FloridaWorks and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce’s second Company ‘Lifestyle’ Series meeting featured Darin Cook, CEO and cofounder of Infinite Energy, who spoke about how the company came to be and the corporate culture they’ve nurtured which helped lead to the company’s Best Overall Large Business win at this year’s Chamber Business of the Year awards.
Infinite Energy is an energy company that offers natural gas and electric products to customers in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Texas. It has grown to employ 375 personnel, but nearly 20 years ago, in May 1994, it was just Cook and his partner Rich Blaser.
The two were natural gas utility buyers with Gainesville Regional Utilities during a time when the Florida government deregulated the industry. The two would drive around the state buying up utilities, and Cook said that one day in 1992 Blaser pointed out that they could do the job for themselves by taking their expertise and finding the seams in the industry that needed filling.
Cook said they would play racquetball on the weekends and work on their business plan, which he recommended, because he found out later that research shows that 25 minutes of aerobic activity can raise functional IQ for up to an hour after.
After two to three months they needed a backer but received rejections after rejection. Cook said that he’s always seen “No” as an opportunity, so they asked each executive they talked to what they could do differently. Two years later they had a refined plan and found their first investor.
“People want to help,” he said, “even if they can’t help you in the way that you want.”
Persistence is a key attribute, he said, because people are going to think you’re crazy and naïve and you have to adapt to failure. He said that there was a 1 in 19,000 chance that Infinite Energy would succeed in the way it has, and beating those odds is very difficult.
“The two-year process allowed us to jump out of the gate,” he said. “It forced us to focus. We had a tight plan; it wasn’t some loose thing.”
After their original partner sold the company to “corporate thieves,” he said, the two found another backer that allowed them to completely own the company, and Infinite Energy ended up where it is today.
One of the keys to their success, he said, is that while he and Blaser have completely different personalities, they have complementary talents and the same values. Blaser is an extreme motivator and a catalyst for change, he said, while he looks at business like a game of chess. That has informed their hiring policy, he said, because while they strive for diversity in the company (race, personality, talents), potential hires have to share their values, which rest on thinking of decisions in the long term, not the short.
They encourage employees to hold to their own personal values, but to put the company first in decision-making because it supports 370 families and they in turn support the company.
“You have a responsibility to be a good caretaker and take calculated risks, so if you lose you can play another day,” he said. “Never bet the company on a decision.”
He asked the room if they could double their company’s revenue from $10 million to $20 million, with a 90 percent chance of success, would that 10 percent of failure be worth it if it could bankrupt the company?
“Are entrepreneurs risk-takers?” he asked. “Of course, but the ones that are around 20 years later are calculated risk-takers.”
Moving past the history of the company, Cook said that he and Blaser wrote the company culture statement a couple of years ago, and he wishes that they had done it sooner. He recommended that new business owners take the time to write out a statement or a business plan to focus their ideas.
“People want purpose,” he said. “They want to belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Cook and Blaser encourage that idea in several ways. The two hold quarterly townhall meetings where they address the company about issues and accomplishments and hold mixers with the different departments. That idea of mixing departments is very important to the two, he said, because mixing and forming relationships can only make the company stronger.
The company also holds a Leadership Symposium, which employees have to apply for. The applicants have to answer three to four questions, and the Cook and Blaser pick four to five from different departments and put them into groups. They ask them to think about what the biggest problem at Infinite Energy and give them three months to come up with a solution, present that to executives and get feedback.
“It forces people to mix,” Cook said. “Somebody in customer service talking to somebody who wants to adjust their rates now might know someone who they can ask if they get stuck.”
The company executives also run a mentorship program, wherein each takes on four to five mentees from outside of their own department for a year, which allows them to get to know about the problems other departments face.
“The mentees are getting insights from a lifetime of experience,” Cook said. “How can that not help you growth as a person? I tell my mentees that the only difference between us is that I have experience.”
Cook said that the executives present that idea to employees by not having perks like a personal key to the company gym or a specific parking space.
“Our belief is that by nature of our positions we’re separated already,” Cook said. “You should never do things top down, but from the bottom up. The easiest commodity to give is credit and they deserve it. You can’t do it on your own.”
And Infinite Energy expresses that appreciation by offering things like their walking program, which has participants wear a pedometer and walk a certain amount every week, which ends with a free pair of shoes for those who finish the program, and a Biggest Loser weight loss program.
Infinite Energy also gives away $100,000 away every year at their holiday party. There are 11 prizes total, and one employee receives $50,000. That employee then has a meeting with a company executive to brainstorm how they can best invest the money.
“We want to have an impact on somebody’s life, and this only goes to the people who do the everyday work,” Cook said. “We can give every employee $200, or we can really change someone’s life.”