Q&A: Ken Zika discusses ‘angel’ investing, touts solar development firm for nonprofits
Ken Zika has been part of the Peoria community for about half a century, relocating to central Illinois after growing up in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.
Following his career as an executive with Caterpillar, Zika decided he wanted to do more to help the Peoria community grow and thrive. So he decided to put his financial standing and professional expertise to use as an angel investor, backing Peoria area start-ups aiming to create jobs and improve the area.
One of Zika’s latest ventures is the Peoria-based solar development partner Hawk-Attollo, a firm that helps nonprofit organizations use solar energy to lower their expenses.
Zika recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about what brought him to Peoria and how he’s worked to benefit the community. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Joe Deacon: Tell us a little bit about your background. I know you and I are both kind of from the Chicago suburbs. When did you first come to Peoria, and what did you start out doing?
Ken Zika: I went to Illinois State University and I majored in accounting, and I taught there for four years: accounting, data processing they called it in those days. Then I had a choice to move to a job either in Peoria or Chicago, and I chose Peoria hardly knowing much about Peoria. That was in 1973, and we’ve stayed here since. I came to work for Price Waterhouse in accounting, public accounting, and then after about 5½ years or so, I got an opportunity at Caterpillar, so I grabbed it. That was in 1979 and I worked my rest of my career at Caterpillar.
So after your career at Caterpillar, what made you decide to kind of go into investing in community oriented startups and businesses like that?
Zika: Well, at first I didn’t have that plan (but) I wanted to give back to the community. I retired relatively young; I was 55 when I retired, and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to give back wherever I could, and so I was at a meeting and I heard – it was a meeting about violence actually, in the community; this is 15 or more years ago – and a man stood up and he said, “What the black community needs is hope, and hope starts with jobs.”
I was thinking about that, and I had been involved in some nonprofits, and I really came to believe that small companies, startups, might be the best way I could help create jobs. So that man’s comments was the instigator, the incentive that said, “Ken, what can you do to start jobs?”
And so from there, you and your son, I believe, Steve then created a company called Attollo. When did you start that company, and what are some of the projects that Attollo has done?
Zika: Well, we started about eight or nine years ago. You know, there’s an official starting date, and there’s a concept date, so I’ll say eight or nine years ago. We started looking around for startup opportunities to invest, and the truth is, there weren’t very many – we had trouble finding. There aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs that were looking for money. But eventually we found them, everything from students from Bradley to people a little further along. Some university professors at Bradley and others; we used Bradley as a source in many cases.
We invested in some software, some restaurants. We were early dollars, first dollar in Bump Boxes, which has been a very successful company. Natural Fiber Welding is the big one that has done very well; everybody knows about that. Hawk-Attollo, which is one of the ones I’d like to talk more about. We invested in some that failed; that’s the nature of startups, that’s the nature of angel investing – that you roll the dice and you try to analyze the person and the idea, but you’re not always right. It doesn’t always work.
Well, you brought up Hawk-Attollo, so let’s talk a little bit about that. My understanding is they’re involved in solar development?
Zika: Yeah, it’s a company I’m really excited about because the founder, a gentleman by the name of Jason Hawksworth, really had the idea of providing solar energy for nonprofits. It’s a unique niche kind of market. Just a little bit, not to get too into the financing, but solar energy’s not really economically viable without the tax benefits, and of course, nonprofits can’t use tax benefits. So it kind of excludes them from the solar energy market, if you will, or opportunity I should say.
But Jason – and I worked with him for a number of years – we developed a model where we can provide solar energy to nonprofits at no cost to them, and in fact much lower than the price that they would pay Ameren. So it was an opportunity to use the tax credits outside of the nonprofit, and we worked out the financing model for that.
So who are some of the nonprofits that you’ve been able to work with with this project?
Zika: Well, frankly, the big one in the Peoria area is to Peoria Park District. But we’ve done Northwoods (Community) Church, we’ve done Hillel on the Bradley campus; it’s one of our smaller ones that little fraternity. But we’ve done over 30 projects, over $12 million worth of solar projects in the last five years.
So what are these projects? You bring in solar panels and help them develop solar energy?
Zika: Yeah, we essentially … we usually create a separate, new company that owns the panels (and) we put them on the roof. There’s a lot of design and engineering work; you don’t just slap them up there. There’s a lot of things that you have to do prepare for it, and working with Ameren, of course. But we basically put it on the roof, or in some cases vacant land next door or in the near area. And the host – what we call the nonprofit would be the host – they would buy the electricity, but it’s totally owned, maintained, insured by another business. So they don’t have any responsibility in that regard; all they have to do is buy the electricity.
You mentioned you’ve done a lot of work with the Peoria Park District. What are some of the things that people might notice or see that Hawk-Attollo has done with the park district?
Zika: Well, if you come over the Murray Baker Bridge and look at the RiverPlex, you will see the solar panels on the top of the RiverPlex. If you go to the Bonnie Noble Center out in Lakeview (Park), you’ll see them on the roof there. So we’ve done four major buildings, the Owens Center, the Bonnie Noble … I forgot the fourth one, but yeah, four major buildings.
And also some of the projects have been done with some schools, is that correct?
Zika: Right, Germantown Hills would be one. We did a project at Richwoods High School; we’ve got solar panels on Richwoods High School, Germantown Hills. We’re also doing CityLink. We’ve got a project with CityLink; that one’s in process, that one’s not quite finished. Robein School District in East Peoria, we’ve done. We’ve done projects in Deer Creek, Chillicothe (Public) Library. Tremont High School is another big one we did.
So getting back to kind of the angel investing side of it, and you mentioned that job creation is part of the key motivator in that. How crucial is investing in community-oriented startups to improving situations in Peoria?
Zika: It’s very important, it’s very important. And I’ve been around enough startups now to know that finding capital is difficult for startups. You know, if you want to start a company (you can) go to Silicon Valley, or Austin (Texas) or North Carolina; the Midwest is a little more risk adverse, and just don’t have the environment for startups in most cases. That’s not 100% true, but there’s certainly a bigger tendency in those places I mentioned. So getting the infrastructure, getting the people to think in terms of taking a risk and providing capitals to startups is something we’ve worked on. There’s a lot of people in Peoria that are trying to try to move in that direction.
So what would your message be to possibly encourage others to begin investing in community projects like these?
Zika: So I just saw somebody from the Chamber of Commerce reminding a group to buy locally, which is a great slogan and it’s a great concept and we should all try to do that. But I also like to say invest locally. There’s a lot of investment dollars that people are putting outside of the Peoria area, and they should look for ways to put it inside Peoria. The (City of Peoria) Community Development group, Chris Setti’s group (the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council), the Chamber of Commerce can all help find ways to invest dollars locally. So I’d like to create the slogan "invest locally."
Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know about community investing or your projects?
Zika: I’d like to say if you want to contact Hawk-Attollo, look at their website and if you are in a nonprofit situation – your church, your school, your park district, whatever – please give them a consideration. It’s really a win-win situation. It’s low-cost green energy and there’s no risks.