Growing the first energy challenger brand: An interview with Bill Bullen

Energy & Low Carbon Industry | Growth | Interview | National

Bill Bullen

Utilita Energy is an independent energy supplier and challenger brand to the Big Six. Bill Bullen, CEO, founded the company in 2003 from an office with four people. Today, Utilita employs more than 1,500 staff across eleven hubs and serves 700,000 customers.

Bill spoke to BLM about starting and scaling an energy challenger, and his plans for the future.

What was your background prior to founding Utilita Energy?

I’ve worked in the energy sector since the 1980s, starting as a business analyst before becoming a director at Centrica in 2002. It was at this point that, using my experience in the industry, I decided to take a risk and establish a challenger company having identified an area of the market that was not being served properly by the Big Six.

What inspired you to found Utilita? What was the vision for the company?

Having worked in the energy industry for more than two decades, I became frustrated with the market and its lack of provision for low-income households.

I gathered a few people around a kitchen table in 2003 and from there we developed Utilita Energy. Today, there are more than 70 independent energy providers, making up around 16% of the market, so it really did lead to a step-change in the industry.

Our vision has always been to help the under-represented and vulnerable households in the UK, utilising technology and promoting fairness both internally and externally.

Can you explain your decision to open a high street store when the retail trends seem to point the other way?

We’ve always embraced innovation at Utilita – we were the first company to install a smart meter in the UK – and opening our first high street hub is another example of that, putting power back into the high street as many well-known stores are leaving our towns and cities.

We listen to our customers and their feedback told us that people across the UK still want face-to-face help and a personal touch rather than having to rely on telephones or the internet when receiving support. This is especially important for our customer base, given that we work with some of Britain’s most vulnerable households that often require additional levels of support.

How has that process gone? Did it go as you anticipated?

Our first energy hub in Gosport enables customers to get energy efficiency advice, top-up their energy meters and speak directly with Utilita staff and so far, feedback has been extremely positive.

A friendly face and real-time support is something that a lot of companies don’t provide in a technological world, but we feel there is still great potential in the high street and are keen to build on this launch with the rollout of further hubs in the coming years.

How did you manage the process of scaling to 750,000 customers? What were some of the highs and lows?

I think much of our growth is down to us being bold and trusting in our values.

From the very start, we knew what we wanted to achieve and by offering a different proposition to the Big Six energy providers, we have been able to offer a significant segment of the market a fairer deal on their energy supply.

By doing what we do best – listening to customers, continuing to innovate and investing in our people – we’ve been able to continue scaling up despite the market challenges we have faced, including strict regulation such as energy price caps and wider economic uncertainty.

What advice would you give other companies looking to scale?

It is a challenging process to scale up a business as it involves a balancing act of being bold while remaining strategic and sensible.

For firms wanting to scale up significantly, you can’t do this all personally, so it’s very important to build a strong team and invest in people right across the business in order to achieve sustainable growth.

It’s also crucial that you don’t rest on your laurels. I’m a big advocate of making bold decisions and thinking proactively, as otherwise you’ll get left behind. Risks are worth taking, but they should be measured ones.

What is the most exciting development in the energy sector currently?

The continued uptake of smart meters is going to increase our energy efficiency, benefiting both customers and the environment, in spite of the rollout not being as smooth as hoped. The rushing through of next-generation meters has the potential to cause issues for prepayment customers which is a concern, but further smart technology, on the whole, will benefit the industry and we’ll continue to pioneer this in the coming years.

Renewable energy through smart technology is certainly going to be a growing priority within the sector as we all look to reduce carbon emissions. We are also likely to see further investment in energy storage and a greater number of customers utilising this in order to reduce their costs in the years to come.

What are your future plans for Utilita Energy?

Our purpose remains the same and we will continue to build on our core principles to provide an even better service to a growing number of customers across the UK and launching further energy hubs across the UK will be part of this.

I would anticipate Utilita, like other suppliers, picking up more customers from public sector providers, as we have this year when Our Power ceased trading in Scotland. That’s not to say that the public sector doesn’t still have an important role to play to ensure decisions are made in the public interest – it does – only that I think the supply market should be left to the private sector.

What are your future plans as an entrepreneur? 

My absolute focus remains on Utilita and navigating the challenges that we, along with many others, face.

While I am immensely proud of the growth of the company and where we are today, there is still so much more potential in the business and I am excited to continue to lead it into the next stage of its development.

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