Marine veterans find success with ‘green’ lighting company

Marine Chris Kent and Michael McAlinden

Chris Kent and Mike McAlinden may not be on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps anymore, but the Iraq war veterans still have each other’s backs. They are founding partners in an energy-saving business that doubles its sales every year while helping other businesses build healthier bottom lines.

Kent, a Fort Worth native and current resident, is the president for Green Light National, a company that provides lighting retrofits and upgrades in commercial and industrial facilities.

After both men left active duty in 2010, McAlinden started the company in his native Chicago and Kent soon came aboard. His job was to open offices in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City and establish regional headquarters in Fort Worth in 2013. Additional offices are in New York and Florida.

Their client list includes big players such as Nestle, Pepsi and Gold’s Gym and smaller businesses as well. Green Light National has conducted refits for facilities in 23 states.

Neither McAlinden, an artillery officer, nor Kent, a logistics officer, had specific knowledge or expertise in the energy retrofit field before re-entering civilian life.

“We were taught problem-solving skills in the Marine Corps,” Kent said. “Our problem-solving abilities put us at the same level or ahead of our competitors with backgrounds in the field.”

Kent has a business degree in management and marketing from Texas Tech University and an MBA from Babson College in Massachusetts.

The pair met during training in Quantico, Virginia, in 2002. They were then stationed in California and deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004.

“Almost by chance we were together for our entire military career,” Kent said. Their deployments were completed in 2006, and Kent got a job with Lockheed back in Fort Worth. McAlinden took a job in industrial real estate in the Chicago area.

Then they were both called back to active duty in 2008.

“The military was drawing down in Iraq and increasing in Afghanistan. It was an interesting time to be in the Marine Corps,” Kent said. “Mike and I both welcomed the challenge again. It’s difficult to go from active duty back into the civilian world. At 30-plus years old, it was nice to be able to go back and do what we were doing.”

This time, the friends had bigger goals stateside.

“When we came back home, we didn’t want to go back to the same jobs we had,” Kent said. “Mike decided to start a business in industrial lighting projects.”

Their early plan was to grow at a moderate tempo and expand across the country, serving large national businesses and smaller local firms.

Their target clients were existing businesses with facilities that were too dark with antiquated or inefficient lighting systems.

They choose manufacturing partners that make custom lighting fixtures for them, or they find high-quality fixtures from other vendors if that fits the client’s needs.

“We’re definitely a small company. All of our skilled labor are independent contractors of ours,” Kent said. “We have 14 employees, including project manufacturers and salespeople. Contractors across the country provide the expertise we don’t have.”

They were careful from the beginning.

“We’re definitely cognizant of some of the challenges to grow too quickly,” Kent said. “We used our own personal savings to fund the growth. We didn’t get ahead of ourselves and take on any debt until just this past year when we got a loan to continue the growth curve we needed.”

Their regional and local jobs are more relationship-driven, Kent said, “and those can take a lot longer, to develop a level of comfort with those business owners.”

The savings can be considerable for businesses that retrofit to effective, energy-efficient lighting, Kent said.

“You’re cutting the operating costs from 50 to 80 percent. In warehouse and manufacturing facilities, lighting is 30 percent of the operating cost,” Kent said. “If you can cut that by 50 to 80 percent, that’s a lot.”

Business owners are often skeptical of estimates like that, Kent said, so they present their savings figures at about 10 percent lower than they might actually be.

“The fear is always that we’re going to look like fly-by-night snake oil salesmen, but we have a track record of delivering what we promise,” he said.

Additional benefits of upgraded lighting include increased productivity, a decrease in errors, better quality in any of the small fine tasks, and a safer workforce. Colors are rendered truer and there is less heat dispersion.

“Different parts of the country have adopted this quicker than others,” Kent said. “We cut our teeth early on before there was widespread adoption. Now, it’s a marketplace that is becoming more comfortable with this business.”

Paul McKinney, a commercial real estate broker, opened Buffalo West Restaurant in west Fort Worth about three and a half years ago. He had acquired the defunct Steak & Ale location at a bankruptcy auction some years earlier.

“He [Kent] did a complete survey of what we had,” McKinney said. “He changed the parking lot lighting from sodium vapor lights to LED [light emitting diode] lights. They change the whole light fixture itself.”

They have also changed indoor lighting in the kitchen, office, and storeroom.

The slender LED tubes fit into the original fluorescent fixtures, which will be changed out later for new fixtures.

McKinney said the refits would pay for themselves in three and a half years. His electric bill has been reduced by about $350 per month.

“Our bill can run from $1,200 to $4,000 in the summer,” McKinney said. “Inside, it’s so much brighter and looks better for working conditions.”

Outside in the parking lot is the part the customers notice. Dimmer, yellowish security lighting is now bright and a softer blue.

“The parking lot is brighter and in my opinion safer,” McKinney said. “Where before you had one lamp, now you have three lamps in the same area.”

The lighting retrofit at Buffalo West began in November and December.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer if you have older lighting fixtures,” McKinney said. “I’m real pleased with the program.”