Career 180: The ‘energetic’ entrepreneur

Michael Hartofilis understands New York City’s energy first-hand. After growing up working in the insurance business alongside his father, he developed an interest in saving his customers money on their utility bills. Six years ago, the father-and-son team founded Greenlight Energy, an Astoria-based energy service business that provides natural gas and electric to customers in New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Hartofilis, 30, lives in Astoria.


What sparked your interest in the energy biz?

Prior to starting Greenlight Energy, I was 23 years old and working my way up in the health insurance industry, providing plans to small businesses. At the time, there was a lot of uncertainty in health care and the role of the sales agent, and it was also extremely competitive. The initial draw to energy was to get a competitive advantage in the insurance industry by saving customers on their utility bills in addition to their medical insurance. It was basically about finding ways to lower the customer’s bottom line, which is usually a good sell.


Why did you decide to take the leap?

The value of the services we could provide, as well as the potential to grow, became immediately apparent. And because we’d begun by providing only natural gas services through one utility in New York, there was a serious desire to expand our territories as well as the products we could provide. I knew the only way I could do that successfully was to become 100% invested in Greenlight Energy and leave the insurance industry behind. Whole hog, as they say.


What was the first step?

It was coming up with a company name. [My father and I] knew that we wanted to go the green route. I came up with Greenlight Energy mostly because we eventually wanted to get into providing green energy services. At the time, our resources were a little bit limited; we only recently started providing natural gas because it requires a great deal of capital to provide. For the first two years we were only providing natural gas services.


Why are you based in Astoria?

My father grew up in Astoria and he currently lives in Astoria as well, so the idea was I wanted him to be able to walk to the office. I’m also living here and this is where my father grew up. This is where our roots are, so it just makes sense that we should get a stronger presence here and kind of grow from here.


How is Greenlight moving toward providing renewable energy?

We’re currently reaching out to existing customers and new business, offering the opportunity to purchase their electricity supplies from 100% renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. Our goal is to have at least 50% of our customers green by 2017.


What was an unexpected challenge in getting into this biz?

One unforeseeable factor has been the volatility of energy markets. We’ve seen historic highs and lows in some markets since we started six years ago. As it turned out, the only predictable thing about the markets was how unpredictable they were. So we had to adapt fast and did so by signing up our customers with fixed rates for periods of 12 to 24 months. As a result, our customers knew exactly what their natural gas and electric supply rates would be every month and were no longer at the mercy of the markets.


What benefit does Greenlight Energy offer New Yorkers?

Over the last year, we’ve seen Con Edison’s electricity supply rates triple from one month to the next. We can protect our customers against this kind of volatility by locking them into a fixed rate for 12 to 24 months. This also allows the customer to budget their annual utility costs. Knowing how much you have to spend, how much you can save; these concerns seem to be more pressing than ever.


Why might people not sign up for your service?

Lack of information, I guess. There are some misconceptions running through the industry, one being that we’re stealing business away from the customer’s utility (Con Edison, et cetera). But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The local utility companies that deliver our customers’ natural gas and electricity actually endorse third party suppliers like us. And because of our lower operating costs and the opportunity to offer fixed plans, which the utilities cannot, we’re able to consistently provide our customers with stability and savings. We’re offering people something they can use, something that can positively impact their lives and I suppose that’s about the best anyone can do.


What do you like about your new job?

When I was in health insurance, I was working for myself, by myself. As nice as it is to reap the fruits of your own labor, I find it much more fulfilling to see what each of our 15 employees brings to the table every day, to see them growing and succeeding as a member of a team. All that I’ve experienced and learned in this business over the last six years, I wouldn’t trade for anything.


Any advice for readers considering a career 180?

I just wouldn’t be intimated by the unknown. Considering the resources we have now, [there is] access to all kinds of information. And I’m not just talking about Google. You can find somebody in a specific industry or field on LinkedIn and these people are willing to talk to you, especially young people who are looking to get into that field. Do your research and the information is there.