Big Interview - Clare McAllister: 'I chose the wrong degree and came home but it shows you can mess up and still make it...'
The Big Interview: Clare McAllister, Electric Ireland
Clare McAllister's path into the electricity market wasn't a planned one. "I suppose I took a bit of a convoluted route to get into the electricity market," begins the self-confessed country girl.
Born and bred on the outskirts of Coleraine, Clare, who has helped drive the residential and business success of Electric Ireland over the past 21 years, says she still isn't done with the city.
Currently residing in Aldergrove, she tells the Belfast Telegraph that city life might draw her in come retirement age.
"I quite like the quiet at times. I can see the mountains from my home now and three pheasants trundling about. It was similar growing up.
"There were fields all around our house and I was used to that and I think you reach a point where you're done with the city and you just want to come home and stick the stove on.
"Perhaps, when I retire I'll go back to the city because then it's all about getting out and about and accessibility."
Clare is the eldest of three children. "I have a brother and a sister and there is only three years between me and my brother, who is the youngest. We grew up in Castleroe and while it didn't feel like we were in the town, it was only two miles away.
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"We had greenery all around us and my parents even gave us a garden plot so we could do our own thing there," she adds.
"Mum and dad were wholesalers, supplying pharmacies with products so we had a plot beside the house where the warehouse was located. I just remember my childhood being about climbing and BMX riding and because my parents were always flat out, especially before Christmas, we became a team and all helped out.
"You would've been expected to do your own homework and we would try to help out though we were never forced."
During her school years Clare says she wasn't certain about what career path she wanted to follow, adding: "You'd have to come in on a Monday and have your university subject picked and I wasn't sure so I went for civil engineering with Spanish. When I got there, to Salford, I was told I couldn't do Spanish so I did French instead, which in the end has helped me in my career.
"But while I was there I became homesick. It was the wrong course for me but today, looking back, it shows you that you can make a mess and get your life back on track."
And so Clare studied part-time while working at the AVX factory in Coleraine which is a manufacturer of advanced electronic passive components and interconnect solutions.
"I'd take my holidays to study but I was quite mercenary, earning at the same time," she says. "It meant I could get a HND and a degree but I could progress in a role there too. And I did. In there I would watch technicians and engineers and that kept me focused. I then became a technician.
"We would be making things like capacitors so electricity was always, in some ways, never too far away from me."
A stint in Dublin after which Clare returned to AVX marked the beginning of her move into the electricity market.
A new job at the company saw her leave the factory to visit customers and she admits: "I quite liked getting out. I thought it was nice to meet people. I'm quite nosey that way."
A role came up at ESB Independent Energy of which Electric Ireland is part of. It would allow Clare to continue with a job on the road where she would meet new people and boost sales and 15 years later she is at the helm of the company's residential division.
Initially Electric Ireland focused on the business customer when it launched here 21 years ago, which is still very much the case today, but it was when the company rebranded around eight years ago it began to penetrate the residential market.
"I was doing a course which involved completing a project and so I chose to focus that project on something related to what I was doing at work so I homed in on the residential market and when I left on maternity leave in 2015, it grew legs."
Today Clare, a mother of two, has been instrumental in growing Electric Ireland's residential customer base. In fact it holds an 11% share of the sector, representing just under 100,000 homes.
"It's a good figure considering we only started out in that market around four years ago. We've grown fast and it's exciting because we're working in a very competitive market," she says.
It wasn't an easy journey to get invited into the homes of Northern Ireland residents.
"We've been active in the business world but for residential we were considered a blow-in so that in itself is a challenge," she confesses.
"So what we did was become active in the community. We did a lot of brand campaigns, outdoor ads and sponsorships that made us local. They have been impactful and give us a local standing and that works because that's the way Northern Ireland is.
"When you're going around knocking on doors, it's what speaks to people that works and sports brings communities together so we've worked with GAA minors, the IFA women's and girls' teams."
Beyond its residential offering, Electric Ireland is gaining big momentum in the business world where it can offer "savvy products" that allow companies to reduce their carbon footprint and minimise their electricity use.
"We offer an online service that produces premium insights and it allows companies, particularly SMEs, to benchmark themselves against their peers and ask if their energy use looks normal and then it lets them make choices and there are suggestions there to work with. It's a great tool.
"Then there is the carbon footprint information that you can see and measure and you can stand over that and shout about it. There are so many businesses interested in reducing their carbon footprint and as a result it allows businesses to save money because the less you use the more you can impact your bottom line."
This year the company will be headline sponsor at the Belfast Telegraph Property Awards.
The event will allow Clare and her team to showcase the products and services it offers to residents and businesses, including its 24/7 Business Online Platform.
It is the commitment to innovations like the SME Premium insights tool coupled with a customer-centric approach which has supported Electric Ireland's strong footprint in the sector to date, and enabled it to retain significant business customers including Strathroy, Foyle Foods, Greiner Packaging, Huhtamaki and Moy Park, with the business recently announcing a new contract as the official energy provider for the Belfast City Airport.
"Relationships are important to Electric Ireland and being part of an event like the Property Awards makes sense for us. It's important for us to make our brand known whether that's residential or commercial. In Northern Ireland we like to talk and that's what these events allow us to do - talk and make good relationships," adds Clare.
Looking to the future, Clare is certain that Electric Ireland can continue to expand its footprint in the residential and commercial sectors despite the uncertainty of Brexit.
She adds: "We've completed a really aggressive growth phase and we want to improve and invest and now we're at a certain size we can do that.
"It's hard to know what shape Brexit will take but ultimately we are in an all-Ireland market which joins up with GB and there are lots of regulations to protect that.
"The regulator is working hard to make sure that day one of Brexit will look the same as it has. It will be different in terms of trade in the market," says Clare.
"They will have the big part sorted and we have to look at the practicalities of things like driving around the border. It's a roller coaster of emotions but at the end of the day business still has to run as always.
"We are excited for the future," she concludes.