Posted on Thursday 19 September 2013 by Ulster Business

Budget Energy

Eleanor McEvoy is a breath of fresh air in a sector not known for interesting characters who speak their minds.

A serial entrepreneur, she founded electricity supplier Budget Energy in 2011 with the ambition of shaking up the energy market and offering more choice to consumers and businesses.

The company already has about 34,000 mostly domestic customers, around 4 per cent of the market, but, with a 25 year licence to sell electricity, the MD's sights are set much higher.

"I want 50% of the market here, I know that's very ambitious. I'd like something similar in Southern Ireland and I would like to look across the water (to GB) as well. There's no reason why we shouldn't," she said.

Budget's fresh approach to an old industry is, she says, based on providing straightforward tariffs with no hidden charges, and offering pre-pay cheaper than bill-pay.

Northern Ireland has the most developed pre-payment market in Europe, with 350,000 pre-paid customers and McEvoy believes that in an age where people are dispensing with landline phones and paying for TV on demand, the numbers will keep growing.

"To explain what we do I call us the Ryanair of the energy business without the bad manners. It makes it clear what we are doing that's different. We have one tariff for pre-paid and one tariff for bill paid. We don't make you sign a contract," she said.

"We also don't penalise people for staying with us, we don't put up their tariff after two years. Everybody gets mate's rates," she added.

"We've always been cheaper since we came into the market and we intend to keep it that way."

It's a bold statement and one which has meant Budget Energy shouldering the cost of fluctuations in wholesale energy prices that have led competitors Power NI and Airtricity to increase their charges by 18 per cent recently.

"People keep asking where's the catch? There is no catch. It is exactly what it says. We didn't move on price when wholesale gas went up earlier in the year," said McEvoy.

"We can do that because we're not weighed down by massive offices, massive workforces, directors in Mercedes. We run it small and tight, we keep our overheads low because we always need to be competitive. The clue is in the name."

McEvoy has successfully built and sold two previous businesses - Pembroke Distributors, a food distribution and vending company which she sold in 2001, then Phonecard Warehouse, a successful reseller of mobile phone top ups which was sold in 2006.

This is the first time her end customer has been the consumer but she says she's a quick learner and, having run other businesses, was not intimidated by the bureaucracy of the energy market.

"There's this whole idea that electricity is a big mystery but in reality we buy electricity and we retail it to the consumer. We're in the service industry. We all buy electricity from the same pool," she said.

"We took a decision not to employ anyone from the industry. It meant a slow beginning because we had to learn everything from scratch, but it also meant that we didn't bring in any of the baggage associated with people who are in the industry long-term. We are customer service-driven, our whole emphasis is on making it easy for people to be our customer."

All of Budget's call centre staff – around a third of whom have joined via the government-sponsored Strive to Work programme - are trained to deal with any query, meaning customers aren't transferred around. The company has also successfully used Twitter as a support tool, creating a community of customers loyal to the brand.

McEvoy says keypad meters make it easy for someone to judge how much they spend a week on electricity and top up for the month ahead. But Budget also makes sure they don't get caught out.

By law if a household has someone under 18 and over 65 in it, electricity providers have to keep their meter going over the weekend until 8am on Monday morning even if it is out of credit. Budget applies that guarantee to all customers and has extended the top up time to 11am on a Monday to give them a chance to top up online, on the phone or in a shop.

Having proved the keypad is a viable product in Northern Ireland the next stop for Budget Energy is expansion into the Republic of Ireland.

"We want as much of the market here as we can get and plan to be in the South next year. The pre-paid market in the South is only just starting to open up. It's a big opportunity."



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