We talked to Ben Robinson of Exeo Energy, solar panel installers and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Robinson: I am fortunate that none of my family have been badly affected by Covid apart from the inconvenience of lockdowns, isolation, and quarantine. My mother lives alone and is a very sociable person, but she has a garden to tend to and has been busy clearing the loft and sorting through her life’s collection of artifacts!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Exeo Energy.
Ben Robinson: I am a qualified industrial designer that started in the renewable energy sector in 1999 following my degree as a trainee for Dulas Ltd for the solar international team, initially producing technical drawings for off-grid solar solutions around the world, including vaccine & blood refrigeration, telecoms, and borehole water pumping. I soon joined the marketing team as Marketing Manager and then eventually the solar UK team as Sales Manager. We installed the first domestic grid-connected PV system in the UK (amongst others), providing generation data to the DTI to prove the viability of solar PV in the UK. We then secured framework supplier status for phase two of The Low Carbon Building Programme and delivered many MWp of solar PV, solar thermal, and small-scale wind via our network of installers under the brand The Low Carbon Partnership. The solar UK team then grew rapidly following the introduction of the Feed-in Tariff splitting into a wholesale and a projects team. I worked up to Director level, and we won numerous awards and major contracts during that time, including The Queens Award for Enterprise in 2004, Renewable Energy Installer of the Year in 2009, and I personally secured a £4.3m PV installation contract to deliver solar PV across social housing in the southeast of England. After 13 years at Dulas, I became the Business Development Manager at BayWa re Solar Systems, the large German PLC that we divested the solar wholesale business to in 2011. After 6 years at BayWa re and the passing of my father in September 2017, I took some time out in the Alps before returning and joining Exeo Energy and Cambridge Solar as a Director. I have various additional businesses that I am also involved in, including the food security companies set up by my father (1 x NGO in Uganda, 1 x CIC and 1 x Ltd company based in Aberystwyth) and coastal group holiday accommodation, wedding venue, studio, workshops, and boatyard, etc. in mid and northwest Wales.
How does Exeo Energy innovate?
Ben Robinson: We are constantly developing internal solutions for quality management and continuous improvement. From an administration perspective, we are always introducing new internal processes and software systems to improve efficiency across all areas of the business. We have developed tools and are always updating their functionality, such as a site survey form that is completed whilst on site that then sends and records the data to the cloud so that it can then be easily imported to our proposal tools, which will automatically send that data from a spreadsheet to a word document.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ben Robinson: During the initial lockdown, we were unable to enter homes, work on building sites or undertake site visits, etc., so we had to furlough staff and move installation dates. It was difficult to know how things were going to develop, so we assumed the worst and made the most of any financial assistance available. It seems that people are now thinking about solar more, having perhaps done all other DIY projects and seen how much power they use by working from home.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Robinson: Our business model means that staff can work from home easily, and as we use long-standing sub-contractors as well as internal staff, we are able to reduce or increase the workforce very easily. This was invaluable during the pandemic, and we are set up in this way due to the requirement to be able to expand and contract thanks to the volatility of the renewable energy markets with Feed-in Tariff and government policies changing as soon as a new party is in power, etc.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Ben Robinson: We have a bespoke cloud-based CRM system that is designed around our activities where all staff have visibility of enquiries and projects very quickly wherever they are. We have eventually settled with Microsoft Teams as our internal (and often external) communication platform and use specific industry design tools for designing appropriate systems. We have inevitably used video calling apps such as WhatsApp, Teams, Zoom, etc., to ensure good communication and maintain contact with customers.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ben Robinson: We compete against larger national providers (including some of the big 6 energy companies) as well as more regional installers. Other companies often offer all renewable technologies, whereas we specialize in solar PV, battery storage, and then complimentary EV chargers. We have been in the game for 7 years. We aim to stay in it by continuing to undertake high-quality installations with a high degree of technical expertise and excellent customer service.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Robinson: The pandemic is another obstacle that has been thrown in front of us during our business journey that we have had to circumvent, but similarly to the government decisions to remove incentives or change particular policies put in place to encourage renewables, we have always had to deal with difficult market forces and are therefore adept in dealing with such situations. Those that get their head down, are nimble enough to adapt to the changing market, and manage to work through these difficult times will come out of the other side stronger and in a better position.
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