Enlightened power purchasing is the ethos behind Zenergi, a very switched on company based at Lyndhurst. It was started by Kevan and Rachel Walsh 10 years ago and is an energy broker and consultant of electricity, gas, water and telecoms, specialising in business and education. Its focus is to secure the best solutions for customers, whether they operate from a single site or several, at a time when there is a huge amount of choice. Zenergi was formed to bring simplicity and directness and offer a breath of fresh air to those tasked with sourcing the best power supplies from multiple suppliers. As an independent, privately-owned business, with no ties or formal links to others, it is free to move through the market to identify and provide solutions, writes Sue Hughes of The Business Magazine
With more than 17 years in the energy sector, Kevan and fellow director, his wife Rachel, have dealt with every conceivable aspect of giving customers the best energy packages, advice and service. In that time they’ve also been exposed to one sad, but undeniable truth – that customers are not looked after as well as they should be by utility companies. Customers are often forced to deal with people who don’t have the experience to provide the right solution and they are invariably treated as a source of profit rather than a person. Their determination to change that drives the spirit of Zenergi.
What’s your background in the energy sector and how did it lead you or inspire you to set up your own business?
Most of the male side of my family are in the Forces, but I soon realised that wasn’t for me as I don’t like people telling me what to do. I went to college for a day, and then realised the commercial world was for me. After working for some friends in an office equipment company I went on to work for another friend in contract procurement and the energy brokerage side developed when the markets de-regulated in 1994. Zenergi was formed a decade ago – a year after electricity was deregulated. It began with a consortia of schools and we worked to obtain cheaper electricity for them.
How did the company grow from that point?
Rachel and I rented offices near to our home, then at Fawley; it was just the two of us with family members drafted in for help. We moved – both home and office eight years ago – to Lyndhurst and we grew organically. From 2012-13 we have increased from eight to 20 staff. We have a strong management team and non-executive directors who help grow the business in other areas.
How do you account for your success overall and do you have a business mantra?
We’ve always punched above our weight and continuous self improvement has helped to grow the team, which is the core of the business. We always do business the ’zen’ way, a certain way and its integral to training for all members of the team. We answer the phone within three rings, you will always speak to a real person and not tap your way through a menu, and customers have a personal point of contact. We don’t have account numbers – we have names. Our philosophy is to take the stress out of utility buying through having the right trained staff. We hire for attitude; it’s not just about IT and software, but we have highly customised CRM software and this is an ongoing area of business development. We undertake data validation, rebuild invoices and can, therefore, act quickly as prices move, even in a day. Local authorities are the main competitors in the education sector, but we’re faster, more pro-active and much more customer focused.
Which services have you focused on and why?
Electricity and gas are our main focus, and with water/telecoms we work with partner organisations. Business clients and the education sector use more than domestic consumers, therefore it was an obvious area to develop and a natural evolution as schools have more purchasing power. I am passionate about schools getting good value for money as there is so much wastage under an LA regime. Many are becoming academies, which is a good thing in my opinion.
It’s bad enough being a domestic consumer with every conceivable contract option pitched – from broadband and mobile phones, to utilities – so how do you get the company’s offering out there to potential customers who may feel a little jaded?
We’ve never made a cold telesales call. We follow up referrals, have extensive repeat business – some 98.8% – and excellent industry contacts. That is what has led to the success of Zenergi and our customers like the way we run our business and look after them.
What about plans for future growth or new ideas and products to offer?
The business is growing in excess of 20% per annum and we are looking at more energy management and green deal-type offerings. The latter, covering energy improvements to a home or business without having to pay all the costs up front, is a great idea in theory, but I do not think it has been well implemented by the Government. Energy management is our next big area for development, because the cheapest unit is the one you’re not using. Educating people is about switching off, not merely moving to low energy lightbulbs or timed power down systems.
Where do you stand on new sources of power?
I am not a fan of solar. The Feed-in Tariff (FiT) rate for generated electricity dropped again in the summer from 15.44p to 14.90p per kWh. The Feed-in-Tariff rate is what determines the major part of the return people can get from solar panels, paying them for every kilowatt of energy they produce. In 2011 this stood at 43.3p – almost three times as high, so the days of big potential returns and quick paybacks are over.
The higher initial FiT naturally appeal so take-up has been large, especially by some organisations, but that FiT was designed for domestic houses, not large-scale enterprises such as solar farms. Solar power is not proven technology and the infrastructure is too fragile. Suppliers are billing us to take into account the FiT and renewable obligations. I can see the sense of windfarms on land – not so clearly big metal structures in the salt water of seas and oceans – but again, if all the UK wind turbines were operating, the UK will have an over-capacity of electricity. We should invest in renewable sources – wave power, geothermal and keep/invest in nuclear.
Energy is topical at the moment with Ed Milliband stating Labour would freeze gas and electricity prices in the UK for 20 months if elected in 2015. Energy companies responded to his plans, with a new regulator, by saying the policy could lead to power shortages and jeopardise investment and jobs. Thoughts?
I really do not agree with his comments. Energy is a global economy and if he were to freeze prices during his 20 months, but war kicked off in the Middle East, or god forbid we have another natural disaster, worldwide prices go up … and down for that matter. Currently you can generally look at a 10% rise per annum so he’s just delaying the inevitable, do they put them up before the freeze, or after at a greater percentage? We need investment, as even before this debacle of a statement, the industry was and is continually talking about blackouts.
On a daily basis what motivates you, and what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in business?
Knowing we are making our customers’ lives easier and providing a great service. As for a lesson, when a whale comes up to spout is when it gets harpooned … in other words be stealth-like in your approach to business, do a great job and the rest speaks for itself.
Can you switch off, pun deliberate, from all things energy-related on a day off and what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
No, I’m always looking for new ideas, which tend to come when I am relaxed. I enjoy golf, skiing, spending time with the family and dining out.
If you had to mentor a young entrepreneur, what three things would you first look at in advising them?
Work hard; do what you say you are going to do and when you’re going to do it by; memorise people’s names, birthdays, special events and hobbies. People buy people not power. Interaction and soft skills are really important.
Awards are great recognition for a hardworking team, such as winning the Brilliance in Business Awards 2010-11 (organised by the New Forest Business Partnership), but do you enter many as a way to raise the company’s profile?
We are just starting to, but they take so much time to enter when there is a business to run. We were a finalist in The Energy Live Consultancy Awards (TELCA) 2013, in the SME Best Customer Service category. I prefer awards where your customers vote for you not a panel of ’experts’.
What gives you the greatest sense of achievement?
A happy team who enjoy being at work.
How do you manage the home/work balance with a young family?
I have teenage sons and a young daughter who is four and has just started school. It’s difficult because Rachel and I are always discussing work at home. But you could say my balance is easier, because I play golf pretty regularly.
Bucket list time; any unfulfilled ambitions?
To travel around the world (I’d like to say take two or three months off and have a gap year of sorts in a few years when I turn 50), meet Richard Branson, play off scratch, see my two teenage boys realise their ambitions and to see Rachel not work so hard.
And being an energy expert, what’s the most energy efficient gadget or system that you have at home?
Education … the cheapest unit of energy is the one that isn’t used.
Kevan Walsh – Zenergi