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Dorset innovator inspired by German lessons

AP Chant founder Ashley Chant's experience as a young heating engineer in Germany meant he was quick to spot the potential of renewables
AP Chant is very much a local business with its roots firmly in the Dorset soil around Bridport, but its business model and success during the recession are an example for the whole industry. Founder and owner Ashley Chant had an early introduction to low carbon heating systems. He served part of his apprenticeship in Bavaria in the early 90s where biomass was already a common solution and solar was soon to follow.

Plumbers in Germany were already installing pressurised central heating systems and using press-fit systems - long before they became staples in the UK. So when he returned to his native Dorset, the company he set up in 1992 was always looking to innovate and push the UK market's boundaries. Initially, he worked from home as a plumber and struggled to get his ideas across to a sceptical domestic audience, but eventually he was able to expand and bought a plot of land in Bridport where the first AP Chant headquarters was built.

Today AP Chant is a £13m turnover business with 150 employees making it West Dorset's largest privately owned plumbing, heating and electrical contractor.

Further expansion is on the cards thanks to the growth in demand for sustainable building services solutions. Thanks to his background, Ashley quickly saw the potential when the renewables 'phenomenon' finally reached British shores - almost 20 years behind Germany. This culminated in 2012 with the building of a fully interactive renewables showcase building: The CORE (Centre of Renewable Energy) just across the road from the company's Bridport headquarters and now something of a local landmark.

This state-of-the-art facility demonstrates all forms of renewable technology from solar photovoltaics (PV) to heat pumps; and from biomass boilers and underfloor heating to heat recovery and sun pipes. It also explains the benefits of energy and water efficiency.

The brainchild of Ashley and his wife Lucy, who now manages the centre, The Core took several years of planning and 18 months to build. All technologies displayed are fully working - allowing customers to see the potential benefits and possible applications. Interactive multimedia screens allow visitors to study the technologies in greater depth through case studies, photographs and animated films.

Opened in April 2012, it cost around £1m to build, but Ashley calculates it has already brought in at least £3m additional business. However, this is not just about finance. The centre also plays a role in the local community as it serves to raise awareness and advise members of the public, businesses, school children and students about sustainable energy solutions and the environment.

The Core also provides a team of highly qualified experts to advise on lowering carbon emissions and the financial benefits to their homes and businesses. The fact Ashley and Lucy even contemplated investing in such an ambitious venture in the depths of the most savage recession experienced by the UK economy for generations is testimony to the company's resilience. They attribute this, largely, to its strong local roots, which leads to the company being nominated for a lot of local projects.

It also recently won a job despite a competitor quoting a considerably lower price. 'The client knows we will deliver - that's the difference,' says Ashley. The company has undertaken one-off projects in London and Dublin, but Ashley stresses that it sent its own people to ensure the work was done to 'Chant way'. 'We are not afraid of growth, but we will not over-stretch ourselves and bite off more than we can chew,' he says.

The business has expanded, however, from its core domestic plumbing and heating work. It used to sub-contract electrical projects, but it acquired a local electrical contractor, which it has now grown from an annual turnover of £300,000 to £2 million.

Membership of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) was also a benefit in helping the business to get established as it simplified the often convoluted accreditation process and opened a number or doors.

He said the company had gained considerable benefit from the independent auditing process that underpins the B&ES Competence Assessment Scheme (CAS) that all members must undertake to prove their technical and commercial quality. As a result, member firms are 'deemed to satisfy' the requirements of a number of industry quality assurance and health & safety schemes so speeding up their acceptance onto tender lists.

'The pre-qualification process can be extremely frustrating as many clients still insist on their own questionnaires,' says Ashley. 'However, B&ES has made great efforts to simplify things for us.'

Of AP Chant's 150 staff, 110 are directly involved in delivering electrical, mechanical and building works with between 40 and 50 Gas Safe registered. The workforce actually grew during the recession because Ashley was able to pick up some highly qualified and experienced people when a number of other Dorset contractors went under.

There are also five people employed full time on administering the company's involvement in ECO (Energy Company Obligation) projects where energy suppliers commit a certain amount of money to improving the energy efficiency of fuel poor homes.

While Ashley has little time for the Green Deal, which he sees as poorly conceived and executed because politicians failed to consult the industry properly, he backs the Government's decision to extend the ECO scheme.

'Spreading it out over a longer period is sensible and gives it a chance to work,' he says. 'The energy companies were struggling to spend the money in the timescale available before because they couldn't find enough companies suitably qualified to deliver the projects.'

He believes the ECO provides support to people who actually need it. 'Most of the other government subsidies seem to end up in the pockets of individuals or companies who are simply exploiting the system for profit. With ECO it is the pensioners and others on low incomes who are getting help.'

Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, most people remain very worried about their energy bills so will continue to look for ways to cut their consumption, which will continue to add impetus to ECO, according to Ashley.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is also driving interest in renewables, with Lucy pointing out that it helps to plug the funding gap between the upfront cost of the equipment and what the end user can expect to save in their energy bills. 'People are starting to look at renewables more realistically,' she says. 'The Feed-in Tariffs got everybody very excited about PV, but since they were scaled back the market has settled down. People are now installing systems for the right reasons and with realistic expectations.'

However, Ashley remains concerned about the mis-selling of renewables with companies and individuals selecting a technology simply to qualify for the payments when it might not be the most appropriate solution. 'We are very careful to choose the right renewable solution, every job has to be looked at independently and a holistic approach taken,' he says.

'We will only sell the right renewable solution. There are three things that are crucial to an efficient renewable installation: The system must be designed, installed and commissioned correctly.'

He also urges people to tackle the energy efficiency of their buildings before considering renewables. 'There is not a renewable solution that is right for every property and renewables get a bad press because they have been mis-applied or the system has been poorly designed.'

He also believes the Government will regret its failure to incentivise builders to deliver high quality low energy solutions in line with the Code for Sustainable Homes - itself now under threat. 'That is a real missed opportunity. Why can't they offer builders a cash incentive or a grant to do the right thing? As it is, they will simply put in the cheapest option and leave the end user to pick up the tab in the long run.'

Perhaps the answer is to ensure more contracts are awarded to good local companies with a sound understanding of renewable technologies and sustainable engineering?
1 April 2014


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