Infinite Energy began, as many ventures do, as two young men who looked at an industry and thought, “We can do better than that.”
In 1992 Florida deregulated its natural gas pipelines, and it was about that time that Darin Cook and Rich Blaser, a natural gas buyer for GRU and an accountant keeping up with the changing wholesale electricity landscape, saw an opportunity to bring natural gas to Florida at a reduced price compared to their competitors at a good margin.
And that’s what they did. In 1992 the two formed a business plan and after two years of nos they finally received a credit backing and started a joint venture in May 1994. Since then, the business has grown from two partners to around 375 employees, $500 million in sales per year and consistent ranking in Florida Trend’s Top 50 for revenue.
Infinite Energy CEO and co-founder Darin Cook talked to the Business Report about strategic success, discipline and perseverance, and getting someone to back your business.
How did you get somebody to believe in your idea?
Part of the reason Rich and I are such a good team is that he’s a really good motivational speaker, and he’s able to tell the story in a way that the people can understand and identify with, and that’s how you get somebody to believe in you. I, on the other hand, when they start asking the questions with depth, I’m a strategist so I can answer those. So you have both somebody telling a good story and then you have somebody that can offer the depth. That’s why we make such a good team.
When did you know that it was time to hire?
We had to hire a temp. person right away because we couldn’t always answer the phones because we were busy trying to sell gas, and we eventually made that a full-time position. But it was pretty quick. We started in May (1994) and in October we were not only profitable but we’d paid back all our expenses up to that point.
So after four or five months we were completely in the black. Our first real hire was the receptionist and then the second was someone to work on an industrial level. Obviously at that time you don’t hire willy-nilly, but we couldn’t do it all ourselves.
What spurred your decision to expand into Georgia?
There’s a lot of arbitrage opportunities in the natural gas wholesale industry and there’s a pipe called Southern Natural which supplies Georgia, but it also connects to Florida in Louisiana, I believe, and so we felt that if we had customers that came with transportation assets in Georgia that we could arbitrage between Georgia and Florida, so we decided to enter that market in 1998. We’re very strategic, and that paid off pretty nicely.
Was it the same when you moved into New York, New Jersey and Texas?
The Transcontinental pipeline goes through Atlanta and all the way into the Northeast, so once we started trading on that pipeline and kind of got the rules of the game we felt that the next stop would be the Northeast. Each pipeline has its own rules and tariffs and once we learn something we strategically move up it.
As far as Texas goes we’re very strong in the apartment complexes on the electricity side. We have a lot of software that can handle the cost of move-ins and the move-outs. So someone moves in and they have to find a natural gas supplier and you have to take that apartment off of the apartment complex and put it in that person’s name and then you have to do the reverse when they move out, so it’s a very complex business and we do it, I think, better than most anyone else. So we felt that we could strategically enter the electricity market because of that knowledge on the apartment complex side. So we leveraged our knowledge somewhere else even though it was a different commodity.
Now that you’ve found the success, what do you think sets Infinite apart from competitors?
As far as others like us, we’re long-term focused, not short-term. We’re operationally focused and only want to gain customers when it makes sense to gain customers instead of gaining them at a loss. We’re a very disciplined company and we have a very strong culture within Infinite. We’re very strategic, and a lot of our competitors don’t have the wholesale knowledge that we do.
I often ask the interview question: If you could double your company’s revenue from $5 million to $10 million, but you have to basically bet the company to do it, would you? That’s what I mean by discipline. We’re careful with the risks we take. They’re calculated and they’re not all in.
What have you learned as a leader in the last 20 years?
What have I learned? A lot. We’ve had a lot of things occur that have taught me things, but I think the biggest thing is that you have to provide a purpose. Purpose is a strong motivator for people, because when people feel like they’re contributing toward some great purpose or thing, I think that people work towards that and feel competent and satisfied doing it, and I think that’s what life is all about.
Another one of the things I’ve learned is to focus ego into the company instead of myself. I would much rather talk about the company than myself. Remain humble and remember that it wasn’t just you who did everything. Remember all the people who came along, even in the beginning. Somebody had to believe in our story or nothing would have happened. To say that Rich and I did it all ourselves, you know, we came up with the idea and pushed and took action, but we still needed others to make it happen.
I also think that you have to instill trust both ways, from you to employees and employees to you, and also with business associates and partners. I think that when you have those deep levels of trust business is a lot easier to do and you don’t have to watch your back, so to speak. I have a trust-first philosophy.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I always give advice that you should get knowledge in an industry of some sort before you become an entrepreneur, and the reason why I say that is that you should be able to determine for yourself if your idea is a winner. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, but if your idea doesn’t have legs and you think it does, well, you’ve seen American Idol. The problem is that their mother or somebody has been telling them they’ve been doing something right.
You can believe your own stuff, but that’s why you need to be in the industry so that once you see an opening you can know that it’s real as opposed to something that you’re just fantasizing about. You begin with that, but once you know something is real you need the perseverance to know that it’s good and has legs and find somebody to help you make it happen. And I also believe in business partners because they give you a perspective you may not have.
Do you have any advice for companies that may be trying to define their vision and their culture?
The culture is a direct reflection of the leaders. Leaders should be strong on self-reflection. Know what your values are and know what you’re trying to do, and you need to write those out or communicate it in some way so that others can see those values you have, and hopefully your HR department, or you, can hire for those values along with the competence you need.
The Infinite culture really comes from Rich and I. If you don’t know what your values are the company is going to reflect that and if you don;t know how to verbalize it then you may end up with values that are different than yours.