do things,” he says. And he paid his way through TCU, earning enough to pay off the loans he acquired while in college when he began selling real estate. “I made a tremendous amount of money my senior year in college,” he said. “I sold 72 houses, taking 15 and 18 hours a semester.” With that kind of success, it seemed natural to continue in real estate, and he started his own company two years after he graduated. By 2010, he was on his second successful real estate venture when the market crashed. “I went from being worth almost $5 million to almost nothing,” says Issa. “I was over-leveraged at that time; we couldn’t get property sold and it hit hard. You go from first starting off with no money, to a bunch of money, real estate assets, to going broke. And then you burn some bridges along the way because that happens when companies go under if they’re not handled the right way.” A lot of it was inexperience on his part, he admits, and he had nothing to fall back on. “It was pretty scary. I got down to almost no money, no cash,” he says. So he sold his house and moved into an apartment. But he had noticed toward the end of his real estate career that people were interested in retrofitting their homes with energy-efficient windows, green insulation and things like that. “It caught my attention,” he said.
BIRTH OF A BUSINESS
And thus a new business venture was born. The central idea of this renewable energy business was to cut utility bills with building materials and technology, including solar-produced energy, and by monitoring individual appliances in the home to determine their power draw.
This concept was successful because homeowners can pay for the work with the money they save on energy bills, and additionally, homeowners installing a solar energy system can receive a federal tax credit of up to 30 percent of the cost of such systems.
While he still owned a home, he’d call what are now competitors for estimates and bids. “I wanted to see the sales process and how it worked and their offering,” he said. “We could do so much better. … So when I started began, I devised the sales system and modeled it, had the value proposition the exact way that I thought it needed to be done at that time for best results, and that was it.”
It was a cheap startup. He didn’t pay upfront for material. “You’ve got 30 days, so that helped me big time,” Issa said. “I was generating my own leads; there was no cost there. All I had to do was get out there and sell the project.” The bank would advance money on done deals. “And that was it. I sold the first one, two, three deals, and I was rolling from there.”
That was in late 2011, and Issa says he made a profit within 45 days. From there the company has grown significantly to include offices throughout all of Texas and Oklahoma.
Issa says the difference between his company and his competition is that “we truly go in there and try to educate the homeowners about the benefits of conserving energy, energy efficiency, solar, and renewables. We’re trying to teach them a lifestyle, a way of life.” Some of the changes are simple: LEDs, and more efficient windows and doors, for example. Spraying foam insulation in an attic makes a radical difference. “We’ll do the solar. They can start producing their own power,” he said.
“It’s tough to make money in the business. You’ve got to do a lot of volume, a lot of projects, because it’s very capital intensive. You’ve got all the trucks and the foam rigs … lead development cost is expensive, customer acquisition is not cheap,” he said. It’s important to close the sale, and that’s why he focuses heavily on training the sales force. “We’ve got some fantastic training here,” Issa said. “They’ve got to go through modules, and video training, and testing, role playing – your round-robin style of training. They’ve got to train with their own sales captains, with other members of the team – veterans – before they’re even sent out to the field.”
Checking on Issa through Tarrant County civil litigation files turns up very little, but he did file a lawsuit over unauthorized use of his sales materials and techniques. He feels so strongly about sales training that he pledged $500,000 to construct the Abe Issa Field Sales Lab at TCU’s Neeley School of Business, part of a $100 million building expansion project.
“Abe is clearly a talented and very focused entrepreneur,” said O. Homer Erekson, dean of the Neeley School. “Abe’s gift for a Field Studies Lab is not only important for the Neeley building project, but also as a key learning space for the Sales and Consumer Insights Center.”
“I’ve been a big believer and a pusher that these schools have got to have some kind of a sales center. That’s a skill, a degree, that’s missing,” Issa said. Graduates going into the workforce often cannot find jobs other than in sales, and there’s little training, he said.
