Michael McGeary meets the men behind the energy firm making waves at Hartlepool Marina…
Hartlepool has been synonymous with energy ever since plans were revealed to build a nuclear power station in the town almost 50 years ago.
But it’s now hitting the headlines again as the home of Utility Alliance, the big new name in the energy consultancy market, which already employs 246 people just two years after being established.
While that’s an eye-catching achievement it comes as no surprise to industry insiders who know all about the three men behind the firm.
Chief executive officer Darren Sutherland, 58, managing director Bob Moore, 38, and his brother, chief operating officer Phill Moore, 37, hatched the idea to start up on their own while working together for the UK’s biggest energy consultancy.
“We all believed we could do a much better job ourselves,” says Bob. “We adopted a similar business model but introduced some fresh thinking as well.”
“We wanted to take all the good things we’d seen, leave the sloppiness behind and add in some good ideas of our own,” adds Darren.
They used their own savings as start-up funding, although Bob admits the sums involved were a “drop in the ocean” compared to the figures the business is generating now.
“We knew the people to talk to and they knew us,” he says. “That meant we could get money up front from suppliers, which we then reinvested.”
“People said we’d bitten off more than they could chew and that it would never work,” recalls Phill. “But although we set ambitious targets, we’ve consistently succeeded in hitting them.”
All three men have military backgrounds. Darren worked as a civilian on major defence logistics projects in locations including Afghanistan.
Bob was a driver in the Royal Logistics Corps who progressed from heavy good lorries to chauffeuring government ministers around Northern Ireland.
Phill’s tasks in the Royal Corps of Signals included erecting telegraphs on a Kosovan mountainside to enable peacekeeping troops to communicate with each other.
After coming out of the Army, Bob and Phill started out at the bottom as cold callers for npower. Both rose to senior positions before moving to their previous employer, where they met Darren.
Utility Alliance helps firms cut costs by searching 45 different energy suppliers, not just in the UK but throughout Europe. They are able to harness the purchasing power of 50 or 60 business at a time to purchase energy in bulk at a far lower price.
As well as direct savings, customers also know exactly what their energy costs will be for the whole term of their agreement, which can be up to five or six years.
“Now is a really good time to fix your energy because we’ve seen future models and costs are very likely to rise,” says Bob. “Brexit is adding to volatility on the markets and it makes sense to have certainty.”
“We’re not just a pricing tool,” says Phill. “We also help customers reduce consumption, using state-of-the-art monitoring equipment to identify where energy’s being wasted.”
Approximately a third of business never consider changing their energy supplier, even though the savings can be substantial.
“We recently did a full cost reduction budget exercise for a major manufacturer in Glasgow and saved £1.3m over the five-year term,” says Bob.
“We reduced their consumption by about 15%, partly by replacing a £40 component that our equipment identified as being faulty. We then saved another 10% through finding them the cheapest possible supplier.
“That holistic approach is something we plan to do more and more. If we don’t know how people are using their energy, how can we ever reduce it?”
Bob says businesses of all sizes can benefit from using an energy broker. And while firms might think they can get cheaper deals for themselves, he insists this can be a false economy.
“People don’t always read the small print and understand the hidden charges. The jargon’s often almost impossible to translate. We give the actual delivered price, so you know exactly what you’ll pay throughout the charging period.”
As the firm grows, the team are sharing the fruits of their success with the wider community. Utility Alliance’s name is proudly emblazoned on the shirts of Hartlepool United, while the firm also sponsors Middlesbrough and Burnley and regularly donates to charities and good causes.
They are also passionate about offering opportunities to young unemployed people who can show they have the potential to contribute to one of the most positive stories to emerge from Hartlepool in recent years.
“When I left school my dad told me to get a job or I’d be kicked out,” says Bob. “I joined the army because I had no other place to go. I want to give people the chance to stay in Hartlepool with all their friends and carve out a career.”
Already, 135 young people have been put through a ten-week, in-house basic training course and 60% of those have then been handed a one-year apprenticeship. Many of the others have gone on to find alternative work with the help of the NVQs they have gained.
“Eighty per cent of our staff are aged 18 to 25 and we’re giving them all the tools they need to further themselves in life,” says Bob.
“Some of these young people come from families where there’s been three generations of unemployment. We have some fantastic success stories and we couldn’t ask for any more commitment from them.
“Every now and again I get into the trenches again with the troops to man the phones. Showing you’re willing to get stuck in commands respect.”
Utility Alliance is already in the top three in the industry and its sights are firmly on the number one spot. The next challenge is to future-proof the business ahead of major changes they anticipate in the coming years.
“In ten years’ time people won’t have an energy contract with a supplier, it will be more like your mobile phone tariff, but from a battery storage firm,” says Bob. “Companies will generate their own energy from the roof, storing it in a battery to use when they need it.”
“This business is growing rapidly and doing very well, but if you stand still you go backwards,” adds Phill. “That’s why we’re also looking at how we can be involved in developments in the electric car industry so we can hit the ground running when the changes come.”
They opened a new office in Sheffield this summer and there are long-term plans to access energy markets in the United States and further afield. But one thing the three directors don’t intend to do is relinquish day-to-day control of the business.
“Because we own the company we can react more quickly, instead of having 20 people sitting round a boardroom in two weeks’ time making decisions about things they don’t really understand,” says Darren.
“When you become a plc you can also lose that personal touch. We not only understand our clients, but we also understand the people who work for us too.
“One of the keys to our success is that we began by creating an excellent business plan. If I had to give anyone starting up some advice, it’s to have a good plan and stick with it. It’s a bit like a satnav. Some things may change, but if you get the basic direction right, it will eventually lead you to your destination.”