After being in a severe car accident involving a HGV, Julian Patrick, 39, started to re-evaluate his life, wanting to give something back to the world.
Realising what is really important in life, he came up with the idea of Freewatt Limited in 2008. This didn’t just allow him to do his bit for the environment, but meant he was able to help businesses across the country save money on their energy bills through difficult times.
With a love of the outdoors, Julian tries to take his wife Ruth, his seven-year-old twin sons and his three-year-old daughter out on the hills and to the lakes as much as he can. Helping to preserve the countryside seemed like the obvious choice.
“I thought, ‘I want to do something that will make a difference, and do something that is motivated for the right reasons’. I always believed that renewables was something that was going to take off as they are not making any more fossil fuels. As it happens the risk now isn’t just that they are going to run out, the risk is that if we use everything that we’ve got then the planet will be destroyed anyway,” said Julian.
Starting out isn’t easy
Starting a business at the beginning of the recession was no easy feat, especially as renewable energy was not widely embraced. Many people saw solar energy as being too much of an expense, without seeing any return on it for over a decade.
“The business was founded on the ideal of getting into renewable energies. I worked in pharmaceuticals for about eight or nine years in sales and marketing. I did quite well at that but I never really felt that it was my forever job.”
Julian acted on his impulses to do his part, although it didn’t turn out exactly as he planned. “Initially I thought that it was going to be based mostly in wind but because of the objections in the planning, solar ended up being the path of least resistance. It was the greatest opportunity.”
Starting out as a one-man-band, Julian did everything from pitching the sale to installing the panels. “In the first year our turnover was £35,000. How we survived the first year I really don’t know. The second year, was quite tough as well.”
Renewable energy didn’t come into its own until the Feed In Tariff was introduced, meaning that by installing solar panels, a person’s home can be powered by the energy collected, and any additional energy can be sold back to the government.
“This was when the industry really took off. It was initially about educating the customer and saying, ‘right, this is the concept, this is how it works. It is genuine and not some dodgy offer.’ People were often saying that this was too good to be true.”
After about 18 months of the Feed In Tariff being capped at a high rate, and the cost of the technology quickly reducing, the government stepped in and reduced the tariff dramatically. “There was a massive reduction in the Feed In Tariff to try and bring it back into check to where it should be. But then the press got a hold of it and said ‘Oh no! It’s the end of the world. There will be people going out of business,’ and actually that is now the biggest challenge that we face. It’s the perception that it isn’t worth it.”
Changing the perception
“You very often see a lot of negative press about renewables. A lot of the time, it is a big six fossil fuel company which has a much stronger voice in the press and a unified voice compared to the renewables industry.”
Rather than trying to change the way people think about helping the environment, Julian has taken a different approach. “The driver for the business is the environmental driver but I can’t go and tell people to put panels on their roof or in their field because it is good for the environment. First and foremost, it has to make sense financially.
“That’s why we are in a really exciting position at the moment. Whether we get someone who puts panels in because of the money, I don’t care what the driver is, because at the end of the day it is still providing that environmental benefit. What is really exciting now in business is that they can genuinely make an environmental difference as a byproduct of making a sound investment.”
Making sure that they take care of the environment is a primary concern, as solar farms take up a lot of space, but they are only contracted for a certain time, normally 25 years. Then they’re taken out and the land is recycled. “We are very sensitive about the people around us and the communities around us. We haven’t been involved in any project that has ever had a protest. The solar farm that we have just put in at HQ went through without a single objection.”
The fields have also been adapted so that the area can be used for sheep to graze. “We do well out of it. They keep the grass down and it is much greener to use sheep, and cheaper too. The sheep do well because they get good grazing, and they can keep cool in the summer when it is too hot.
“Planning policy states that solar farms will only go onto grade 3 or worse land so we will not be using up the best farmland. We use driven paths so that there is no concrete. At the end of life, all of the hardware can be pulled out and it becomes a field again.”
Taking a leap of faith
Since scraping by in the first couple of years, Julian has worked hard, watching the company grow. “We’re safe and we’re robust because we have grown organically. We haven’t borrowed because, as a new business, they won’t lend you any money.”
Julian has worked with many companies around the county to install the solar panels, including Lincolnshire Poacher and Lincolnshire Co-operative, making a name for Freewatt. Now employing 30 people, the company has grown to the point that they are working up and down the country and looking to expand.
The company’s year on year growth has been impressive. The turnover grew to over £6.5 million, resulting in Julian splitting the firm into three divisions in 2013, creating Freewatt Group.
This gave another boost to the business and in only two years, they have managed to double their turnover again, expecting £12-£15 million this year alone.
For a business considering changing to solar energy it can be a bit daunting, but it’s not without its rewards. “It is a big investment. The main reason for it is business resilience. One, they protect themselves against rising energy costs. Two, it is the return on investment, some of our projects now working for businesses are getting a five year payback so that equates to a 20% return on investment in year one. You can borrow money at maybe 5 or 6% and then earn 20%. Actually that’s good business.
“People are in business, you have to think about your finance, but it’s great. It is one of those rare opportunities where actually an astute, keen financial decision is perfectly parallel to the moral and environmental carbon reduction.”
Freewatt Group is now the strongest it has been, providing a service that both businesses and individuals need, whilst looking after the environment and continuing to grow.
“Now we are hitting the throttle and pushing within the sector. There is the possibility that we are looking for new premises soon because we are certainly running out of space where we are now [in Stow near Lincoln]. We are stretching now from our Lincolnshire core, across the UK and being recognised.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 26 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.