Rise & Shine
Originally published on People Asia Magazine
by Jose Paolo S. Dela Cruz
Photography by Mark Chester Ang
A 2017 study by online employment platform LinkedIn showed that most young professionals are prone to experiencing a quarter-life crisis at the ripe “old” age of 27. On that front alone, James Buskowitz has already proven himself extraordinary. By that age, he was comfortably perched on top of the corporate ladder, as CEO of his own company. More importantly, James, now 28, seems to have found his purpose.
Impressive, yes. Surprising, no. After all, the tall, dark and handsome gentleman in front of us paid his dues early on. And like successful sons before him, the story started with the “number one, go-to person” in his life—his father.
A decade or so ago, Jochen Buskowitz wanted to build his second resort on the island paradise of Boracay. Monaco Suites de Boracay, he would call it. James, dutiful son that he is readily prepared himself for a future in the hospitality industry, as he took up Hotel Management at Enderun Colleges. Eventually, he became an intern for their property.
As expected when one works in the family business, lines between the personal and the professional began to blur. And James, not content with just fulfilling the basic requirements of internship, wanted to find ways to lower the mounting electric bills of their property. And for the right reasons. (An Australian think tank revealed that the Philippines has the second most expensive electricity rates in Asia in 2018.)
It was then that James, who was raised in Germany, looked back to his childhood and remembered how they used solar energy in the country while he was growing up. “There I was, at 21, looking for the solar energy suppliers.” Only problem was, solar energy had not taken off in the Philippines then. If he wanted to go solar, he’d have to look elsewhere.
“We looked in China. We looked everywhere,” says James, now in his Makati office, looking every inch a CEO in his immaculate slate suit. The search led James to a consultant, who was then working with a Chinese company. The conversation began to grow, and soon covered the potential for solar and renewable energy in the Philippines. Eventually, what started as a hunt for a hotel requirement grew into a possible business venture.
“I was looking for a way to save even more money so I said that in exchange for a discount, we can help showcase their technology after it was installed in our property. That was, we can help them expand their influence in the Philippines,” he adds.
With Monaco Suites de Boracay as its poster child, the solar energy business began to take shape. Eventually, the Buskowitzes and their business partners (including the consultant he initially approached), came up with a solid plan. Buskowitz Energy Renewables Asia (ERA) opened its doors in 2012 as an engineering, procurement and construction company for solar panel installations and solar systems. And on its fore was a son, who looked into the sun for greater purpose.
Guess how many people the then-21-year-old college student, who was doing work for an upstart renewable energy company, convinced to go for solar. None.
“in the first year, I did not convince anyone!” he says lightheartedly, nothing that confidence in the business relied heavily on the back of their family’s previous ventures and his father’s sterling reputation. “Yes I would be running for the company, I would be representing the energy business, but I was more of a silent partner at the time.”
Still, James remained unfazed. “I wanted to bring the opportunity, basically to make connections on the sales side, introduce people and introduce companies. And they (the partners) would take care of all the technical aspects, the international procurement and engineering,” he shares.
As usual, James delivered more than what was expected. Aside from leading, his partners to contacts in the Philippines, the young man burnt the midnight oil to learn about the engineering aspects, public finance, and operations aspects of the business. James enrolled in technical courses. He also tried to find ways around existing challenges, such as the lack of importation procedures and regulations for solar panels and relevant equipment, since it was quite a new concept at the time.
Despite the challenges, James and his father knew one thing: they have found a product they believed in. Once the solar energy system was installed in Monaco Suites de Boracay, for instance, they were able to save P150,000 in monthly expenses on electricity. All they had to do was show the dramatic drop in costs, and their target clients began to listen. The model was set, the business plan was laid out, and with a little boldness and experience gained through the course of three years, the Buskowitzes decided to go solo. By 2015, they were operating on their own.
Detecting that most potential clients were wary of the investment required for setting up a solar energy system, James also decided to change the business model to include financing. Buskowitz Finance Inc., the financing arm of Buskowitz Group that makes solar loans and leases available to anyone in the Philippines, was born within the year.
“In the beginning, we were just looking for straightforward sales. We sell and install the solar panels, calculate the savings and name the price of investment. But that was a very difficult model to sustain, because not a lot of people had solar in the Philippines. It was not very well known,” he says. Even some banks were apprehensive over funding such projects.
Through the new model, the company builds, leases, operates and then transfers the solar technology to the client after a certain period of time. James and his team also simplified the long winding 40-page contracts they used to have, and pared them down to four.
A system that works
Sure enough, the new business model finally earned them the sought-after confidence of their clientele in the Philippines. “Our first client was John B. Lacson Foundation. After the successful implementation of that project, we were endorsed to their sister school, St. Therese College, which has three campuses. Then, there was University of Zamboanga, and so on,” enumerates James. Other institutions soon followed.
Since their Boracay property had set paragon for their services, it was unsurprising that most of their earlier clients came from Visayas and Mindanao. Eventually though, the Buskowitz Group was able to reach Luzon in 2016.
While the business has taken off, James admits that solar energy still has a long way to go. Certain technologies and modes of measurement need to be standardized. Some challenges, from government regulations to consumer mindset. Still need to be addressed. In spite of these, James believes that such challenges can be overcome by educating the public, and showing them that an alternative such as solar energy is not just available, but is actually feasible.
James spares no time in correcting common misconceptions about solar energy during out interview. “The biggest misconception is the cost. Many seem to think that it’s expensive, but it’s a product that lasts for 20, 30 to 40 years. And generally, the investment returns within four to six years. Some, even three years.”
But how about efficiency? Do solar panels produce electricity at night? What if it rains? How about in summer? To answer, James says that solar energy, as the name suggests, relies mainly on the sun (take note: sun, not heat). “One misconception is that the hotter the weather, the more energy solar panels can produce. Heat actually lessens energy production. Direct sunlight is what’s important, not heat,” he clarifies.
James also assures that energy can still be produced in times of rain or during cloudy days, although the amount will be significantly less than on a bright, sunny day. With Buskowitz’ quality management system having been certified under ISO 9001:2015 in 2018 the dream continues to grow for The Buskowitz Group, as well. “We, basically, through the solar energy, provide electricity. As long as we produce electricity and the source of the electricity remains constant, then it can be used for cars, bijes, for households and anything that runs on electricity,” he explains.
The company also aims to take advantage of the rise of verticals, or high-rise buildings that enjoy sun exposure without eating up too much land. “We don’t need much land to generate a lot of energy. In fact, if we were to isolate Guimaras Island, we can produce enough energy for the entire Philippines,” he confidently says.
By the end of 2018, the company also started a department that focused on residential installation. Prior to that, they only did residential projects by request.
The Buskowitz Group also sponsored a school team that would build an electric vehicle. They are actually competing in the Shell ECO Marathon this April. “The first Buskowitz electric vehicle… we’ll see,” says James in anticipation. “We hope, we win.”
Indeed, James has gone a long way—a far cry from the 14-year-old who used to help his father with his business correspondences; even the 21-year-old who was asked a question and stumbled upon an entire business opportunity.
And this year, James, armed with his father’s training and their combined vision for the future, aims to instigate change through his business and his passion. “The world needs to be transitioning to become more sustainable in everything that we do, and for obvious reasons. Demand for energy increases, while the supply for fossil fuels diminishes over time. Anything that’s limited by nature will always be limited by nature,” he reminds.
Well, good thing then that we have an unlimited supply of sun—and bright young men like James Buskowitz.