Solar systems executive to chair ABQ chamber board
Jun. 26—Veteran solar industry executive Peter Lorenz will become the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce board chairman on Friday, replacing Norm Becker, who will step down on June 30.
Lorenz is CEO of Albuquerque-based Unirac Inc., one of the nation's premier manufacturers of mounting structures for rooftop and ground-based solar systems.
A 51-year-old native of Germany, Lorenz brings 26 years of executive experience to the chamber, having served in solar and other energy-related companies and consultancies since 1996 in the U.S. and Europe.
As a seasoned industry leader, Lorenz says he's built a solid personal and professional commitment to contributing to the betterment of the communities where he works and lives, based on the belief that companies have a responsibility to help improve their surroundings for the good of all.
"I think it's the role and responsibility of companies to make our communities better," Lorenz told the Journal. "We don't have to wait for politicians or legislators to tell us what to do. If we have the ability to reshape our communities in positive ways, we should do it."
Since moving to Albuquerque with his family in 2012, Lorenz has directly acted on that commitment by creating an employee-centered and family-friendly environment at Unirac — which earned the company a spot on the Journal's list of Top Workplaces in 2020 — and through his involvement in the local community.
Lorenz joined the chamber board in 2016, and has since chaired a new committee dedicated to tackling "bold issues" in education to improve the local educational system.
And, as a founding member of the Solare Collegiate Charter School board, Lorenz has co-created a successful alternative school for fifth-eighth grade children in Albuquerque's South Valley that this year graduated its first class of 75 students.
Chamber president and CEO Terri Cole said Lorenz will bring fresh energy and positive leadership to the board.
"He's extraordinarily thoughtful, energetic and committed," Cole told the Journal. "Those are exactly the traits the chamber chair needs to do the job successfully."
Lorenz grew up in Haltern, a town in Northwest Germany near the Dutch border. He first came to the U.S. at 17 to study in Carrollton, Georgia — about 45 miles west of Atlanta — where he earned a diploma from Carrollton Central High School while living with a host family.
While there, he played wide receiver for his high school football team, although being from Germany, he knew practically nothing about the game.
"I didn't really know what it was, but I kept bugging the coaches for weeks until they finally allowed me to play with my host family's permission," Lorenz said. "I didn't even know the rules and I never actually played, except for a few minutes as a senior on homecoming night. It was a whole new experience and I had a blast."
After graduating from Carrollton in 1991, Lorenz' parents wanted him to return to Germany to attend college there, but his high school experience instilled a long-term desire to come back to the U.S.
He earned a dual BA in European business administration from Germany's Reutlingen University and Middlesex in London, before taking his first professional job in 1996 as a finance manager for Royal Dutch Shell in London. Then, in 1997, he gained his first foray into solar energy, after Shell announced a new, $500 million investment in renewable technology, constructing what was at that time the world's largest solar module manufacturing plant.
Lorenz worked as finance manager for Shell's global solar business. The company made and sold solar systems in Europe, the U.S. and other places, but it was still years before solar really took off in the global market.
"I was about 27 and saw how excited people were about making a difference with solar power," Lorenz said. "I got excited."
In 1999, however, his teenage attachment to the U.S. got the better of him, and he returned that year to attend Harvard University, earning an MBA in 2001.
Climbing the corporate ladder
After graduation, Lorenz joined global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in Houston, Texas, where he provided consulting services to the electric power and renewable energy industries. And, as renewables began to gain ground in the utility industry in the mid-2000s, he became more directly involved with wind- and solar-related work.
"I started doing a lot more on that with McKinsey's clients to develop opportunities," Lorenz said.
That work introduced him to Quanta Services, which manages contracting for the electric power, gas and telecommunications industries. Lorenz left McKinsey in 2009 to lead Quanta's foray into renewable energy markets, particularly its efforts to tap into the growing solar industry.
He remained there until 2011, when the Hilti Group — a European manufacturer of specialized tools for professionals — asked Lorenz to become CEO of Unirac Inc., a homegrown Albuquerque company that Hilti had just acquired.
