Posted on Wednesday 26 September 2012 by Ulster Business

Firmus

This year will see firmus energy grow all aspects of its business, according to the company's new General Manager Michael Scott.

Formerly business development manager at the energy provider, Scott took up the top job a few months ago when previous Managing Director Mark Prentice moved south to parent company Bord Gàis.

He is confident that the coming year will see continued development of firmus' gas distribution network beyond the original ten towns covered in the 30 year licence the company won at tender in 2005.

"I think we'll see more rapid development of our network. We have the spine of the network built across the ten towns and cities, but we are continuing to extend it, there is no ramp down on engineers or construction activity. This year we are probably connecting twice the number of customers we did in previous years," he told Ulster Business.

"We see new opportunities and we have in recent times applied to the Utility Regulator to extend the network to new areas that were initially outside our licence area like Portstewart, Warrenpoint, Tandragee and Ballyclare. We've also applied to extend our network to Bushmills."

Typically firmus brings gas to large commercial customers in an area – for example Tayto in Tandragee – and then builds out from there to supply new and existing housing estates and smaller commercial premises.

From a standing start in 2005 with half a dozen staff it has laid over 750 km of pipe and by the end of the year will employ more than 90 people.

While Scott says network development will continue to be the "cornerstone" of the business, firmus is also focused on supply. The company also has licences to sell gas in Greater Belfast and an electricity supply licence. It has 16,000 customers in the ten towns and expects to have 30,000 customers in Greater Belfast at the end of 2012.

"With electricity switching, we've been taking it at a steady pace. We're now at the stage we can start to escalate that," added Scott.

"It is a very competitive market so we have to be competitive. The margins are small in supply so the account management side is vitally important in how we can help customers out, how clear we make the bills, how we explain things to them, that makes the difference."

In the ten towns firmus has a commitment to be cheaper than oil, while in Greater Belfast it offers deals at a discount to incumbent supplier Airtricity Gas Supply, formerly Phoenix Supply. That means doing things more efficiently and making the most of in-house expertise, as well as the trading arrangements it can leverage through Bord Gàis.

Scott also points to the company's core values of clarity, empathy and integrity as a selling point. While cynics might scoff at an energy company claiming to instil these values into its organisation, he thinks it can be a key differentiator for the business.

"Whether it's a business customer, a small industrial commercial customer or a domestic customer, the way we demonstrate our brand values is in how we go about things," he explained.

"The clarity is in being straight with people. We have a 30 year licence and we're not going anywhere, so it's very important for us to build relationships with customers."

The majority of firmus' staff live locally to its Antrim base and it has won Great Place to Work awards in the past two years, which Scott thinks flows through to the way staff treat customers.

He's proud that in seven years the company has resolved every problem without being the subject of a single formal Consumer Council complaint. Adding to its consumer credentials, the former head of energy at the Consumer Council, John French, has recently joined the company as head of regulation.

"We're in a recession now but we are taking on more staff, we're growing the business, we're growing the gas connections, we're growing the gas volumes we're transporting through the pipes, we're looking for new opportunities, we're accelerating our build programme to domestic customers, and we have all our key industrial customers connected or in the process of being connected up," summarised Scott.

"Where we have come from to where we are now, I think is a great testament to what we're trying to build here."

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