Mark Prentice discusses his firm’s plans for expansion
How long has firmus been operating in Northern Ireland?
Firmus energy was set up in 2005 following the award of the licence to develop the gas network in 10 towns and cities across Northern Ireland, from Londonderry in the north west to Newry in the south of the province.
Do you have any plans for expansion? How long has expansion been on the cards?
Firmus energy has been on a rapid expansion programme since 2005, laying over 500km of new gas mains and connecting more than 9,000 homes and businesses.
We connect around 2,000 new customers every year and have plans to connect over 50,000 customers during the next 25 years.
The economy has been in the doldrums for more than two years now — how has that impacted on business?
Given the high volumes of gas and electricity used by industrial customers, our business has been affected by the drop off in demand as a result of the recession. We have worked hard with all of our customers to ensure that we buy gas and electricity for them in the most cost effective way, so that they can keep their costs as low as possible. While 2010 was a tough year for many of our business customers, we are seeing orders, and resultant energy usage, picking up.
Have you launched any new initiatives to combat the current challenges?
The recent launch of our online account management system has received great feedback, particularly from small business owners. As part of our pricing offers in greater Belfast we ask customers to read their own meter and receive their bills online, putting them more in control of their account.
In a competitive marketplace with plenty of choice for consumers, how do you win business?
We know from our research that gas customers want two things — the lowest possible prices coupled with best-in-class customer service.
In our 10 towns, given that natural gas prices are currently over 40% cheaper than oil, we have a lot of demand from businesses and homes to make the switch from oil or other fuels to natural gas.
In the greater Belfast gas market and in electricity, we offer discounts against the incumbent suppliers, and we guarantee cheaper prices when customers switch.
Firmus' parent company is Bord Gais. Irish company ESB has recently bought NIE. Are transactions of the latter kind what we can expect in Northern Ireland's energy market in the future?
Northern Ireland is a very small energy market, where economies of scale are difficult to realise. Over time, the energy market in Northern Ireland should consolidate, with smaller stand alone companies being subsumed by larger players. This should ensure that customers can benefit from the cost savings that larger players can provide.
What new client figures are you aiming for through your expansion to Belfast?
At firmus energy we have one goal: to be the first choice energy provider in Northern Ireland. We currently provide over 25% of all the gas used by businesses in greater Belfast and we aim to deliver the same results in our expansion into the domestic sector.
How do you assess the level of competition in the NI energy market?
We have a long way to go in Northern Ireland to replicate the recent success of energy competition in the Republic. Northern Ireland consumers have only recently seen competition emerging in the domestic electricity and Belfast gas markets and do need reassurances on the benefits of switching suppliers. Our message is simple: if a new supplier is offering lower prices, it’s common sense to investigate it further. At a time when VAT and petrol and diesel prices are putting a strain on household budgets, why pay more for your gas or electricity than you need to?