Hilti was already providing solar mounting equipment for commercial builders, utilities and some residential installers, but it bought Unirac to expand its markets in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Under Lorenz' leadership, Unirac has significantly grown and changed over the past decade.
The company, which originally launched in 1998, had already become a premier supplier in the U.S. for solar racking systems. The Global Environment Fund, a Maryland-based private equity firm, had acquired Unirac from it's original founders in 2006.
It then re-sold it to Hilti, which almost immediately expanded the company's manufacturing operations, which were housed in a 66,000-square-foot facility at the Springer industrial park north of Downtown. Hilti expanded that building to 80,000 square feet, and then added another building to provide an additional 40,000 square feet to its industrial complex at Springer, where it remains today.
But under Hilti — a family-owned company that was fairly "risk averse" — the new owners seemed "complacent" with modest growth and profits, limiting Unirac's market expansion, Lorenz said.
"Our industry has a high level of uncertainty, and it's tempting to play it safe with incremental changes," Lorenz said. "But as CEO, I realized that the company's growth strategy was not working. I persuaded Hilti to look for a new owner, and they agreed."
That led to yet another buyout in 2016, when New York-based private equity firm Tenex Capital Management acquired Unirac, offering sufficient growth capital and support to aggressively expand Unirac's markets.
"That's when Unirac's story really starts," Lorenz said. "We needed to make bigger, bolder moves with courage. So we pivoted to re-set our operations for success."
Since 2018, Unirac has acquired two smaller solar companies to expand its product line. That includes California-based SolarHooks — a manufacturer of the attachment equipment used in solar mounting platforms — and Ohio-based Ecolibrium Solar Inc., which developed a plastic-based flat-roof racking system for commercial buildings, allowing Unirac to add a polymer product to the steel and aluminum systems it makes.
The company also opened a back-end, research-and-design office in India in 2018 that now employs 270 people. And last year, it opened a new office south of the border that assists in supply-chain management with Guadalajara-based manufacturers, while also overseeing sales in Mexico and Central America.
"We've significantly expanded our supply chain to rely less on high-cost production in the U.S.," Lorenz said. "We have suppliers now in Southeast Asia, China, India and Mexico."
The company's New Mexico-based workforce has grown from about 100 under Hilti to 170 now.
Internally, Lorenz has also focused on building employee loyalty through a team approach to everything, and through benefits that reinforce morale.
The company, for example, recently added paid leave for new and expecting parents. And it created a paid "wellness day" that employees can take at will to reinforce their spiritual and mental health.
Lorenz says his life experience has taught him that "mindset" is critical for success.
"Don't mull over reasons why you can't do something," he said. "Look at the assets you have and go out and do it. It's one's mindset that's the limiting factor."
Cole said she expects Lorenz to apply that same "can-do" attitude as chamber chair.
"His energy and effort always matches his commitment," Cole said. "I believe that's what drives his success."
Following a 2016 "strategy review," the chamber has largely focused on three big development areas: transforming Albuquerque's Downtown into a bustling center of activity, reinforcing public safety — including solutions for the city's homeless issues — and improving the educational system.
Lorenz said the best way to deal with those and other issues is through open dialogue with everyone.
"It's about bringing different stakeholders together around issues to talk with one another and work together," he said. "We need to facilitate, enable, conversations. It's not political, but issue-based conversations to find solutions."
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Dealing with homelessness, for example, requires input from everybody.
"We need to be involved in that conversation to help implement proven best practices to deal with it," Lorenz said. "It's a sad, tough problem, but we have to have the courage to address it."
His appointment as chamber chair, which runs from July 2022-June 2023, came as a complete surprise, Lorenz said.
"It was totally out of the blue for me," he said. "I'm extremely honored."
Lorenz lives with his wife, Dawn, and their two children — Oliver, 14, and Beatrice, 10 — in Los Ranchos in the North Valley.