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Persistence and hard work brings success for Utilitywise boss

Geoff Thompson, CEO of Utilitywise plc (the independent utility cost management consultancy based at Cobalt Business Park, North Tyneside) talks to Ian Gilthorpe, senior partner at Square One Law about how persistence has played an important role in developing his successful career.

Geoff Thompson was born in South Shields and is proud of his working class roots. He went to Jarrow Grammar School and left to do an engineering apprenticeship rather than staying on to take his A levels. He later regretted that step and realised the importance of further education, so made the brave decision to give up his apprenticeship and leave a paying job and enrolled at Sunderland Polytechnic to study a four year sandwich course and gain a combined science qualification.

Geoff recalls: “I was very fortunate to be placed at The National Physical Laboratory at Teddington for my year in industry. I worked hard as I felt I had something to prove and obtained a first class honours degree. After completing my studies my first job was with British Steel, working in the continuous casting plant at Lackenby, Redcar.

“I really didn’t like shift work, so again thought long and hard about my career and joined Corning Glass in Sunderland in a technical management role whilst also deciding to return to studying and enrolled for a MBA at Newcastle University. I gained a distinction and then went on to join Price Waterhouse as a management consultant.

“The MBA exposed me to a new way of thinking and at PwC I enjoyed advising clients on a number of matters including business planning, SPC and Total Quality Management.

It was now the late ‘80s and Geoff was seconded to Tyneside based Bonas Machine Company who produced Jacquard weaving equipment to exacting standards of quality, cost and delivery time.

Geoff said: “I learnt a great deal working with the CEO, Ian Harris (a former winner of Businessman of the Year) and FD Jeff Gosling. The secondment helped me develop a broader exposure and expertise in management skills. Bonas had moved into a new factory on the Team Valley and employed almost every conceivable technique aimed at manufacturing improvement.”

Ian added: “I was also working with Ian Harris and Jeff Gosling at that time as their legal adviser. Bonas had an impressive worldwide client base and the new factory enabled them to increase productivity, but it was interesting to see how they changed the mindsets of their people by embarking on a massive communications exercise which supported the ethos of the company and changed the way in which their people worked.”

After Price Waterhouse, Geoff went to work for Axciom, the US data and outsource solutions provider who had blue chip clients such as Procter and Gamble and Tesco. Their UK head office was London; however they were also operationally strong in the North East where they had their call centres and warehouse sites.

Geoff continues: “At Axciom I really developed my knowledge about how to use data and outsourcing solutions to maximise outputs for clients, but I think I was rather naïve about the political infighting that occurs at management level in a global business. I have always believed in being totally aligned to the company’s best interests and speaking my mind but I’m not a political animal. Given the environment I decided to move on to Mailcom.”

Mailcom was a direct marketing, customer communications business owned by a South African plc, Primedia. There were eight UK companies in the group including Primecom, and various web development businesses and Spark Response, a call centre and order fulfilment business servicing various brands and retailers such as British Airways and B&Q.

Geoff said: “In five years as managing director I managed to turn the business around from a £3.5m annual loss to profitability. I had hopes of leading an MBO to purchase the company but unfortunately it was sold to another South African and so in 2003 I found myself out of a job, with a mortgage and school fees to pay.”

Geoff admits that the school of hard knocks really helped focus his mind. His next move was to join, an IT and Technology sales business. Geoff went in as the MD of a new subsidiary.

His entrepreneurial approach saw the growth of the business to 140 people, but he had no equity in the company and in April 2006, the business was sold and became a wholly owned subsidiary of British Telecommunications plc (BT).

Once again he was out of a job and having to start from scratch.

“Persistence and hard work creates your own luck is advice I now give to younger people,” explains Geoff, “It certainly helped drive me forward after each set back. Frustratingly, I had done a good job in each company but my lack of equity or funding meant I was unable to take them to the next stage.

“I had gained a great deal of knowledge and wisdom with each company, but I realised I needed to ensure that I had equity in my next business venture if I was going to be successful.”

So in 2006, with all his previous experience and knowledge of a variety of sectors, Geoff had a great idea and started a company called Commercial Utility Brokers with 3 people, a credit card and an overdraft!

“I knew several people in the energy sector from my outsourcing experience and started to grow the company organically, developing the idea and then changing the name to Utilitywise.

