A surge in new electricity firms to market holds no fear for the main powerhouse
Alan Egner of energy supplier, Power NI, tells John Mulgrew about how he started out as an apprentice and how he welcomes increasing competition.
Just eight years ago, Power NI was the only electricity provider in the market here. Now, the former NIE Energy business is competing against five other companies in Northern Ireland, which has considerably changed the landscape.
Alan Egner (51) is now commercial sales and marketing manager for Power NI — focusing on the business end of the company, which was part of NIE before separating in 2010, and changing its name a year later.
Coming from a family of ship builders in east Belfast, he’s spent almost 40 years with the company. But it’s over the last few years that the market has been transformed.
Alan said: “We welcome competition, and it is great that customers have more choice.
“In the early days of competition, it (regulation) meant we had to stand by and watch people connect with larger users.
“We are now back in the game, competing with the largest users, manufacturing and the Government sector.
“Even after a decade of competition, we remain the largest supplier here.
“We are still the largest by customers, and the trend we are seeing is hundreds coming back, 1,000 back in the last 12 months.”
He does say that they’re not the cheapest supplier — its tariffs range from 15.39 per unit to 16.38p, and are dearer than the others, with newcomer Click the cheapest with a price per unit of 13.76p for its keypad 24 hour rate of 13.76p.
But Alan remained silent on the possibility Power NI could soon be on the market as overall owner Arcapita — parent company of Viridian — plots a sale of its Irish business in a deal worth around £1bn.
In Northern Ireland, Viridian owns Power NI, where it supplies electricity to about 610,000 homes and businesses.
“I really have no comment on that at all. We are focused on our normal day to day business. That remains our focus. We don’t really have a view on that,” he said.
During its monopoly years, Power NI boasted some 60,000 business and farming customers. It now has around 37,000 — with the rest shared out among its handful of competitors.
Now, further sparks may fly as even more energy providers are expected to set up, with Electric Ireland becoming the sixth big supplier for homeowners.
Click Energy and Open Electric are the other new arrivals. They join established providers SSE Airtricity and market leader Power NI — as well as Budget Energy.
And at Power NI, things have changed in the 37 years Alan’s been at the company — taken on as a young apprentice straight out of school, before working as an engineer and rising through the ranks.
Apprenticeships are something he’s trying hard to resuscitate, and it’s something Alan has a personal attachment to. “I have been with Power NI, or NIE as it was in the old days, for about 37 years, after leaving school, as an apprentice. I came through the training programme with NIE.
“I became an engineer, and then was attached to do energy sales. That then brought me into the sales and marketing end.
“Now, we are looking at developing some apprenticeships, and provide employment for young people. We are actively looking at apprenticeships, HR is talking to colleges at the moment.
“With Power NI, it’s around soft skills, around customer service and that kind of thing.”
Married to wife Sandra, with three grown up children — Philip, and twins Helen and David — Alan came from a family who worked in the Harland & Wolff shipyards.
And he still lives in the shadow of the great cranes, Samson and Goliath.
Power NI posted turnover of £450m during its last set of accounts, employs around 250 staff across its three sites, and had a profit of around £22.4m.
But while welcoming the flood of competition, Alan said it had brought a “level of complexity” to the market.
“What we are finding, while competition is great, it has brought a level of complexity that some struggle to cope with. Particularly with SMEs and farms,” he said.
“We are the only supplier whose price is overseen by the energy regulator.
“We don’t tie customers into a contract. And we don’t do introductory offers.”
And on concerns Power NI’s share of the market could decrease to dangerous levels as a result of increased competition, he said: “It’s not really a concern”.
“The level of switching remains at a level that wouldn’t cause us a great deal of concern.
“I’m confident Power NI is certainly able to meet the challenges ahead, and we are a very focused company — we are a very focused company, giving them (customers) great value for money. Those are important things customers want, and there’s an aspect of a supplier they can trust.
“We may not always be the cheapest, but we offer customer service and value for money,” Alan said.
Despite the complexity of Northern Ireland and the Republic’s energy market, Alan says customers have a greater deal of trust in suppliers here. “There is a marketing code of practice, and that is about making sure customers are informed of what they are signing up for, and the choices available to them.
Business consumer habits are also changing, with a move to paperless billing and smart meters — allowing users to closely monitor their energy consumption. “One in five use (paperless bills). Our small business customers get extra discount for going online.
“The other big thing is customers self-generating. Solar, wind and digestion.
“One benefit is you are using the electricity you generate yourself, and receive a Government incentive. And any surplus, Power NI will buy that back off you.”
Looking to where Power NI will be in 10 years time, Alan says: “The level of switching is growing with the increase in competition. But with that will be an easing of regulation, making it easier to retain market share.
“There will be a tipping point, freeing us up to compete on a level playing field.”