Josh Davenport walked into a North Little Rock auto dealership looking to buy an electric car.
His company wound up buying the dealership, or at least part of it.
Davenport is CEO of Seal Solar in North Little Rock, and now a partner with Collin Riggin and Heather Nelson in the only exclusive electric vehicle dealership in Arkansas, and perhaps all of the South: Evolve Auto at 700 W. Broadway.
What began last spring as a test drive has evolved into a plan to offer a three-pronged conduit to utility and gasoline independence: solar modules for homes or businesses, Tesla Powerwalls for battery storage and EV charging stations for the garage. If plans work out, all will be packaged for customers in a single financing deal that Seal is working on with banking partners.
Riggin, who loves never gassing up, never changing his oil and never emitting a fume of carbon monoxide in his Tesla, was already preaching his conversion from internal combustion driving when Davenport appeared on his doorstep with his eye on an EV but his mind on a larger plan.
“It was last April, and we’d just switched to showing cars by appointment only after the pandemic lockdown,” said Riggin, a longtime car man who now boasts having Arkansas’ only place to test-drive a Tesla. “Josh called and wanted to look at a Tesla Model X.”
Riggin, who had founded Evolve in late 2019 after stints at the former North Point Ford in North Little Rock and City Motors Pre-Owned in Jacksonville, said Davenport and his wife, Beth Ann, asked if he was interested in adding investors.
“They said they might know some people that were interested; that was their wording,” Riggin said. “I knew he was in the solar business, but I was still clueless at that point. At the end of the conversation, they said, ‘We’re talking about us!’”
An Aggressive Stake
Weeks later, “we sat down and a picture unfolded for all this could become,” Riggin said.
Neither Riggin nor Seal Solar officials would detail exactly what percentage stake Seal took in the dealership, or what it paid. “We are two private entities, so are not really going into dollars and cents at this time,” Riggin said. “But we’ll say that Seal Solar has taken an aggressive ownership stake, and we’re looking forward to expounding on the natural synergies we can offer to a future-focused client base.”
Evolve is planning a public grand opening next month, and part of the business will be finding electric cars in real time for particular customers.
“Say somebody wants to order a Chevy Bolt; we’ll go get him a Chevy Bolt,” Riggin said. “If somebody wants a Jaguar I-PACE, a little bit higher, we’ll go find it. We’ll have a very transparent buying process. They’ll see the car the same time we see the car, they’ll see all the good and bad, and we agree on a price right up front, or we don’t get the car.”
Ask if the current seven cars in the 5,000-SF showroom are used, and you’ll be corrected quickly: “They’re all pre-owned,” Riggin said, noting that Tesla does not franchise its dealerships, and the nearest to Arkansas are in Dallas and Tulsa. Riggin hopes to sell 75 to 150 EVs this year, he said.
The six automobiles on Evolve’s website on Wednesday were all 2018 and 2019 Teslas, ranging in price from $38,550 for a 2018 Model 3 up to $55,800 for a 2019 Model 3 Performance with full self-drive. New Teslas run from about $40,000 for a basic Model 3 to about $200,000 for the new Roadster, which zooms from zero to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds. The Model 3 Performance hits 60 in just 3.2 seconds, quick enough to throw back a reporter’s head during a test drive.
‘Complete Energy Independence’
Tesla dominates the business because “they basically invented it,” Riggin said, and because customers ask for the cars. “We just got our first Tesla Model Y and are waiting to get it here,” he said. “It will be the first one I’ve seen up close and in person.”
Riggin admits he’s obsessed with Teslas, and their creator, the billionaire Elon Musk. Three or four years ago, he read Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” Seeing her husband’s enthusiasm, Sara Riggin took an offhand remark he made about opening a dealership and pressed the issue.
“We’re driving to dinner one night, and she just looks over and she says, ‘I like what you said about opening an electric car dealership,’ and I almost fell out of my seat because I’d just said that someone should open one, not necessarily me. But she said, ‘You know, you’ve got the experience, and you’re more of an electric car nut than anybody I know. Just go for it.’”
Davenport, who teamed up with Seal President Heather Nelson in 2012 to create a 47-employee company that’s a leader in Arkansas solar design and installation, said that the transportation sector is one of the largest energy users, yet the market remains largely untapped by the renewable power industry. “By joining forces with Evolve Auto, Seal Solar is taking steps to change that,” Davenport told Arkansas Business.
By combining solar panels, battery storage and charging stations for electric cars, “this partnership will allow us to create a fully solar-powered ecosystem, where Arkansans can charge their homes, businesses, batteries and cars all with one transaction.” The result? “Complete energy independence,” Davenport said.
That independence has already been achieved by Greg Bradley, Seal’s “car guy” and residential sales manager. Bradley drives the company Tesla, and his home is equipped with rooftop panels, Powerwalls and a charger.
“This gives people a chance to supply their own electricity to run their homes and to avoid the need for gasoline forever,” Riggin said, with Bradley nodding vigorously. “There’s a lot of outrage over energy cost spikes last summer and of course this winter, and people can avoid that.”
“My Tesla battery is a 76-kilowatt battery that gives me about 300 miles before recharging,” Bradley said. “When I plug it into my solar system it costs me 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. So basically I pay $1.52 to go 300 miles. You’d pay $30 to $35 at the gas pump to go that far.”
Bradley said Seal walks potential solar customers through their last 12 months of power bills before crafting financing that predicts a set return on investment. In his case, his solar power savings will pay off his expenses in about 10 years. “It can be more or less time, but everything’s guaranteed for 25 years, and the panels will be productive for 50 or 60 years,” Bradley said. “Even in retirement, I won’t have a power bill to worry about.”
Nelson, Seal’s president, has a background in banking and is confident the company will be able to offer solar, Powerwalls and EV stations under one financing umbrella.
State Catching Up
For now, Arkansas has only 1,700 registered electric vehicles on the road, and the state ranks 42nd in electric charging outlets with 202 public stations and 434 individual stations, primarily in heavily populated areas like Pulaski County.
But that’s changing quickly, Riggin and Bradley said.
“With Seal Solar’s support, we believe Evolve can capitalize on the 115% growth in the EV market to achieve sizable year-over-year increases,” Riggin said. “As more public and private EV infrastructure comes on line, sales will further skyrocket.”
A recent Tesla valuation study showed the electric car’s staying power, finding a remarkable 94.5% retention value after one year for pre-owned Tesla Model 3s. That’s half the depreciation compared with the second-ranked vehicle for value retention, the Ford Ranger pickup.
“People have been waiting and hoping for a way to take energy control into their own hands,” Riggin said. “Evolve and Seal will be offering that, and the opportunity for people to see and test-drive these remarkable cars.”
Bradley said he warns people not to drive the Tesla unless they’re prepared to be hooked. “I’m an old-school car guy, internal combustion,” he said. “But if you drive one of these electric cars, you’re going to want one.”