Ten years ago, the American energy company Enron filed for bankruptcy after a scandal of false accounting was uncovered. The collapse had far-reaching implications for the sector, including for those who traded with Enron.
At the time, Andy Pilley, founder and managing director of Business Energy Solutions (BES), worked for a utility company in Manchester which was a creditor. He ended up losing his job, leaving him wondering what to do next.
Here, he tells Real Business how he set up BES, the £40m-turnover company he founded in 2002, and offers his tips to would-be entrepreneurs.
“The first and one of the most important pieces of advice I would offer is simple: stick to your strengths. Having worked in the energy sector for a number of years I knew it inside out and decided to go it alone, with my sister Michelle looking after the admin. I set up my first business as an energy broker, liaising between customers and suppliers.
“My experience was similar to the one that affected people after the recession in 2008. It led to a huge number of skilled people losing their jobs, which is tough, but a lot of people realised that they can make their own luck if they have the determination to persevere with an idea.
“One aspect of your business that needs to be written at the top of the business plan in bold, and used as the ethos of the company from day one, is what you deliver that differentiates you from the competition.
“There were many energy brokers in the market place when I began, but I was able to identify a USP based on personal service. Customer service is so important in this industry – people want to speak to a person, not a calling board – and this can make a difference. Do your research early and work out where the gaps in the market are. What is your sector missing that you can provide? This isn’t the easiest thing to answer, but it is the key to standing out from competitors.
“The first three years of the business were hard work – but they were also the most important. It was during these first stages of business teething pains, late nights and early mornings when we found our feet and worked out who we could turn to for advice, financial support and useful business leads.
“Build your business with these contacts in mind and get used to meeting your bank manager. No business comes ready-made with industry knowledge. From the smallest business to the largest corporation, there will always be a degree of trial and error in the early days. Just accept that you will make mistakes and be willing to learn.
“One of the most valuable lessons I can offer is that you have to use the resources available around you. Networking, either by hammering the phones for sales and business or speaking to local newspapers to raise the profile of the business, will help to build up a book of reliable contacts who may add value to your offering.
“After three years as a broker, the move that really helped my business take off was to become an energy supplier. We now supply gas and electricity, a move that has greatly increased our customer numbers. Timing is everything, but sometimes throwing caution to the wind and jumping in can help you steal a lead.
“Nobody is going to hand you business success on a plate, just as no one other than you and your staff will appreciate your achievements. Be proud of what you have achieved and be bold about what you want to achieve. Use this to fuel your drive and ambition. If you are not enjoying the rewards of your hard work then you need to rethink. Life is too short to do something you don’t believe in.”
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