Dan Shugar: More Maestro than Midas

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While most nicknames start innocuously enough, they tend to evolve quickly, becoming a core element of a person’s identity and reputation – even if they never asked for the moniker to begin with. Nobody knows this better than Dan Shugar, CEO of Nextracker, the world’s leading tracker vendor, who has gone by a litany of names in his illustrious career in the energy space, including one that carries a much more ominous weight than others: the King Midas of solar.

At face value, the nickname is a testament to Dan’s ability to recognize opportunity and capitalize launching successful, industry-defining companies in the process. His first touch of gold came with Powerlight when it was sold to SunPower in the early days of solar, and his reputation only grew after Nextracker’s 2015 acquisition by Flextronics, which came to the tune of a cool $330 million.

However, anyone familiar with the Midas fable knows the second edge to the nickname, a cautionary tale of money and success’ propensity to corrupt. However, when talking to Shugar and those closest to him, this is where the parallel ends, as, by all accounts, the success of Dan Shugar is but a byproduct of his larger goal: growing the clean energy into the predominant source of power for the US and the world at large.

Abigail Ross Hopper

Image: SEIA

“I think Dan is definitely one of the leaders of the energy transition, and I think he really believes in this transition across all technologies and across all opportunities,” attested Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), who has known Dan since she first started at SEIA in 2017. “I have never gotten a sense that his interest in solar is merely for his own financial gain. He’s incredibly articulate about the importance of the entire industry moving forward, the policies needed, the political strategy that’s needed, the communications that are needed to realize the industry’s full potential.” 

According to Hopper, this was first highlighted to her shortly after she began at SEIA, when the two collaborated on a project to tell the stories of people who work in the solar industry. She reflected that Dan was hyper-focused on humanizing these workers, who were so frequently viewed as just another number in labor statistics.

“It’s not just about the number, the 250,000 people who have been nameless, faceless, and kind of anonymous,” said Hopper. “To him, it was really about spending the time, money and resources needed to tell their stories. That was Dan’s vision.”

And while Hopper has largely known Shugar in roles of advocacy and political action, this drive to illustrate the greater potential of clean energy in a way that empowers others is critical to understanding what has made him and his ventures as successful as they have been.

Longtime friend, business partner, and current President of Nextracker, Howard Wenger, explained that Shugar follows a similar philosophy to Sir Richard Branson’s ABCD mantra: always be connecting dots, an approach which allows him to take on issues dynamically, finding solutions in areas that would otherwise seem entirely disconnected from the issue at hand.

“I think that’s one of the things that makes him a compelling leader and visionary” said Wenger. “He is always connecting the dots.”

Howard Wenger

Recently, this dot-connecting approach was what led to the development of Nextracker’s newest tracker product: the NX Horizon-XTR, a terrain-following, single-axis tracker built specifically for projects located on sites with sloped, uneven, and challenging terrain. Development of the product was initially triggered by a conversation with one of Nextracker’s oldest customers, Solv Energy, formerly known as Swinerton.

“It’s often the case where we have customers that identify needs,” explained Shugar. “So we had a customer about three and a half years ago, and they said, ‘Hey, your tracker is much more adaptive to terrain than you’re allowing in the specification, and we think there can be a lot of value there.’”

It was a realization that the Nextracker team ran with, kicking off initial R&D into a terrain-following tracker shortly after that initial conversation. Once all of the prerequisite engineering, monitoring, and reliability studies were done, Nextracker began to supply XTR to several dozen projects with longtime partners as a pilot test for the new tech before officially launching the product in March 2022.

The only-increasing scarcity of flat, even land had become a growing issue in the world of project development, with land grading cost estimates sometimes making up more than 5% of total project budget, and that’s before the considerations of wind-blown dust, rainwater erosion, and any other relevant environmental variables are taken into account, which can all further drive up costs.

Yet from one conversation, one observation that an existing product had a previously-overlooked strength, the first step towards conquering that challenge was made.

The ability to impart his dot-connecting mindset on others was attributed by those that pv magazine spoke with to Shugar’s lifelong passion for music. Shugar’s love for music is no industry secret, in fact, one of the three bands he currently plays in, fittingly dubbed “The Interconnectors” was initially formed at a solar energy conference and includes clean energy veteran, Yale Friend, a hardware engineer with Pure Storage. 

