This year was shaping up to be Sunnova Energy International Inc.’s best ever. California—already the biggest U.S. solar market—had started requiring most new homes to be powered by the sun. The rooftop solar company’s shares hit a new peak in early March, and analysts projected sharp growth. Even bad news hadn’t harmed Sunnova. Rolling blackouts, which big utilities had used the previous fall to help prevent wildfires? Just another reason homeowners might want Sunnova’s solar and battery products. A trade war hadn’t stopped the rise of residential solar. Even the novel coronavirus in China didn’t look like much of a problem. In late February the company increased its estimate for the number of new customers it would bring in for the year.
But Sunnova Chief Executive Officer John Berger arrived in Snowmass, Colo., on March 12 for a ski vacation with his family already sensing that things were changing. Some runs were beginning to close, and his stock was dropping off sharply from its high. “I was thinking that my wife and kids would go skiing the next day, and I would be in the hotel room on the phone,” Berger says.
If only it had been that easy. Berger cut the trip short, returned to company headquarters in Houston, and ordered most employees to stay home. The next few weeks were a blur. Door-to-door sales—a key marketing strategy for the residential sector—had to be mostly sidelined. Daily sales had never been more volatile. Berger suspended salaries for the entire management team, let go of outside consultants, and put off some expansion plans.