Essex: Blueflame making the most of opportunities in renewables

ENERGY efficiency and sustainability, and doing the best job at a fair price, have been the fundamental building blocks for Colchester-based Blueflame Services. Director Kevin Bull tells Sheline Clarke about the journey so far and his hopes for the future.

It’s been something of a landmark year for Blueflame services, a mechanical and electrical contracting company set up by directors Kevin Bull and Tony Schatten in 1987.

As well as handling the full design and installation of all the mechanical and electrical services at Florence Park, Colchester United’s new �3million permanent training facility in Tiptree it has also invested in a new showroom in Frinton and won a contract to supply two large residential nursing homes for Flagship Housing in Suffolk.

The former British Gas engineers now head up a 40-strong team of fully qualified engineers offering gas, oil, electrical and heating engineering services as well as renewable energy and energy saving solutions, across Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

“We were both employed by British Gas and thought we had a career for life,” said Kevin.

“We were both in the industrial and commercial department when they made the decision that they were no longer going to be involved in that and shut the whole thing down basically and we were left with the choice of being absorbed back into the domestic side of the business or go it on our own, which is what we did.

“Leaving was a real culture shock; going it alone had never been in the plan.

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“At the time my wife had just left work to have our first child, and when I look back now I think ‘crikey, that was a heck of a decision’ and a real risk. It wasn’t so much a difficult decision but it was hard establishing a business at that time as it always is when you start from nothing.

“British Gas was a big big machine at the time and there wasn’t an established market or contractor network outside of it, so there weren’t lots of people doing what we were trying to do, and I suppose that helped. There are lots of independents now but back then, 26 years ago, it was a bit easier in terms of a lack of competition in the independent market.

“What we have achieved since demonstrates that if you work hard, are determined to succeed and think outside of the box for your customers, you can shape your future. We now believe every setback represents an opportunity.”

From the start Kevin and Tony wanted to provide “the best job at a fair price”. They also wanted to make sure their financial risk was reduced, so deliberately managed the growth rather than let it control them. They could have opted for large loans and grown faster more quickly, but that’s not the kind of business they wanted to run. They were there for the long haul.

Blueflame Services operates in the domestic, commercial and public sector arenas. While they receive repeat business from the domestic market, they have to competitively tender each time for commercial and public sector business.

The Florence Park contract came after winning a three-way competitive tender. The brief was to deliver exceptional carbon reductions every year. What Blueflame delivered is a system that will not only achieve an annual reduction in carbon emissions of three tonnes (which equate to the work of over 250,000 trees), but also keep energy bills as low as possible, thanks the highly energy efficient technologies that have been installed. Florence Park opened this summer.

Blueflame has also worked, virtually continuously, with a number of local authorities over the years, which demonstrate that their “the best job at a fair price” ethos is definitely working. Just this month the company was appointed by a local authority to install and maintain heating systems in more than 500 properties over a five-year period.

Being ahead of the game has been a feature of Blueflame’s development. The UK Government has to meet some fairly tough EU environmental targets (a 34% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020), and has introduced various initiatives such as the Feed-in Tariff scheme, Renewable Heat Incentive and Green Deal to encourage homeowners and businesses to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. However, in 2009, prior to these introductions, Blueflame Services could see where their future lay and expanded their operations to embrace renewable energy technologies.

They set up a separate arm, the Green Energy Team, to deal exclusively with renewable energy system design and installation. This is a growth area as consumers and businesses look to new ways of reducing their energy bills on a long term basis.

“Renewable energy and new technology is very important for us and has been for the past five years – even before it was fashionable – and will continue to be a big part of our future,” said Kevin.

“We have already become one of the larger players in the market in this area and going forward we have got to capitalize on the investment we have put into that and we are determined to do that. It’s a massive undertaking to keep pace with how technology is changing and moving. As a country we are waking up to renewables and the Government know it and that’s being reflected in building regulations.

“We have an open door policy and encourage frank discussion about issues,” said Kevin. “As a country we’re all over a utilities barrel so it’s hard to keep energy bills down, no matter how often we switch. We want to spearhead the development of more energy saving products to help our commercial and domestic customers reduce their energy bills on a long term basis.

“But first I think we need to clear the fog on what systems will really deliver those results; sometimes it’s as easy as using a draught excluder or changing all the light bulbs to LEDs.”

To further engage with customers and help them understand what is on the market, Kevin and Tony this year invested in a kitchen and bathroom showroom, Ashleys of Frinton, and refurbished it to incorporate a showroom for their energy efficiency products.

Customers can continue to buy their kitchens and bathrooms here, but now they can choose their air source heat pump, solar thermal panels and condensing boiler too, building in exceptional energy efficiency from the start. And, as the plumbing and electrical work will be done by Blueflame Services, there’s no middleman, which keeps the costs to customers down.

“There are a lot of synergies between the two businesses,” says Kevin. “We have both been going for around 25 years and are both trusted in what we do. Often when people are thinking of a new kitchen or bathroom they may also want to consider a new gas or heating system, and the beauty of the showroom is that they can do that all under one roof and most importantly there’s no hard sell. Neither of us have commissioned sales people, it is far more important to find the right solution for each customer and to do the job correctly. We are really chuffed with the way the showroom looks; it was a great investment for us.”

Blueflame Services also understands and respects the fact that prospective customers (trade and consumer) are no longer passive targets but active hunters, so they are also in the process of rebranding and making their website more interactive so that visitors can calculate their energy saving/cost savings online.

One change they won’t be making, however, is to their recruitment policy. Currently all staff, with the exception of reception and accounts, are engineers. This, they believe is unique and part of their appeal.

All staff have to keep on top of developments so, when new products are introduced, the relevant engineers go on the training courses. They also visit the trade fairs where concepts/prototypes are showcased and this helps them keep their finger on the pulse of what’s up and coming.

In addition, they keep a constant watch over Government developments, especially on incentive schemes, as these are always in a state of change, and Blueflame need to be up to speed with this so they can advise their customers.

“We like to be straight with our staff and expect to get that back,” said Kevin. “Our style is more inspirational coach than dictatorial manager. Everyone knows that we can do what they can do; they also know we want them to do it better.”