Brian Robertson, a Canadian-born entrepreneur whose life was never taken for granted, “willed” success in everything he touched from the Internet to solar energy, died Friday in the Captain’s chair of his own plane. He was 38.
My own history with Brian started at SunEdison in 2004. Brian’s professional life before SunEdison reads like folklore – and maybe some of it was. He was a champion water skier; co-founder of PlanetAll, the tool that Amazon bought to tell you what books other people purchased; and one of the guys that brought Toys”R”Us to its knees in the online toy wars for Amazon (s AMZN).
When I first met Brian, he had already helped SunEdison win the Business Plan competition at Harvard University in 2004. He was interviewing for the job of CFO at SunEdison and when we offered it to him, he took it, turning down one of the top jobs at Yahoo (s YHOO). With him was his lovely wife Eileen, pregnant with Brooke, and accompanied by the amazing Melanie. Their third child, Max, was just a thought at that time.
SunEdison was a simple idea, Solar as a Service. But to Brian, he knew and loved all the complexities of that statement. Whether we were writing a white paper, creating a risk model, or creating financial statements, Brian was on it — and his imprint in it. Brian accomplished more in one day than most extraordinary people accomplish in a week – seriously. (The proof is in what he accomplished in just 38 years.) He was always trying to get more done in a day. He took taxis so he could work while someone else drove, and was one of the first people I knew to get a USB internet card for his computer. He always impressed upon me that time was precious.
In the fall of 2004, the SunEdison team went out to the first Solar Power International conference in San Francisco. Brian flew out in his own plane and asked me to ride back with him. It took us two days to get back. He had a small four seater back then. We had long conversations and I remember asking him why he had such a small plane – “I can’t get insured on a larger one until I have enough hours.” After that we flew together to Connecticut, NYC, Chicago, St. Louis . . . and the planes kept getting bigger. Brian was meticulous and careful, one of the safest pilots I knew.
Brian and Eileen had honeymooned in Cabo. It was at that time that they decided to build a beautiful place one hour north of Cabo San Lucas. Given its remote location, Brian had to bring in Satellite Internet. Plus, Brian powered the place with solar power with a diesel backup. It was this self-teaching about solar power that inspired him to take the job at SunEdison instead of Yahoo.
And Brian worked hard and played hard – often at the same time. For example, Brian sold power to his Cabo neighbors as well – always the entrepreneur. And, even vacationing, he always found a way to get things done. During many of the most important negotiations with Goldman Sachs, Brian was on a mandatory vacation in Cabo paying $1/min on a satellite phone.
As SunEdison matured so did Brian. He took on even greater challenges in finding creative ways to overcome obstacles to deploy solar. His contribution to today’s solar industry is under appreciated because he was the man behind the curtain – doing the work, not getting credit for it.
Plus, he was proliferate — always ready to take on the next challenge. He did just that when he became CEO of Amonix, a concentrating solar PV company. At Amonix, he was proving to skeptics around the world (including me) that concentrating solar PV had a place in the world. He was officially Superman – invincible and unstoppable.
When building a company, the best laid plans are always just a guide. It takes optimism and a persistence to overcome the hurdles presented everyday. Many people use these words, but for folks who know Brian, he lived them and did so effortlessly. He did it in a way that was serious, but always fun. I can still see his signature smile, always genuine and part wiley – he was always cooking up something.
For those of us trying to change the World for the better, we just lost one of the most important figures of our generation. No one will take his place. The hole that is left will never be filled. It will be a constant reminder to all of us that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to everyone around us to leave this world better than we found it. In that, his family, and in many other things Brian succeeded. I just wish he could have lived a full life. For those of us who knew him – he actually did. Brian made a dent in the universe. He was an incredible person and will be missed.
Brian is survived by his wife, Eileen, his three kids Melanie, Brooke, and Max.
Jigar Shah is the CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change and create a post-carbon economy. By bringing project finance and growth capital together with infrastructure entrepreneurs, corporations, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), he identifies and eliminates market barriers, driving environmental improvements alongside economic growth.
Shah founded SunEdison in 2003 with a new business model, the solar power services agreement business (SPSA). The SPSA uses mature technologies and required no new legislative action. The SPSA model launched solar services into a multibillion dollar industry. SunEdison now has more solar energy systems and megawatts under management than any other company.