Willis Renewables is proof that old businesses can also be innovative. At the beginning of July Willis received one of the most prestigious awards available in the sustainable energy sector. Not bad for a company founded in 1887.
Current managing director John Willis is the fourth generation of his family leading the Belfast firm. Mr Willis is proud not only of the latest award, but also that, even in its early days, the plumbing business was not satisfied with just doing its basic job. The Willis family has always ‘thought round’ problems, with the result that some of its early patents applied the force of gravity to push water uphill for field irrigation. The Willis Hydraulic Ram is still used by many farms in Northern Ireland.
Recent innovation is having its own impact by making solar water heating affordable and sustainable. It is for this that Willis Renewables has been recognised with an Ashden Award, given annually to just six companies in the UK and another six internationally that make major contributions to sustainable energy practice.
The coveted awards were made by Sir David Attenborough in a ceremony hosted by Anna Ford at the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society in London. “This is a major thing for our company,” says Mr Willis. “You become a member of the Ashden alumni, so you get ongoing support and a fairly substantial prize fund for the development of your product.”
Willis’s award was for its ‘Solasyphon’ — a heat exchanger that operates in a complementary manner to existing copper water cylinders. By doing so, the Solasyphon removes the need to rip-out existing copper cylinders; eliminates the negative environmental impact of throwing away good water cylinders; reduces the cost of retro-fitting solar water heating systems; and improves the water heating performance.
“It produces a 40% reduction in installation costs,” says Mr Willis. So a system costing about £5,000 in the past might now cost only £3,200. As a result the ‘payback’ period — the time it takes to recover the investment cost through lower energy payments — has fallen to about five years. “This has made solar water heating more affordable,” says Mr Willis.
Not surprisingly, this has also made the product attractive to a wide market and the company is exporting to a range of countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Poland. Following a recent appearance at a German trade fair, Willis has written expressions of interest from potential customers in 35 countries.
The timing of the innovation has been good for the company. Mr Willis concedes that turnover — consistently around the £2m mark — was damaged by the recession. But a product that reduces installation costs and produces a fast return on investment is almost a ‘recession-breaker’ for the firm.
However, the company — which employs 15 to 20 people at any one time — has a strong market positioning, good products and a respected reputation.
The experience of the Willis family suggests two important lessons. Firms that innovate can ‘renew’ themselves on a continuing basis and be sector leaders.