Mark Prentice, from firmus energy, explains what drives his company.
What has been the highlight for the business to date?
There have been a number of memorable highlights over the first five years for firmus. Our first gas connection in the 10 towns in December 2005, our first gas supply customer in greater Belfast in 2007 and our first electricity supply customer win in early 2009 all stick in my mind. However our Investor in People award in 2008 has got to stand out as a huge achievement for such a young company.
What are the long term hopes for the company?
Within firmus our ambition is simple — to be Northern Ireland’s first choice energy provider. And we firmly believe we can and will achieve this by offering the lowest possible gas and electricity prices for customers, coupled with superior customer service.
About 70% of Northern Ireland homes rely on home heating oil — are more people in the towns you cover switching to gas?
Following the announcement of our unique price guarantee against oil in early 2009, more and more homes in our towns are enquiring about converting to natural gas — particularly as our natural gas price is currently 30% cheaper than heating oil. Now that the majority of business users in our towns have made the switch, we will be focussing more and more on the conversion of domestic properties to natural gas.
How has the economic slump affected firmus’ business?
If anything, the recession has increased customers’ interest in saving money on their fuel bills by switching to more efficient fuels such as natural gas. Recently we have also seen a disconnect between oil and gas prices — that’s to say, oil prices have climbed significantly while natural gas prices have dropped to their lowest levels in the last three to four years. This can only be good news for domestic and business gas users.
What are firmus’ expansion plans in Northern Ireland?
Firmus energy is committed to expanding its customer base both in the greater Belfast gas market and in the Northern Ireland electricity market. In particular, taking on Phoenix’s monopoly in the Belfast domestic gas market is a key priority for us in the next 12 months.
How do you assess the level of competition that exists in the local energy market?
In the greater Belfast gas market, it’s fair to say that the development of competition has been dreadfully slow and this is largely due to insufficient switching systems and associated processes to support new entrants. We know from our research that after 15 years of a monopoly, gas customers in Belfast want competition and we are as frustrated as they are that the necessary systems and switching arrangements are not yet in place.
In the electricity market, the same issues exist around switching systems for domestic users — once these issues are addressed, firmus and other suppliers will be free to deliver competition in this sector.
Does the company intend to step up its involvement in electricity supply?
Our sister company, BG Energy, has recently revolutionised the Irish electricity market by launching its ‘Big Switch’ domestic electricity offer in early 2009. Within 12 months, over 300,000 customers have switched from ESB, saving up to 14% in the process. The learnings from the ‘Big Switch’ will be used by firmus in future years here in Northern Ireland.
Do you think the government’s targets for renewable electricity/energy can be achieved?
Given our parent company BGE’s significant expansion plans for wind farms in Northern Ireland, firmus is hugely supportive of DETI’s targets for wind generation over the next 20 years. We have a real opportunity in Northern Ireland to decarbonise our economy via new renewable electricity generation and the ongoing displacement of oil and coal in favour of natural gas.
As the most environmentally friendly of all the fossil fuels, natural gas can act as the bridge to a lower carbon economy, particularly in relation to industrial process loads and commercial and domestic heating. We are 20 years behind the rest of the UK and Ireland in switching from oil to natural gas and the recent expansion of gas provides a real opportunity for ‘quick wins’ in Northern Ireland in terms of carbon reduction.
How is the company using new technology to improve business?
Firmus was the first energy provider in Northern Ireland to offer all its customers ‘online billing’, allowing input of meter reads, online payments and paperless billing. We know that customers want the management of their energy bills to be quick and easy.
What are the benefits of being owned by a larger parent company in Bord Gais?
Because we have the backing of BGE, we can use their experience and systems to make our offer more efficient for customers. By using the existing back office systems and processes developed by BGE for a larger market, we can offer Northern Ireland customers better prices, backed up by a parent company with over 25 years experience in operating gas networks and managing over 700,000 customers.
Do you have any other big projects in the pipeline?
We have big plans for expansion in 2010 so watch this space.
What has been the highlight of your own career to date?
Taking over as general manager of firmus in 2006.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
The inscription on the wall in my office reads: “The purpose of an organisation is to enable common men to do uncommon things.” For me this is the best advice for any manager.