Kenny Sturm, who worked at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen before joining one of Issa's company, praises the training program. He worked with top-level executives during the training. “A lot of times in business it’s not what you know, it is who you know,” Sturm said. “Abe Issa surrounds his employees with some of the best in the business.” The environment is family-like, he said, and success is measured by performance of the team as a whole, not by the success of a single person.
Issa says he believes student athletes, for example, are so involved in practice and classes that they may not have a chance to gain real world experience. He’d like to see strategic alliances created where athletes could shadow business people in the off-season, similar to internships, so that they can see how business works and gain sales experience first hand. “They would learn sales with the sales team, accounting skills with the accounting team, marketing with the marketing team and management with the management team,” he said, “so they’ll have a better opportunity in the future.”
THE NEXT BIG THING
Issa takes pride in his company being a turnkey operation. One deal covers all aspects of energy efficiency – primarily residential now but with expansion into commercial planned and underway. So what’s the logical next step? If you are Abe Issa, it is to bring your success to other industries. To date, Issa has expanded to the software industry, medical testing industry and the security industry. All of this while continuing to grow as a powerhouse within the renewable energy sector.
Asked about advice for other young entrepreneurs, Issa responds with a four-letter word: work. “I would really push work ethic upon them and trying to out-work and work harder than anyone else,” he said. “You need to be smart and talented, but if you’re not willing to work your butt off, you’re probably not going to have tremendous success.” Issa is a mixed martial arts enthusiast, so perhaps it is not so surprising that he cites actor and former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson – The Rock – as an example. “He was a wrestler but the guy is a monster with what he has done with his Hollywood career. He’s a superstar overnight.
He works extremely hard. The guy is at the gym at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning, at the office by 7 and works until 10 [at night],” Issa said. “I think that’s why he’s better than all the other actors over the past couple of years. He’s outworked everybody.” He’s been too busy recently to practice his passion for mixed martial arts be he plans to resume as soon as time permits.
“The VP of marketing hates it, though. With all the stuff we are doing, she doesn’t want me to do interviews and have black eyes and a bruised face and stuff like that,” he said. Issa hires a lot of young people, and American business generally is concerned about their work ethic. “Here’s the thing. Some work, some don’t,” Issa said. “But I think a lot of the younger people we hire, part of that is seeing me as a young CEO, how hard I work. I think it is motivational to them.”
And it comes back to training. “I think it’s the way we teach and educate them. If any of them come in and have maybe a complacent work ethic, we’ve been able to change – I’d probably say half – and turn them into work monsters,” Issa said. It takes one to know one.
Are You a Rebel?
In the October issue of Entrepreneur Magazine CEO Abe Issa was featured as one of the most notable entrepreneurs that is a rebel against the status quo!
Running Toward the Roar
BY Jason Forrest, Fort Worth Texas
Sometimes the safest place to be is the one that feels the scariest. Lions—with their intimidating teeth and deafening roars—are designed to provoke fear. But the real danger lies with the smaller, quieter lionesses. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s job is to roar and send prey scattering away from the startling noise—right into the path of the waiting lionesses, the true hunters. If gazelles knew to run toward the frightening sound, they would have a better chance of survival. The roar doesn’t represent the real danger.
Likewise, humans sometimes have an instinctive desire to shy away from pursuits that look and sound scary. But often, running toward those challenges and conflicts is the best (or only) way to grow and meet our goals. In business, those who run from the deafening noise never reach their full potential, while those who turn and face the fear thrive.
Abe Issa was literally born into conflict. When he was five, Issa’s family fled their native Beirut—in the middle of the Lebanese civil war—and found refuge in Fort Worth. As immigrants, Issa’s family naturally faced a tough road, but even that comes with a different perspective when you‘re used to seeing soldiers with machine guns as you walk to school and waking up in the night to the sound of rockets. The contrast was stark—even to a 5-year-old.
