Business hotting up for central heating supplier

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A CENTRAL heating firm said it is winning new business by picking former British Gas customers left disenchanted by the utility giant’s price rises.

Help-Link, which is based in Castleford, is set to take turnover to £15m this year, up more than 50 per cent, on the back of work for domestic properties and local authorities.

The firm, which was set up 13 years ago with a team of seven people, has grown to have about 250 staff and expects to expand further, on the back of a marketing spend which has reached about £500,000 a year.

It does not supply energy but provides central heating and hot water services, including boiler repairs, landlords’ certificates and renewable energy upgrades.

Mel Butler, managing director, said the firm was picking up work for new boilers, maintenance and breakdown cover from British Gas, which was criticised last month after it announced energy price increases of up to 24 per cent.

Mr Butler said: “People are fed up with the energy price rises. People are trying to get away from British Gas and to people like us. They are voting with their feet. They have got to get their power from these people but they don’t have to have the work done in their home by these people.”

Mr Butler said householders could save up to 30 per cent on their heating bills with the installation of a new boiler. Help-Link supplies various types of boilers including those using oil, gas and liquefied petroleum gas.

His firm turned over £9.2m in the year to September 2010, up from £8.6m the previous year. Mr Butler said sales have topped £1m per month this year, putting it on target to reach the £15m figure for the 12 months to September.

It has just completed the first year of its largest central heating boiler servicing contract. More than 7,800 local authority-owned homes across Yorkshire have been inspected, and repaired, by Help-Link’s 130 engineers.

The £2.9m-a-year contract included the annual gas servicing and provision of landlord safety certificates for 3,885 properties in Harrogate, 2,400 in Selby and 1,600 in Richmondshire.

Mr Butler said: “It really is down to the fantastic effort of all our engineers and support staff. Without their dedication and flexibility we wouldn’t have achieved the impressive results we have.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is gaining access to properties so that we can check tenants’ boilers. Most other maintenance companies report a 90-95 per cent success rate, ours is 100 per cent.”

Help-Link achieved this by sending letters and text messages to explain the importance of the visit to tenants and to arrange appointments, meaning no boilers were missed.

The firm has also won business from Harrogate Council in the aftermath of the collapse of Connaught, which carried out essential maintenance and repairs for local authorities and other social housing groups. It was forced to call in administrators from KPMG last year, blaming Government spending cuts for contract work deferrals.

Mr Butler said Help-Link is working on a temporary basis for Harrogate but will make a bid when the contract is opened to tender. He also refused to rule out accepting outside help, such as infrastructure or investment, so the company can meet its ambitions but he declined to make any predictions.

“There is a big market in the private sector for a company like ours. We are continually expanding at the moment. Our target is to grow the business to the £50m turnover figure. At some stage we may want some support but at the moment we are expanding quite nicely. We would never say never.”

Help-Link has also taken on 36 apprentices in the last three years as it seeks to tackle the skills shortage which has hit industrial firms across Britain. It has invested more than £300,000 and plans to do the same again between now and 2014.

Rachel Nichol, contracts manager, was one of 11 school leavers chosen from 58 who applied for an apprenticeship five years ago.

She said: “The bosses are very supportive and made me feel like a valued member of the team right from day one. They invest a lot in us not only in terms of wages and tools but in time as well. I think the success of my apprenticeship and the qualifications I have achieved are largely down to the guidance I had from my Help-Link mentor. He had 20 years’ experience as a heating engineer and now I have some of that knowledge too.

“There aren’t many companies who are prepared to let someone as young as me progress up the career ladder. A lot of my friends went to college or straight into work and are now in a job they don’t really like but I have found my niche.”

RISING PRICES AND DISENCHANTMENT

Help-Link is not an energy supplier, but managing director Mel Butler believes there has been a shift in customer sentiment towards the “big six” power firms, which has been reflected in his business.

Last month, British Gas announced gas and electricity bills would jump by 18 per cent and 16 per cent on average. Scottish and Southern Energy is to increase gas prices by an average of 18 per cent and electricity prices by 11 per cent from September.

Last week, British Gas, which serves nearly half of Britain’s households, was fined £2.5m by energy watchdog Ofgem for failing to deal with customer’s complaints properly.