Charlie Cichetti was leading construction projects for a national real estate development firm when he earned his first credential in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Better known as LEED, the program sets the “green building” standards used to transform how buildings are designed, constructed, maintained and operated.
LEED was less than a decade old in 2008 when the firm where Cichetti worked laid off 95 percent of its Atlanta employees. His landing was softer than many; he went to work the next day consulting for a construction company. And his interest in green building practices continued to grow.
Government mandates require federal buildings to be LEED-certified, so Cichetti saw an opportunity and was one of the first green building professionals to earn all of the LEED credentials. He cofounded the Sustainable Investment Group (SIG) to provide comprehensive LEED training and education, green building consulting and ultimately technical services to building developers, architects, portfolio owners and property managers in 2009.
Cichetti directed SIG’s earliest efforts on retrofitting existing buildings. “This part of the industry was growing when no one else could build,” he said. His company continued to grow through the recession.
In 2010, Cichetti met with Sharon Macaluso, area director for the DeKalb office of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC), for help in strategic planning and securing an initial small business loan. He also attended the UGA SBDC’s GrowSmart program, per her recommendation.
“The course gave me MBA knowledge in just eight Fridays,” he said. “It taught me how to make sure our financial projections were in line, our strategic planning was in place, and our growth was sustainable. Sharon also continued to advise us on where to go for SBA loans/lines of credit each year to support our rapid progress.”
By September 2011, sales had doubled and SIG had five full-time employees and one part-time contractor. “Building owners and managers want to save energy and water for competitive reasons. Large institutional owners see their building values increase with a LEED certification. Our focus on LEED for existing buildings really helped us grow.”
When his partner later wanted a buydown and as additional minority owners were getting involved, Cichetti again contacted Macaluso. “We spend a couple of months strategizing what would be in Charlie’s best interest and coached him on negotiations through the buydown,” she said.
And in 2014, a related online education business that had worked with SIG was ready to sell. “We’re moving fast—the industry is moving fast—and we’re hiring great people and growing. We approached Sharon for help when we realized we needed to accelerate this acquisition,” said Cichetti.
“Charlie told me that this purchase would double his business in terms of revenues and employees. So we looked together at different resources, worked on his projections and did a conference call with the lender. After going through several gyrations with his plan and projects and funding sources, he got the approvals he needed,” said Macaluso.
The Sustainable Investment Group now has 17 full-time employees plus some additional part-timers and contractors. The company recently moved into a new office (pending LEED CI Platinum certification) that will hold up to 24 new employees and has opened a satellite office in New York City, its next largest market. It also has additional people “on the ground” in Minneapolis and Boulder.
SIG has been named as a Best Place to Work by the Atlanta Business Chronicle the past three years—one of Charlie’s proudest achievements.
“In less than six years, we’ve taught more than 12,000 professionals on LEED practices and how to pass LEED professional credential exams. We’ve consulted on over 50 million square feet of green building and energy-related projects, including the largest LEED-certified convention center in the world—the Georgia World Congress Center—the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, churches, schools, hotels, many Manhattan skyscrapers and even a new high-rise LEED apartment under construction in Atlanta,” said Cichetti.
“And in 2014 we saw 47 percent revenue growth and added 30 percent more staff. Even though we’re still just a small business, we are becoming well-known in the green building movement.”
The SBDC is a unit of the University of Georgia Office of Public Service and Outreach. For additional information on the SBDC, visit www.georgiasbdc.org.