The Big Interview: Click Energy founder Damian Wilson speaks to John Mulgrew about going it alone, Brexit, and operating in one of NI’s most competitive markets
Damian Wilson is confident that his electricity business could crack the 60,000 customer mark within the next two or three years. And he’s also looking at expanding from a predominately domestic Northern Ireland market, into the Republic, and across the UK.
The 46-year-old father-of-three’s business, Click Energy, is now turning over around £1m a month, just two years after setting up in Londonderry.
Damian founded the business in October 2015, and now competes with five other firms for the Northern Ireland electricity market.
He started out studying IT at Ulster University’s Magee campus.
“When I graduated, I moved into the telecoms sector. In 2010 I left that, and was looking around for something,” he says.
It was there he found himself working with fellow Londonderry electricity supplier, Budget Energy, during the firm’s early days.
“I worked there for a few years. I thought, I can do this better, and there is a better way to do this,” he recalls.
His model for Click Energy, he says, involves simplicity, and rewarding both new, and existing, customers. It currently has around 30,000 customers across Northern Ireland.
“It was getting very complicated with tariffs, and discounts,” he says, adding that Click Energy aims to reward both existing customers, as well as new ones, with simple tariffs, and to keep an eye on what rivals in the market are doing.
“Rewarding existing customers, as well as new customers, and looking at what everyone else is doing.”
He applied for his licence in 2014, and was granted approval in January 2015.
“I was very lucky to get some good investors to get us started,” he says.
And he reveals it took “a few million” to get the business up-and-running.
“There are the obvious things, staff and premises. Infrastructure and systems have to be set up.
“There is a lot of regulation and compliance that is required, that you need to go through.
“You have to be able to cope with an influx of customers.”
Click Energy is an electricity business which centres around one tariff, whether it is credit-based billing or keypad. And Damian says a big focus is allowing customers to manage their accounts online.
“When was the last time you walked into a bank? It’s the same idea with electricity supply,” he comments. “There are no discount schemes — it’s just transparent.
“Getting people to switch suppliers in Northern Ireland is hard enough, and getting a cost-effective deal for them.”
And he adds that not enough consumers in Northern Ireland “shop around” for electricity, unlike in the UK as a whole, with big comparison sites such as Compare the Market.
“We have no one doing that here. Thirty per cent of our sales come from online. We use social media, and digital media, to get customers, but we still have 70% from face-to-face discussion.”
Asked about the Single Electricity Market (SEM) which operates across Northern Ireland and the Republic, he says it’s key that it remains, following Brexit.
“It needs to remain the way it is. I don’t think we can break it up. We are going through big change at the moment, with I-SEM (Integrated Single Electricity Market).
“At the moment, when you consume electricity, we don’t know how much that is costing us until four days after.
“With I-SEM, we have to purchase the day ahead. We know what we are paying.
“It gives you a bit of flexibility, as when to buy.”
He believes the changes to the industry here “can only mean good things for customers”.
He’s competing with five other power firms here, including Power NI, SSE, Electric Ireland and Budget Energy.
Click Energy now has around 25 staff, based in Londonderry, with a further 20 out on the road, selling the product.
Damian is also a big supporter of plans for a new £280m power station for Belfast.
Evermore is developing a huge gas-fired plant at Belfast Harbour.
Co-founder Ciaran Devine has said it could power up to 50% of Northern Ireland’s homes and businesses, and that the project could help “achieve security of supply going forward”.
“It’s brilliant. The more of that energy, it brings added capacity into the market,” Damian says.
“We are relying on the traditional power stations. It means someone else putting a price into the market, and we can drive prices down which is great for the consumers.”
On Brexit, Damian doesn’t think it will impact his business directly.
“It’s more as to what happens to the SEM, as it is seen as an all-Ireland market. “Hopefully it won’t have any impact. There has been a lot of investment from everyone, to make it work.
“We are approaching 30,000 customers, and are the newest (supplier) on the market, and the fastest growing across Ireland.
“We have also applied for licence for the Republic — there are a lot of synergies.”
He says the business is now turning over around £1m a month.
“We want to continue to grow, and we want to grow it faster,” he adds.
Londonderry man Damian, who said he failed his 11-plus exam, started his first job with Western Connect, which gave him the opportunity to travel the world.
“I was all over Europe, Shanghai, America, South Africa and the Middle East. It was a lot of looking at businesses and they can improve functions through technology. I left that in 2005, then went to work for AssetCo.”
Click Energy is also a family business, with wife Martina working on the customer service end of the business.
“She helps keep an eye on customer service, which we are fanatical about,” he said.
“We have never had a complaint from the Consumer Council, and we have a 96% satisfaction rate in surveys. She’s a real driving force for that.”
Damian has three children, Harry (13), Tom (10) and Charlotte, aged nine.
“I’m a big Liverpool fan, but family is most important. We spend our weeks as a taxi service,” he explains.
“We have a holiday home in Donegal, so we would go down there at weekends. Lovely pace, just walking about and enjoying ourselves.”
Asked about his own economic predictions and the state of Northern Ireland’s economy in general, he responds: “It is always a hard one to gauge. Electricity is an essential, and people have to have it.
“There are always things that can be done better. At the moment, we have a cloud hanging over us with Stormont.
“It’s always nice to set your own path... we need to sit down and figure it out. We worked hard to get it in place, and letting it slip away isn’t nice.”
Speaking about Click Energy’s growth, Damian says he wants to reach more than 60,000 customers in the next two or three years, as well as looking at prospects in the Republic and elsewhere in the UK.
“I have a bit of experience working in GB. I set up an electricity supply company there. It’s a much bigger market, and you have 30 million potential meters to go after.”