By age 36, Heino Ackert had established himself on the world scene as a top foreign trade expert out of East Germany. • It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. The New York Times and other media touted Ackert as one of the first private, East Berlin management and marketing consultants. • Within six months, Ackert helped seal the deal on the $35 million purchase of Royal Zenith Inc., a trading and marketing company for the printing industry and the first U.S. company bought by an East German company. • Then he started his own company and became licensed as a private lawyer with a focus on foreign trade law. About a decade later, he began to immerse himself in solar energy.
Now he has his sights set on St. Petersburg for his latest business venture: use his 10 years of solar experience and decades of marketing and management expertise to help develop a solar energy farm and solar manufacturing operation that would make Pinellas County a hub for renewable technology.
"There's a lot of sun," said Ackert, sitting at the head of a conference table in the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce offices on Wednesday. "You have 50, 60 percent more sun than we have in Germany."
He flashed a slight smile. Then he noted his one concern, critical to any businessperson.
"It seems the demand is there but is it a sustainable demand?" asked Ackert, now 57 with graying hair and a medium build.
There are growing calls for renewable energy across the globe. Florida, the Sunshine State, lags behind some unlikely leaders in the solar energy field.
New Jersey is among the unexpected locales. That state ranks as one of the top in the country in solar energy development. It was one of the places Ackert and the consortium of German businesspeople working on the solar project considered for their business venture. But their U.S. partners pointed the group toward St. Petersburg.
Ackert's native Germany has emerged in the past decade or so as a global leader in solar technology. The country announced after the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that it would phase out nuclear energy in favor of even more renewables, solar in particular.
Ackert became involved in solar as he began to go into business for himself. He had worked as the deputy head of Iberma Ltd., a consulting company that the East German government partly owned.
He exuded an aggressive business attitude, highlighted in his view of Iberma at the time of his departure in early 1990.
"The time was right to leave the company where I was working," Ackert told the New York Times at the time. "They have a lot of good people, but the top managers have no experience and the firm is just sitting there now, being passive at a time when the situation calls for positive action."
After leaving Iberma, Ackert created several of his own companies, including the business involved in the current solar project, called NEP New Energy Project & Finance GmbH, based in Berlin.
Ackert and the group working on the project impressed officials over three days of meetings this week as they presented their concepts for the solar project in St. Petersburg.
Some officials had found past news reports on Ackert that highlighted his stature and that of the group.
"I thought he pretty clearly had experience putting together these packages," said St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse. "He clearly had financial knowledge as to how to make it work."
That will be critical in determining whether the project materializes. One of the biggest concerns is whether the project is economically feasible.
At a news conference Thursday, Mario Farias, managing director of Farias Marketing Group and the local business developer for the project, said the consortium wants to grow the local economy rather than take from it.
"They're coming here to invest and create jobs," Farias said.
That's where Ackert comes in. Crunching numbers is Ackert's forte.
"He puts together these financial packages around the world," Farias said.
Perhaps even more compelling was Ackert's ability to warm people to his ideas.
"Lawyers and bankers tend to be very serious, but he had his light side," Farias said. "He's an extremely intelligent man with a great sense of humor."
What he is serious about is determining whether St. Petersburg is indeed the place to create 160 solar manufacturing jobs and 100 solar energy farm positions. Ackert said the reception his team received was positive.
"I think they're open," Ackert said. "I think there are some steps to be taken still."
Ackert and members of the consortium plan to return to St. Petersburg in four to six weeks for another visit.
"We sleep on it. We think about it. We will figure out with our partners here what the next steps are," Ackert said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.