Sam Wyly’s path from start-up entrepreneur to billionaire business and green-energy guru has been a long and winding one. He started University Computing Co. in 1963 after working for IBM and Honeywell, and went on to develop Bonanza Steakhouse and Michaels, the Arts & Crafts Store. Green Mountain Energy, his latest venture, founded in 1997, is now the nation’s leading retailer in carbon offset technologies and cleaner energy. In his book 1,000 Dollars and an Idea, out this month, Wyly talks about his life, politics and business ambitions—mixing plenty of history into the mix. I spoke with him by phone.
Fast Company: Green Mountain Energy has become more successful each year since it was founded. (As of March 2008, the company had $300 million in total sales and has been growing revenues at about 40 percent per year compounded over the past three years.) Do you think interest in clean energy retailing will continue to grow?
Sam Wyly: People will get more interested in energy retailing. We lost money for the first few years at Green Mountain and we were lucky to have deep-pocketed investors. Now we are growing 20% a year and we are the most profitable pure green company in America.
FC: T. Boone Pickens has made quite a stir with his goal to get America off foreign oil. What are your thoughts on Pickens’ energy plans?
SW: I’m all for it, but I want to do more than that. We were once both oil guys. I owned an oil refinery in Memphis and later another oil refinery in Fairbanks, Alaska. Every president since Nixon has promised to get us off foreign oil. But instead, we’ve gone from 20% dependence to nearly 80%. We have a wind-belt that could provide a quarter of our electricity. There’s also a sunbelt too. Windmills are 48 stories tall and cost on average about $3 million a piece. Boone’s going to build a lot in West Texas. I like what he’s doing, but I like my plan more.
FC: What are the details of your plan?
SW: I want to get China’s and Russia’s goods on a tariff applied to their carbon footprint. And an internal tax that slowly makes goods that use carbon more expensive, over at least 10 years. All of this would not send one penny to Washington. It would all go back to the consumer in the form of reduced payroll and social security taxes, so they are not losing anything on the deal, but are trying to get off carbon products.
FC: Wouldn’t this damage America’s free trade agreements?
SW: Some might argue this is not free trade. But I’ve been a free trader my whole life and I think it’s the right thing to do.
FC: You’ve given around $10 million to Republican candidates since the ‘70s and donated money to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which disrupted John Kerry’s campaign in 2004. Who are you supporting for president?
SW: I have no horse in this race. I’m not supporting anyone for president or Congress. I will support whoever wants to do something like my plan. Either candidate, whoever wins, will be motivated to do more for clean air and alternative energies than any president before him, so we will have to watch closely.
FC: Do you foresee the American auto manufacturers getting in line to be eco-friendly and profitable?
SW: I think they’ll survive, but it will be hard. I’m interested in the Chevy Volt. It’s going to be a real car, not a golf cart. It’s a real leap forward. That car should be an energizer for the company’s employees. But it’s going to take a lot of electricity to get to that point, and we’d like it to be clean electricity powering electric cars.
FC: BeGreenNow.com, which allows you to calculate your carbon footprint and buy services from Green Mountain Energy to reduce your footprint, seems like it wouldn’t do anything for the average consumer in terms of helping his or her pocketbook. What’s the incentive to use their services?
SW: It’s not in one’s economic self-interest to buy products from BeGreenNow. There are people who still do it because they know it the right thing to do. It’s a case of doing the right thing for the environment.
FC: In your book, you frequently combine your story with historical anecdotes. Why the interest in history?
SW: They have allowed me to see different perspectives. My work has been as an entrepreneur, so I never had the stakes of an empire to worry about.