Spotlight on a Difference Maker – Paul Koo

Release Date: 
August 19, 2020 - 08:30

There is a common motif you hear when people  start describing how they got into the lighting industry and Paul Koo is no exception. “I wasn’t a lighting guy, but next thing I knew… this is what I was doing, and we’ve been growing ever since.”  The THIS in this case, is presiding over his company, Metro Group, better known as Conserve Energy, a multi-dimensional contract manufacturing firm that has successfully operated out of the heartland of the Puget Sound for 15 years. A perennial top performer for efficiency programs across the region, most utility program managers will recognize the Conserve Energy company name but not that of its owner.

Paul Koo’s journey from new kid on the lighting block to seasoned industry veteran and CEO almost reads like an Aesop’s fables – but it would be folly to reduce his story to a single aphorism.

With a background in AV and telecom sales and experience working as an OEM, Paul made the shift from cellular services in the early 2000’s to lighting. “It was a golden age,” he laughs, referring to the era when T-12’s and metal halides were as ubiquitous as smart phones today.  He describes how he saw the opportunity to put the exact same components into fixtures he could produce – and bring the finished products to market at a lower cost than competitors.  “I saw an opportunity for the little guy to get in there and do things differently – and 15 years later we still feel like that,” he laughs.

Describing his start, Paul’s work ethic shines through. “In the early days, both utilities and potential customers were wary of newcomers and there was a stereotype we had to dissociate from. We learned to expect scrutiny, not support, but we listened, and kept working to improve.” As he describes it, things were finally starting to come together, and then the 2007 recession hit.

Enter utility incentive programs. Conserve Energy had finally figured out a way to compete – just as capital dried up like a raison in the sun. Like many trade allies – Paul pivoted his company to align with the utility incentive programs that would often help cover 50% or more of project costs.  Paul cites the strategic shift to partnering with utilities as a critical stage in the development of his company.

“It was like everyone got a promotion,” he says with a smile. “The sales team had a new purpose, the office team understood they were a vital link, and we weren’t making sales pitches to potential customers, we were telling a story.” If time stood still, Paul could have rested on his laurels. Instead, a new and exciting technology began to emerge… and soon, if you were not staying ahead of LEDs, you were falling behind.

Paul has over 20 years’ experience manufacturing products in both the USA and overseas. When asked  about challenges he has faced during his career, he mused on the dynamic he observes when it comes to how people view product quality and its source of origin.

Cheap crap”, he says. “That’s what people will call it – without pointing out that their own products are either partially or completely manufactured overseas.” While the competitive nature of commodity pricing has driven most LED manufacturing out of the US, Mr. Koo proudly highlights that most of his products final assembly happens right here in the Puget Sound.

His sanguine response to his critic’s ignorance is a study in stoic philosophy. “Where would it get me if I just focused on the negative things people say?” he asked rhetorically. “We stand behind our products, and our relationships are 100% made in America.”

I closed the interview by asking Paul what advice he has for folks who are new to the lighting industry, or maybe are running into the same obstacles he had to overcome. His answer had a familiar ring with an unexpected twist.

“At first I wanted to be like everyone else, but that didn’t work.  When Conserve Energy found its niche serving hard to reach markets, I realized our key to success was in not being like everyone else.” Mr. Koo went on to explain that since then, he has made diversity and investment in staff a priority. 

“We stopped trying to be like everyone else, and we’ve been growing ever since.”


Think you know a difference maker who could deserve some time in the spotlight? We’d love to hear about them. Contact to share your story.