As part of a global refocus of its operations, SMA, which began manufacturing solar inverters in 1981, is exiting its Zeversolar operations in China; directing its product development to address challenges and opportunities in specific markets; and ramping up support for rooftop-solar dealers.
“Today is very much about these partners,” said Managing Director of SMA in Australia, Michael Rutt, after SMA had hosted the group for the first of two days of workshops addressing the program’s marketing support, and technical product training,
“Our success in the utility business,” he says, referring to the more than 40 utility-scale projects developed in Australia with SMA inverters since the company first set up in Sydney in 2007, “can be a distraction from residential and commercial solar, which have been at the core of our business here for a long time.”
Many of the dealers gathered at Pier One have been promoting and selling SMA inverters for about a decade, and feel that the program recognises and builds on their loyalty and expertise.
“It’s a privilege and it’s rewarding,” says Garth James, who heads up Go4Solar in Lonsdale, South Australia. “SMA has recognised that we’re a stable company and we’ve got runs on the board.” He adds that his client base of some 1,400 customers “are all asking about the battery subsidy we have in South Australia”.
Not all inverters can incorporate management of battery storage, but Sunny Tripower is one of SMA’s “recently revamped residential range”, says Rutt, that allows storage to be integrated during the life of the system.
Luke Spicer, CEO and founder of Skyline Solar operating in Western Sydney describes being selected from among 130 initial applicants for PowerUP as “a welcome honour”. He says, “Since we started our business nine years ago we’ve sold SMA and it’s great to be recognised as someone worth having on the program.”
Spicer focuses on designing systems using industry-leading brands to achieve high reliability and customer satisfaction. He observes that, “This year and last year, people have gotten over the hump of scepticism about solar. They now embrace it as ‘what you do’. It’s part of the lifestyle of having a big-screen TV and a nice car.”
Rutt says that SMA’s support of its customers — the solar-PV dealers — will in turn provide SMA a more detailed “eye on consumers” than it had before.
The selection process for the PowerUP dealers was intense and included interviewing a shortlist of candidates about their market approach, their vision and the alignment of their brand with that of SMA.
Having spent time with the inaugural PowerUP group, Rutt says, “It’s so interesting, talking to these guys at the coalface, to hear how much their business approaches vary and to learn what challenges them, what costs them money, what makes them money and what works when they’re talking to customers.
“We’ll flow that back to our development and marketing teams, so they understand the needs of each particular market.”
Rutt says the establishment of PowerUP also recognises that “consumers love brands”, and while a small solar-systems dealership may not have the funds to be able to develop their brand, connecting their know-how with one of the world’s top inverter brands can add voltage to their visibility.
As Kristi-Lee Gale, Director of Platinum Solar Designs says, “We’ve worked with SMA for 10 years and to be recognised by a brand that’s known for being so reliable … It means a brand that we’ve supported can now support us.”
Platinum Solar Designs serves businesses from South Sydney to Canberra and Gale sees huge opportunities in the commercial market: “More and more businesses are looking to solar for a sustainable approach to their energy needs.”
SMA Australia’s Regional Business Development Manager, Ben Bishop, says the Australia-wide PowerUP network will eventually grow to a maximum of around 125 participants.
Developed in Australia, and concurrently being rolled out in the United States and some European markets, the PowerUP program includes training in the design and capabilities of SMA product ranges, exclusive sales and marketing materials, business-development support, and special bundles for consumers that will be available only through PowerUP dealers and can include warranty upgrades.
“Partnering with a global powerhouse like SMA represents value, stability and an opportunity to set their business apart in an increasingly aggressive solar landscape,” says Bishop.
Almost every PowerUP participant who spoke to pv-magazine last night named low-cost competitors as their biggest challenge: “A lot of people try to go for the cheapest products and there’s a lot of false advertising,” said Angus Clark of Blue Mountains Solar in NSW. Peter Thorne of Solaray Energy in Sydney concurred, “There’s a lot of cheap product on the market.”
Thorne identified both his greatest challenge and his greatest opportunity in the same terms. The challenge: “To sell quality solutions and to be recognised for that.” The opportunity: “To sell off the back of a reputation for quality solutions.”