UA Little Rock alumni at forefront of Arkansas energy efficiency, solar market

UA Little Rock alumni Josh Davenport (left) and Heather Nelson (right) founded their energy efficiency company, Seal Energy Solutions, in North Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.

Two University of Arkansas at Little Rock alumni are taking the Little Rock energy efficiency and solar industries by storm, providing their customers with solutions that are helping the environment and saving them money at the same time. 

Heather Nelson and Josh Davenport are co-founders of Seal Energy Solutions, an energy efficiency and solar design and installation company based in North Little Rock that was recently named an Arkansas Business of the Year finalist for companies with 31 to 55 employees by Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

The company began specializing in energy efficiency options for residential homes and businesses, but the solar industry quickly became an integral part of the company within just three years of the business starting.

Nelson and Davenport are both alumni of UA Little Rock’s MBA program, while Davenport also holds bachelor’s degrees in accounting and construction management from UA Little Rock.

Seal Energy Solutions began in an unusual way. The Clinton Foundation contacted Davenport, who was working at his family’s company, Davenport Contracting, Inc., with an opportunity to work as a general contractor for a program called Home Energy Affordability Loan (HEAL). The program was being incubated within the Clinton Climate Initiative at the Clinton Foundation.

“I was a general contractor at the time, but I did not have residential experience,” Davenport said. “The program was designed to go into homes and make them more energy efficient. I said I would look into it and got certified.”

Davenport began work with Seal Energy Solutions as a “side gig” in which he expected to subcontract much of the work out. However, Davenport quickly found that wasn’t how things would work out.

“There wasn’t a large pool of subcontractors, so we started to grow organically by training our own people,” Davenport said. “After a few acquisitions, we were doing most of the work in house. That has grown today to solar renewables. To date, we have completed 150 solar installs in the past two years. Since inception, we have been in over 10,000 homes.”

In 2012, Nelson worked in banking and corporate finance for nearly 20 years prior to co-founding Seal Energy Solutions. She found out about Josh’s business idea while having a “fateful lunch” with Davenport’s father, Ken Davenport, who Nelson had met years earlier at a family reunion. Nelson and Davenport are distantly related, a little unknown fact, though neither can tell you exactly how their family trees connect.

“I was having lunch with his dad, and then met Josh afterwards at his dad’s office. Josh said, ‘You have got to do this with me.’ The running joke is that I never said yes, but here I am,” Nelson said. “You know how you meet people, and you have an instant connection, that is how it was with Ken and I. It is cool that our families didn’t know each other growing up, but then you end up getting to know a different part of your family tree by happenstance. That is a unique aspect of this firm and the story of how our lives intersected.”

Looking back, Nelson isn’t surprised that she made the decision to pursue a new business opportunity. While earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Arkansas, Nelson took some of the first entrepreneurial classes the university offered, which having come from a long line of entrepreneurs, ignited her interest in entrepreneurship.

“I knew in college that one day I wanted to run my own business or someone else’s,” Nelson said. “After years in corporate lending, it was a God  thing where a great opportunity presented itself to do something entrepreneurial. Honestly, it was scary and awesome at the same time.”

Nelson and Davenport had an immense job before them when they partnered to start Seal Energy Solutions. At the end of 2012, they were both still working full time, and jobs started to pour in before they were ready to officially launch the company.

UA Little Rock alumni Heather Nelson (left) and Josh Davenport (Right) hang out at Mugs Cafe, one of their favorite hangout spots near their company in North Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.
UA Little Rock alumni Heather Nelson (left) and Josh Davenport (right) hang out at Mugs Cafe, one of their favorite hangout spots near their company in North Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.

“We didn’t plan to start until Jan. 1, but that didn’t work out. We were already doing work in November,” Nelson said. “The joke is that we both lied to each other. I thought I was just going to help get him started and move on. He thought he was going to stay at his dad’s firm full time and do Seal Energy Solutions on the side. We were both wrong. We were working together in December when I looked at him and said, ‘You are going to have to quit. It’s going to take both of us. We’ve got a runaway train here.’ That’s entrepreneurship 101, don’t lie to your business partner (or yourself) before you even get started.”

The key to Seal Energy Solutions success is that we take a holistic approach to energy solutions for a client. The company conducts energy assessments on homes, businesses, and farms and offer recommendations to save the client money off their utility bills. Changes could include switching to LED lights, adding a more energy efficient heating and cooling system, installing solar panels, or a number of other solutions.

In 2016, the company expanded into solar agricultural and commercial projects across Arkansas. Seal Energy Solutions recently announced it had entered into a teaming agreement with LightWave Solar of Nashville, Tennessee, currently ranked 42nd nationally in solar design and install firms, which makes Seal Energy Solutions the largest and most experienced solar design and install firm in the state of Arkansas.

“I don’t know how you define success, but we are having a lot of growth and are having a lot of fun: we are appreciative of the growth we’ve experienced to this point,” Davenport said.

Over the past six years, Seal Energy has grown to a company with 45 employees, all of whom were hired and trained in Arkansas. The company has maintained a growth rate of at least 30 percent every year and has grown into a $6.4 million company as of 2017 year-end.

Nelson and Davenport said that their experiences at UA Little Rock led them to place a high value on education.

“We pay 100 percent for our employees’ training and continuing education, and it has been that way since day one,” Nelson said. “We knew education changed the trajectory of our lives.  We want to invest in the next generation of talent to come into our industry. Making that investment in our people springs from our education at UA Little Rock. My former employers always encouraged me to complete my MBA, even when I didn’t want to, and I hope Josh and I have transferred that encouragement towards education to our team. We really feel strongly about education.”

Davenport said that he still relies upon many of the relationships he built at UA Little Rock to help him with his current business.

“From my standpoint, I think the relationships that I made at UA Little Rock, from professors to fellow students, are still there and that is almost 10 years later. Today, one of the assets is the relationships I got to build there because these folks are still around here.”

Davenport lives in North Little Rock with his wife, Beth Ann, and three children, Eden, Hawk, and Asher. He also serves as president of the Arkansas Association of Energy Engineers, on the board of directors for the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, and secretary of the Argenta Downtown Council.

Nelson is on The Excel Center at Goodwill School Advisory Council and the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association Distributed Generation Task Force. She also serves on the board of directors for the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association and Restored and Renewed Ministry, a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling, vacations, and other resources for missionaries serving all around the world. She also travels to Haiti regularly with The Global Orphan Project out of Kansas City, Missouri, championing global artisans to reduce the need for orphan ages and economic orphans through job creation and economic development.

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