Issa’s business endeavors started young (and by necessity)—with middle school fundraisers. Unlike his peers, whose parents could afford to buy their boxes of chocolate outright so Issa sold candy bars door to door. Issa says the experience taught him the work ethic he carried through school and into his career.
Issa started at UPS in high school and became a supervisor six months later, which allowed him to get a car and start building his credit. From there, he put himself through school at Texas Christian University. Halfway through college, he started doing real estate, working 60-70 hours a week on top of his schoolwork. He started out on his own immediately out of college, building millions in his real estate business. But a young businessperson, Issa had a lot to learn. His business tanked with the market, and he had to move out of his home and into an apartment.
The extreme contrast from a life of wealth to no money in his pockets left Issa unsure what to do next. People around him who had seen his drive sought to recruit him for industries and roles, but he just wasn’t interested. This became Issa’s defining “run toward the roar” moment. He said, “I could’ve folded at that point and worked for someone else, but I didn’t want to do it.” So instead of taking what seemed like the “safe” route, Issa set out again to build something from scratch—this time with more experience and a few lessons learned. Issa is extremely driven and competitive and says, “All I knew” was that “I wanted to challenge myself and do entrepreneurship again.”
With his interest in sustainability, Issa started researching the solar industry. In a throwback to middle school, he went door to door to find out if people were interested in solar energy. The only difference from his chocolate days was that he took it a step further and started setting appointments. He found strong interest, ultimately leading him to entering the renewable energy sector. As the lone salesperson, Issa made phone calls personally and did free energy audits door to door—putting packages together to demonstrate solar energy’s value to homeowners.
Issa has focused on building culture in his company, saying he wants people to have fun while they work. Equally important, internal employees see how the company treats people externally. The company sets itself apart with exceptional customer service. When customers face bigger issues, Issa addresses them personally. If a customer is having a problem with a system, his company sets itself apart from competitors by going beyond simply replacing solar panels. Issa says, “If you don’t take care of your customers, you’re not going to be in business very long.” They go beyond selling panels, and instead, educate consumers on energy conservation and then provide full turnkey solutions that provide energy sustainability.
Without Abe Issa’s courage to start over, someone else would’ve filled the energy sustainability need, and Issa certainly wouldn’t be a finalist for Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southeast territory. You don’t become one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 35 Under 35 Coolest Entrepreneurs or CEO World Awards’ CEO of the year for environmental sustainability by shying away from the roar.
Fort Worth Start-up Bent on Helping Customers with Energy Costs
BY SANDRA BAKER, Star-Telegram
If there’s one thing Abe Issa says he learned flipping residential real estate, it’s that homeowners are concerned about energy costs.
So when Issa, 32, found himself down on his luck in 2010 after the housing market bust, he started researching what those homeowners were talking about.
Instantly, Issa became a door-to-door salesman.
“I would call homeowners myself. I would go door-knocking,” he said. “It was tough.”
For his efforts he became a finalist in the prestigious Ernst & Young Young Entrepreneur awards program, which recognizes successful executives. TCU, where he graduated, tapped him to help with its massive business school expansion program, and he made a $500,000 donation.
David Noyes, the company’s chief financial officer, said he met Issa through a mutual friend. Noyes was so impressed that when Issa asked him to join the firm, he said there were no doubts.
“Abe is pretty dynamic,” Noyes said. “I saw opportunity here. I’m here because I’m quite sure we can grow this. He’s really behind taking care of the customer.”
Noyes has been involved in five initial public offerings and said Issa’s company goal of going public is attainable.
Most of Issa's company's' sales are in foam attic insulation and solar panels. Customers buy the panels, which are installed, compared with other firms where customers lease the products, Issa said.
“We’re the only one in the industry that does it this way,” Noyes said.
Issa was born in Beirut during a time of conflict. Since his father had dual citizenship in the U.S., the family moved to Fort Worth when Issa was 5. He became a U.S. citizen in 1992.
