NC 100: Soak up the sun

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Were The Graduate made today, it’s likely Dustin Hoffman would have been advised to focus his career on “solar,” rather than “plastics.” Just look at FLS Energy, a developer and builder of solar farms that is the biggest mover on the North Carolina 100, an annual ranking of the largest private companies based in the state. The 10-year-old Asheville company scaled 29 spots to No. 27, with revenue topping $300 million.

“We started as a scrappy, lean company,” says Dale Freudenberger, FLS’ chief executive officer and one of the company’s three co-founders. “Our model always has been to reinvest the profits, but at the same time we have focused on building a sustainable company” that will be around for years to come. While solar energy is capital-intensive, FLS has kept a lid on its debt, the CEO says. Since debuting on the list at No. 87 in 2014, it has moved up 60 notches and now employs 75 people. The majority of the company’s projects are in North Carolina, which added more solar capacity last year than all but one state, California.

Frank Marshall, director of policy and public affairs at FLS, praises Freudenberger’s ability to anticipate shifts in the market. While state lawmakers eliminated a 35% tax credit on investments in renewables in 2015, Freudenberger says a more important issue facing solar companies is the mandate requiring utilities to use increasing amounts of solar, wind or other renewable sources through 2020. A bill to ax the requirement failed last year. Investors “want to know that the state won’t come in and change things midstream,” he says. While FLS has received $13 million from outside investors, the founders retain majority ownership. Employees own 40% of the company.

The Grant Thornton North Carolina 100 includes family-owned businesses and others that were started with a single product or a handful of employees. “I’m always excited about the NC100 list coming out, to see which private companies are innovating and growing and moving up, and to learn about new companies that are making a difference in our state,” says Mike McGuire, a Charlotte resident who is chief executive officer at Chicago-based Grant Thornton, which has compiled the list since 1984. Sixteen companies reported revenue of $500 million or more, the same as last year. The 100 companies collectively employ more than 97,000 people. Participation in the list is voluntary.

Sixty-one companies are headquartered in the Charlotte or Triangle regions, with 18 in the Triad, 16 in eastern N.C. and five in the west. A notable absence is S&D Coffee, a family-owned coffee and tea company started in 1927 that is being acquired by Tampa, Fla.-based Cott Corp. in a $355 million deal.

New this year, companies were invited to nominate individuals for one of six awards. Winners were selected based on essays submitted by their colleagues.

“I’m really pleased that we’re highlighting individuals this year who have made special contributions to the business community,” McGuire says. “These are the business leaders who are shaping our shared future, and who best represent the ongoing spirit of the NC100.”

For the NC 100 list

For the first time, companies nominated individuals in six areas: Click below to read each profile.

Dealmaker: Eric Pike

Chief financial officer: Julie Richter

Innovator: Brendan Morrissey

Cultural leader: Paul Thompson

Leader of the future: Wes Carter

Technologist: Charles Kauffman

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