“We started off by helping customers procure their energy needs more efficiently. However we developed a range of additional services to help clients identify energy waste, measure their performance and drive efficiency. Services included energy health checks to help customers benchmark their buildings against national standards, energy audits for building fabric, boiler, lighting controls etc., showing them how to make an energy efficiency gain.

“Our audits and health checks utilise our own software and with our consultancy background, we have continued to look at improving processes and creating new products and services. One of the products we developed, Edd:e is an innovative circuit level monitoring solution which has now secured an international patent. Using this solution and our Energy Reporting Dashboard, Utility Insight, we can identify waste and inefficiency across our clients’ sites. Often we find up to 30% of energy use in a building even when the building is empty. Our aim is to be a trusted adviser to our customers and add value to their businesses.

“When we started we were primarily procurement led, helping our customers buy their energy at the best rates, but we now have a range of products and services that are unique.”

In 2011 the company was really expanding and so it moved from Jarrow to South Shields and Geoff started to look at the different funding options for future growth.

“We were approached by several private equity players but decided an IPO (initial public offering) was more suitable. In January 2012 we started on the intense IPO process – the pre-marketing phase of convincing people to invest in our business model. In June 2012 we raised £7m with the IPO. Transforming to a public company provides a wide range of benefits and changes including an important corporate governance and corporate regime that doesn’t apply as a private company but this provides a very positive and useful discipline. Additionally, as a public company we have access to the capital markets to help future growth and this has helped us fund our organic growth and fund a number of acquisitions.”

Utilitywise was the first north east business to list on the Alternative Investment Market at the London Stock Exchange for five years and the firm made a strategic acquisition just three months later.

“James Bryce was the lawyer who helped us with our first acquisition and I really liked working with him, so when he moved to Square One Law, we followed him.”

Utilitywise has had significant growth year on year and has restructured its business into two main divisions. The first is the corporate division that concentrates on larger industrial and commercial customers. This division consists of Clouds Environmental Society, Aqua Veritas Consulting and Energy Information Centre, all of which have been acquired over the last three years.

The second is the enterprise division focussing on small and medium businesses nationally, supporting them with telephone, field sales teams and a variety of other channels including a partner channel.

Its strategy for growth has focussed around three key areas. The first is organic and its move to its new headquarters at Cobalt Business Park will enable it to grow to 1400 people in the next few years. The second is continuing along the acquisition trail as it evaluates a number of opportunities. The third key growth area is an expansion into Europe as it intends to build on its acquisition of Icon Communication Centres SRO based in the Czech Republic.

James Bryce, corporate partner and head of the energy team at Square One Law explains: “We have acted for Utilitywise on several acquisitions and were delighted to work with them on their first overseas acquisition in Prague. Most recently we have advised them on the acquisition of t-mac Technologies Limited, a leading supplier of energy management and monitoring solutions.

“The acquisition will add t-mac’s portfolio of integrated services to Utilitywise’s core energy services offering and will enable Utilitywise’s customers to identify, monitor and reduce their energy consumption and ultimately improve their environmental performance.”

Looking to the future Geoff said: “We are now the biggest energy consultancy in the UK, especially in the SME market. It’s been a great journey so far and I’ve enjoyed the intellectual challenge of growing the business and working with a great team of people who all strive to progress the business. I believe the company has real potential to be truly unique. It’s amazing to think we have grown from 3 people to 1200 in only nine years. Now it’s about continuing to attract talented people and taking the business through the difficult transition as it grows from start up, to a small privately owned business to a mature business mid to large cap PLC.

“It’s very important to me to use North East based professional advisers and there is a lot of pressure as a plc to use London firms, but I am interested in building long term relationships. What I like about Square One Law is not just the professionalism and range of services but the high energy they bring to each project. We really enjoy working with James and his team, but I also know I can pick up the phone and speak to Ian at any time on general commercial issues.”

Ian concludes: “It’s been fascinating talking to Geoff and I can empathise that the school of hard knocks is a very good training ground and why persistence is crucial to help you achieve your ambitions.

“I admire Geoff’s deep rooted desire to achieve and make a difference and I entirely agree with one of the main points he made during our discussion that all businesses need to remember, that customers decide whether to use your services, so you must stay relevant and offer a better service than your competitors.”

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