The Power of Persistence: Paul Clary Talks the Tricks (and Treats) of Entrepreneurship

Paul Clary is the co-founder of MD Energy Advisors, an energy solutions company that provides management, procurement, and efficiency services to commercial, residential, and government clients throughout the state.

But growing up in the suburbs outside of Washington, DC as a child, Clary was the undisputed king of candy.

A native Marylander, Clary was born at Andrews Air Force Base, the son of a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and an Ethiopian immigrant-turned-school paraprofessional.

Clary was raised in Prince George’s County in Oxon Hill. Childhood brought baseball and basketball games with the military junior leagues and the standard variety of play. But for a burgeoning entrepreneur, Halloween was prime time.

“When I was younger, I would sell candy to my friends in elementary school,” Clary laughs. “Every Halloween, all of the other kids would finish eating their candy in a week and a half. That’s when I’d begin to sell mine.”

While his brother pursued a career as an electrical engineer, Clary set a course for Baltimore, enrolling at Morgan State University where he studied business administration.

“All throughout childhood and college, I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit, he says. I was always intrigued by different business models.”

He attributes that entrepreneurial spirit to his mother, who traveled to the U.S. from Ethiopia when just 19 years old and worked hard to help provide a life for herself and her family.

“Both of my parents worked very hard,” he says. “They instilled resourcefulness in me. It’s a quality I think is very important for entrepreneurship. It’s also a quality we look for in our staff.”

The Power of Knowledge

Even at college, Clary was continuously attempting to broaden his business horizons beyond what was being taught in class.

“In my spare time, I’d visit the campus library and read books that had nothing to do with what I was studying,” he says. “I’d read business leaders’ biographies, books about economic theory – anything I could get my hands on that was related to economics or entrepreneurship.”

At Morgan State, Clary developed a true interest in economic development. He turned to the Internet, attempting to figure out what that scene looked like in Baltimore.

A Google search yielded a result on the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the city’s economic development agency.

I thought, ‘Hey, this sounds like something I would be interested in.’”

True to his nature, he cold called the company, introduced himself to the receptionist, and asked if there were any internships available.

“I was invited in for an interview,” he says.

Presented as a summer internship, the position evolved with lighting speed.

“It was an enriching experience,” Clary says. “The internship developed into a full-time offer.”

BDC conducted a series of Outreach Visits, gauging the needs of business owners in Baltimore City and assessing what might be done to help them expand.

Clary enjoyed these visits, learning about a lot of different business models.

“I was sitting in front of many entrepreneurs – people who I wanted to be – and learning a lot about their businesses. I enjoyed hearing their stories, particularly stories about how they got started. That was fun but it also provided me with a lot of insight,” he says.

To this day, Clary continues to keep in touch with several of these early mentors.

“I still call them for advice,” he says.

The Power of Partnership

During his tenure at the BDC, Clary met like-minded individuals and future business partners, Jason Schwartzberg and Phil Croskey.

“We were on the same team, working on a lot of projects together,” Clary says. “And we all had an entrepreneurial spirit. We wanted to build something special.”

Schwartzberg, Clary recalls, would show up to the office almost every day with a new idea for a startup. Some, he says, were phenomenal – while others required a bit of workshopping. And then there was one that the group just couldn’t shake: the idea to start a power company that made energy more approachable to consumers via information and education.

In 2010, Clary and his partners founded MD Energy Advisors.

We took the old adage of ‘don’t quit your day job’  to heart the first two years of business,” Clary says. “We worked nights and weekends to build our company while keeping our day jobs.”

By November of 2012, the trio decided they had enough revenue to give MD Energy Advisors their undivided attention. At the time, Clary was in his mid-20s, with no wife and no children.

“We barely had enough revenue to cover salaries at the time,” Clary says. “We looked at ourselves and asked, ‘What is the absolute minimum you’d need to survive?’ And whatever that number was, that’s what we paid ourselves.”

The move paid off.

“Thankfully our company has been growing ever since,” Clary says.

The Power of Potential

MD Energy Advisors started with just two desks subleased from an office interior design company at 509 South Exeter Street in Baltimore. Just like Clary’s internship from years prior, the office space was procured with a phone call from out of the blue.

“My business partner reached out to the firm and said, ‘Hey we’re looking for office space – two desks, specifically. And they were kind enough to say, ‘Sure, come on in,’” Clary recalls.  

Once again, opportunities continued to bloom.

First, a small office space opened up at the same building, then a larger one and MD Energy Advisors just continued to grow within the building.

“We loved the location so much, we never left,” says Clary.

More desks require more people to man them, though – and MD Energy Advisors didn’t slouch in this department.

“There were just the three of us when we first started,” says Clary. “At the beginning of 2021, we had 13 employees. Right now, we’re at 25. And we’re going to end the year at around 30. So, it’s been a great year for the growth of our company.”

Additionally, MD Energy Advisors now boasts employees not only in Maryland, but also in New Jersey, Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

The Power of a Process

While the company’s growth in 2021 is nothing short of astounding, Clary is quick to point out that the company has been pounding the pavement for quite some time.

“When you look back, this is our 11th year in business,” he says. “Things picked up recently, but it’s been a long process. You try a lot of things over time, and you figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”

And that process?

“A large part of that process has been improving our focus on our core offerings,” Clary says.

A partnership based on trust and mutual understanding is also key.

“My partners and I work well together,” Clary says of his co-founders, MD Energy Advisors’ president Schwartzberg and Croskey, its CEO.

“We worked together in the past and those team dynamics carried over. We each have unique roles in the company and play them well.”

The Power of Reputation

In addition to helping commercial real estate owners reduce their energy-related operating expenses, the MD Energy Advisors team also  provides utility program administrators with outsourced engineering and business development for various utility rebate programs throughout the country.

Regardless of the audience, however, one simple tenet remains true: “having a good reputation means everything.”

“It’s a generic statement, but it’s true,” says Clary. “You have a responsibility to do a good job for your customers and to provide great customer service. Having a reputation for performing quality work will travel much farther than any marketing or advertisement campaign.”

The Power of Positive Change

In 2020, MD Energy Advisors was named one of the 100 fastest-growing companies in America’s inner cities by Fortune Magazine and was one of the three Baltimore-based companies among the list’s top 10.

The number of Baltimore-based businesses that appear on the list, at large, is a promising sign for growth in Baltimore’s small business sector, which can be an uphill battle.

“Having a strong economy in the State of Maryland is critical for our company. A growing local economy translates into additional demand for our services.”

Without that growth, there is not much to “tap into,” so to speak, causing stagnation. But MD Energy Advisors is busy doing its part to move the needle in a more positive direction.

Interestingly, the company has participated in a project at Clary’s alma mater, Morgan State University.

“Being  involved with an energy savings project at my alma mater has been pretty fulfilling,” he says. “It feels like I’ve come full-circle.”

Though nostalgic, for sure, Clary says much has changed – in the best of ways.

Positive change is what MD Energy Advisors is all about.

To wit, MD Energy Advisors is now thriving. A good thing: he and his wife, who reside in Anne Arundel County, are the proud parents of a 1-year-old, with a new daughter on the way in January.

And with the MD Energy Advisors trio on the job, more and more consumers will be able to make informed decisions about the power they may have never known they wield.

“We’re all very passionate about our economic development roots and creating a better Baltimore and a better Maryland,” Clary says.