40+ years of Solar Energy

FAFCO Solar Dan and Jr and Ward Morrissey 40 years of Solar Energy

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The Beginning

A year after visiting SW Florida for the first time my father, Ward J. Morrissey, Jr., tired of the cold in Connecticut retired from iron working.  He opened a small welding shop at Page Field, Ft. Myers.  His business did ok, but when things got a little slow he would help out the neighboring plumbing business by installing their new-fangled solar pool heaters. 

This was in the early 70’s during the first “energy crisis” and pool owners were turning off their gas pool heaters to conserve energy.  He so loved the promise of solar energy and how people responded to that promise, that he started another company dedicated to solar pool heating.

1974 – Solar Pool Heaters Of Southwest Florida Was Founded

A year later, he asked if I would like to join him.  Within 24 hours I made my decision.  With a sack of clothes in one hand, I stuck my other thumb out and hitchhiked to Ft Myers.  I was ready to go to work and to get to know my father… he had been absent from my life, for the most part, since I was six.

My first day on the job provided an interesting lesson.  I was excited and ready to install my very first solar pool heater, when my father started my technical training by saying, “This is how you hold a screwdriver.”  “Now wait just a second”, I thought to myself.  “I’m 21 years old, I’m pretty sure I already know how to hold a screwdriver.”  I wanted to let him know I had that skill down already, but out of respect and curiosity I decided to stick around just to see what other lessons he might teach me.

I eventually gained my father’s confidence… so he could focus his efforts on selling pool heaters and running the business, and I could focus on the installations.  Sometimes when he and I were about half way done with an installation, he would walk off down the street.  In a little while he would return with a curious neighbor or two and show them what I was doing. 

Dad got a big kick out of watching his customers react when they felt the solar heated water return to the pool when it was first turned on.  They were thrilled and loved it.  Any on-looking neighbor would, more often than not, invite Dad over to see if solar could work for their pool too.  Of course, it usually could.

1977 – Exclusive Fafco Distributor For SW Florida

Fafco Solar Warehouse On Viscaya Blvd.

The first three years were not really years… they were seasons… heating seasons to be exact.  When pools got cold in the winter, we had enough work.  But when the weather warmed up and work got slow, I’d move away (let’s call it a long vacation)… and Dad would pick up small welding jobs.

Each year we became a little busier.  By the end of 1977, we had relocated the business to Cape Coral.  We became a distributor for Fafco, Inc.  The seasons finally turned into years, so I didn’t move away anymore.  The business grew quite rapidly after that.

1980 – Incorporate As Solar Pool Heaters, Inc

In 1980, the government created a 40% tax credit to encourage solar domestic water heater sales.  We incorporated the business.  We built a second warehouse to supply the other Fafco distributors around the state with pool heaters and domestic water heaters. 

We hired more sales reps and installers to keep up.  At our peak, we were installing four systems a day.  About 70% of our business came from solar pool heaters and 30% came from solar hot water heaters.  Our customers loved us.  Things were going great and the business was continuing to grow… then, tragedy paid a visit.

One day, my father came to work with a lump on the side of his throat the size of a golf ball.  Seven months later after several treatments of chemotherapy, my father who had been ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor died of throat cancer… the result of a lifetime of smoking.  His ashes rest in the Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

Ward J. Morrissey, Jr
1923 – 1982

I was numb with grief and fear.  Not only did I lose my newly found father, but I also lost my boss.  Suddenly, I was responsible for a business that had grown to 15 employees.  I had no education beyond high school.  I had never seen a financial statement, never sold a product, let alone manage a sales team, and had never done a host of other things small businessmen do on a daily basis.  I had no business connections and didn’t know who to trust.  I went to work every day, but I wasn’t totally there… not for a while.

1983 – Started Operating As Fafco Solar

Fortunately for me, my father made three good business decisions while he was alive.  First, he picked a good trust officer for his estate.  Fran DeGraw was immensely helpful and a wonderful person to work with.  She essentially conducted our board meetings until the business stabilized and it was no longer necessary for her to be there. 

Second, he hired good employees.  Sid Segler was promoted to President and ran the company for several years while I learned more about the business.  Sid had started with the company three years earlier as an installer, and eventually managed the sales team.  He was a very bright and talented man.  I will always appreciate his care of and concern for the company and its customers. 

Third, my father picked the best manufacturer to represent: Fafco, Inc., the undisputed leader in the solar pool heating industry.  I felt so committed to them.  Within a year after my father’s death, I changed our business name to Fafco Solar, a division of Solar Pool Heaters, Inc.

1986 – Dan Morrissey Becomes President Of Fafco Solar

In 1986, I took over as President of the company.  In my early years at the helm, I focused on survival.  I wasn’t very confident as a businessman and had to learn most lessons by trial and error.  I thought many times to myself that I must have made every mistake in the book.  This was the price of my training, I justified -- probably the same cost as a good college education.  I think I did more damage to my company than any competitor possibly could have.  I learned firsthand what is meant by Pogo’s words, “I have found the enemy, and he is us.”  Slowly though year after year I learned and grew, and in spite of my inexperience the business survived.

1995 – Our Core Philosophy Is Born

Do No Harm

 It took many years for me to shift from viewing the company as my father’s, to viewing it as my own. In the mid 90’s, I discovered my core motivation.  My focus shifted from surviving to growing the business around people, products and procedures that promote the philosophy of “do no harm”. 

There are several ways one can define success: how much money you make, how long you’ve been in business, and how many customers you serve.  These ideas are what most people think of first.  But with examples like Enron and WorldCom, companies that looked classically successful, those definitions are not enough. 

For me, a key factor to consider is harm.  Do I do any harm… to my customers, my coworkers, my company, myself or the earth?  I decided to literally “wear my heart on my sleeve”.  I had our new motto “Do No Harm” printed on the sleeves of our work shirts.  The motto went through a couple evolutions and settled in as “less harm ~ more harmony”.

Three Generations

2001 – The Third Generation

In 2001 my son, Ian, officially joined Fafco Solar.  It’s interesting to me that, like my father, one of Ian’s joys is watching a customer react when he first turns on a solar electric system and the meter turns backwards.  I hope I can pass on the lessons I’ve learned, and eventually give Ian the opportunity to run the company. Life is circular.

2009 – It Was A Good Lesson After All

It finally dawns on me, 34 years later, why my father might have found it important to be so careful that first day in 1975, teaching me to use a screwdriver… 

When I was about 10 years old, during one of the few times I visited my father he took me fishing on Long Island Sound.  At the end of our trip as I tried to pull up the relentlessly stuck anchor, my father handed me a knife to cut the line and free the boat.  As the waves were causing the boat to bob up and down, I mishandled the knife and pinched my fingers between the railing of the boat and the flat side of the blade when a wave raised the boat.  There were a couple of very tense moments as we both silently watched the blade pinch my fingers.  He eventually shifted his weight which released the tension on the line and blade so I could remove my fingers.  No harm was done.  Not a mark or a scratch.  Neither of us said anything.

Perhaps my father played that image through his head many times and thought about how close he came to sending me back to my mother… minus a couple fingers.  Then, all those years later when he next handed me a tool, he made sure I knew how not to hurt myself.  He was concerned for my safety.  It was his way of showing love.  He didn’t have many chances to do that with me, so it was important not to miss any opportunities… especially on our first day working together.  I’m grateful, now, for that lesson.  It’s all about the love between a father and his son.

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