In January 2021, Shugar was invited to perform at the Clean Energy for Biden Inaugural Ball, where he put his own spin on Jimi Hendrix’s iconic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The video is worth watching for his wardrobe alone.

In a band, especially the jazz and blues that both Shugar plays in and draws influence from, each member has their predefined role – keeping time if you’re the bassist – but within that role, the freedom to improvise, adding their own flavor and unique style, ensuring that no two performances are the same.

Dan Shugar

“If you listen to old blues or rock, there’s sort of a call and a response that you hear a lot,” said Shugar “If you’re in an improvisational setting, there’s a number of measures for it, and you call that a trading eights. For example, there’s a great trumpet player that I enjoy collaborating with. He’ll play a phrase for eight measures, then I’ll respond to that, and playback. So I love that whole thing about music. And there is, for me, a big analogy there about the company. Great rock bands, they’ve endured for a long period of time and it’s about functional relationships, and those collaborations. With Nextracker, we founded the company in 2013, and all of our co founders are still with the company.”

This ability to improvise and shine in unscripted situations was proven to Hopper during about as high of stakes a situation as is possible, when Shugar joined SEIA and others in testimony before a packed International Trade Commission (ITC) hearing over the Section 201 tariffs in 2017.

“Dan has always been an incredibly clear communicator, especially in a situation like that, where the health and well being of our industry is on the line, and the ability to continue to grow was really in question,” said Hopper. He brought a clarity of purpose, and a clarity of communication, to the press, to the Capitol Hill, to the International Trade Commission, and ultimately, to the US Trade Representative.”

During said hearing, Dan joined representatives from SEIA, as well as other leaders across the solar landscape to provide testimony – all of which had to fit into a 60-minute window – meaning Shugar’s prepared speaking time was boiled down to just a couple of minutes.

After that initial hour, however, the floor was turned over to Trade Commission officials for a Q&A session which ended up being many hours longer than the initial testimony. Not only was this session longer, but the questions asked were not addressed to the group as a whole, rather than individual members, meaning answers had to come largely unprepared and on the fly.

It was here that Hopper remembers Shugar shining.

“What I remember is that Dan was just such a passionate advocate, right? Like the questions don’t necessarily come to a particular person on this panel of 10 or 12 people, and Dan was able to really cogently and clearly explain the answer to whatever question they had, and explain why this move of placing such horrendous tariffs could end the industry.”

Everyone that pv magazine spoke with in preparing this profile cited Shugar’s communication style as a foundational aspect of their relationship with him. As they have experienced, you never have to question where you stand with Dan, a prospect that can be either immensely reassuring or surprisingly intimidating, depending on one’s perspective.

Troy Lauterbach

“He has a very direct style that resonates with some, and catches others off guard, but it never ceases to create a dynamic of conversation that you don’t get in normal conversation with other people, which is what makes him really special,” said Troy Lauterbach, who has made his name as Co-founder & CEO of NovaSource, a global O&M provider in commercial, industrial and utility-scale solar, but has also been longtime customer and friend of Shugar’s. 

Lauterbach first met Shugar in 2008, when he was interviewing for a position at SunPower. Formalities aside, Shugar ripped right into Lauterbach from the start (at least as he remembers it), asking him point-blank: “Why would we even hire you? I think there’s probably better people than you out here at this. Why should we take this chance on you?”

As harsh as that may come off over text, Lauterbach attests that what followed those initial, intensely daunting questions was a conversation that launched a lifelong friendship and admiration.

While Shugar has certainly had fun with the Midas moniker, in speaking with those around him, another analogy kept popping up over and over, one founded in his relationships and communications with people, rather than his ability to turn a successful business. Given the way Shugar uses music to connect dots and move a bunch of small pieces as a cohesive unit, to those at Nextracker and in the solar industry at large, he can sometimes feel like a maestro more than a Midas.

“It comes to listening,” explained Shugar. “Listen to the customer, listen to the person you’re collaborating with within the band, listen to ideas other people have in the company. There’s a balance, you know, if you have a lot of experience in a given thing, you want to jump in with both feet, but there’s a pulling back. You have to do to provide space for others to, to contribute their ideas. I used to play a lot more notes than I do now. And so now I try to pull back, give the, other people’s space to express themselves, and then sort of build on these ideas together.”

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