“As a child growing up there, you would hear mortar shells and rockets,” Issa said. “Buildings would shake. There were nights I would wake up and hear the war going on.”
In 2005, Issa graduated with a finance degree from TCU.
During his senior year there, he worked at AC Properties selling investor-owned homes. He sold 72 homes that year and paid off his hefty student loans.
After graduation, Issa partnered with another TCU graduate in the real estate business. But when that partnership went sour, he went into business for himself, buying foreclosed properties and reselling them. Issa admits that he got overconfident with all the money he was making and took his eyes off the business. And that did him in. Banks started calling notes, and he was nearly bankrupt.
That’s when he expanded into the renewable energy market. For the first nine months, he was out in the field peddling his company and products. He did the energy audits for customers, bought products, handled marketing and sales, set up relationships with vendors and took care of quality assurance.
“Green was in its infancy,” Issa said. “There’s a lot of room for growth.”
Driven for growth
Issa said a strong work ethic and passion drive his success. He also loves sales.
“I’m real passionate about what I do,” he said. “Credibility is important. I really do want to help people. We want to make a difference and an impact in this world. I’ve got a chance to do that with this company and the industry we’re in. It would be nice one day to have a green energy company that everyone knows.”
Issa describes himself as a self-starter. For inspiration, he said he follows the heralded innovator Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock, on Instagram. He also reads several business publications.
Issa said his passion about sales drove him to contribute $500,000 to TCU’s $100 million fundraising campaign at the business school, where the new Neeley Sales and Consumer Insights Center will include the Abe Issa Field Sales Lab to foster research in sales, service and customer decision making.
“It’s crazy these universities do not have sales centers and sales academies,” Issa said. “The ability to teach someone how relationships work and behavior insights … is super valuable.”
O. Homer Erekson, dean of TCU’s Neeley School of Business, said he could see the enthusiasm when he Issa to ask for a donation.
“He’s excited about the difference he could make,” Erekson said. “There’s no question he’s ambitious, a go-getter.”
CEO an EY Regional Finalist
Abe Issa Named EY Entrepreneur of the Year Contender
May 12, 2015, Fort Worth, TX—Abe Issa, CE and entrepreneur was selected as a regional finalist in the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Abe Issa began his work in the renewable energy sector working out of his small apartment in Fort Worth.
“It’s great to be recognized for our rapid growth in green energy innovation and environmental sustainability by EY’s professionals,” said Abe Issa. “I am humbled and grateful to be among the nation’s most impressive job creators and look forward to exchanging ideas on spurring and managing growth while maintaining the highest quality standards,” he said.
Abe Issa has been recognized by Inc. Magazine’s “35 Under 35” annual list of young entrepreneurs, a “CEO of the Year” award from CEO World and a real difference maker in tech and business by Tech Republic’s CBS INteractive “40 Under 40” list. He is also proficient in mixed martial arts, trained by a local world champion.
Now in its 29th year, the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Program has expanded to recognize leaders in more than 145 cities in more than 60 countries throughout the world. Regional award winners are eligible for consideration for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Program. Award winners in several national categories, as well as the overall award winner, will be announced at the annual awards gala in Palm Springs, California, on November 14, 2015. The awards are the culminating event of the EY Strategic Growth Forum*, the nation’s most prestigious gathering of high growth, market leading companies.
Founded and produced by EY, the Entrepreneur of the Year Award is sponsored in the United States by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and SAP America. In the Southwest Region, sponsors include BBVA Compass, Colliers International, Haynes & Boone LLP, Roach Howard Smith & Barton, Merrill Corp., bkm Total Office of Texas, D CEO Magazine and SocialStrategy1.
EY is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. EY’s Strategic Growth* Markets (SGM) practices guide leading growth companies. EY refers to the global organization and may refer to one or more of the member firms of Ernst & Young. For more information, visit ey.com.