Chairman’s spotlight on… Steve Cardwell, founder of Generator Power
Last year, I introduced the “Chairman’s spotlight on” series to celebrate some of the incredible people I have met on the BigChange journey. There are too many unsung heroes in British industry: people with fantastic stories to tell who are too busy building their businesses to shout about their experiences. That’s where I come in.
This week, I’d like to introduce you to Steve Cardwell. Steve founded Normanton-based Generator Power back in 1997 and has taken the business from nothing to a £50m turnover and is working towards being a truly national player – he currently serves customers from Inverness down to Reading.
Like so many BigChange customers, he founded his business because he had worked for other people in the sector, learned all he could (the good stuff and the stuff to avoid) and realised he could do it better on his own. “I had a real drive to build a business for myself rather than keep working for other people,” he tells me. “But the problem with generator rental is that it’s very capital-intensive. You don’t have a business if you have just a handful of generators. So I had to jump in with both feet. It took me two years to raise the funding to buy a fleet of generators.”
This is something I so admire about entrepreneurs like Steve: their ability to be “all in”. Steve left no margin for error. He put everything on the line to make his business work. Not many people have the courage and tenacity to make a call like that.
Once Generator Power was up and running, he didn’t sit back and hope the business would roll in. He knew he had to deliver a better service than the competition. This is one of the reasons Steve and I hit it off immediately: we are both obsessed with customer service. “If I have to rely on my wit, charm and boyish good looks, I won’t get far,” he jokes. “We have always focused on delivering something to the customer beyond what our rivals are capable of. That edge is what convinces the customers to write our name on the order, rather than someone else’s.”
He won’t say it about himself, but Steve is an absolute visionary; Generator Power was the first hire company to introduce a “power safe” product, where the fuel tank and generator are housed inside a secure and super-silent container. These were an absolute hit, as fuel couldn’t be siphoned out and the generators couldn’t be vandalised. The entire industry has since embraced Steve’s design and his rivals all now offer similar products.
Right now, Generator Power is at the forefront of innovation once again. “Dirty” diesel may be out of favour, but the company has been investing in renewables and hybrid alternatives for years. “We’re leading the field on this,” he says. “We have battery storage technology, solar arrays, you name it. If we see ourselves as a diesel generator provider today, we’ll soon be out of business. So we have evolved to become a provider of temporary power solutions.”
Markets move so fast these days: no business can stay still, or it will be left behind. After our recent investment round, BigChange earmarked a significant tranche of funding for innovation. “That’s the thing about having a “unique selling point”,” Steve tells me. “People copy you and pretty soon you need a new USP!”
One of the other ways that Steve stays ahead of the competition is through Generator Power’s partnership with BigChange. “We became aware of BigChange a few years ago,” he explains. “We had always used traditional paper-based systems. Our engineers would stand out in the cold filling in job sheets in duplicate – we had real issues with efficiency. The beauty of BigChange is that now we have ditched the paper, and our processes are instantaneous and reliable. If you do lots of work for your customer but don’t charge them enough because the paperwork isn’t there, your business grows but profits stagnate. Now, we make sure the right person is sent to the right job and we charge the right amount for that work in a timely manner.”
As Generator Power continues its journey with greener solutions, BigChange has also helped to bolster its environmental credentials. “Our engineers drive fewer miles and go to the right jobs with the right gear, which has delivered a significant reduction in our carbon footprint,” he says.
Steve has been in business 25 years and still has the same energy and ambition he did when he first started. “This is the best job in the world,” he says. “There’s a new challenge every day and I love it.” As an entrepreneur, you must embrace the high points and stay resilient through the tough times. “When we win industry awards for our innovation, and win contracts with blue chips companies, I’m on a high. But managing people is the biggest challenge. Ask me to deal with a generator, that’s easy, but when you have 284 people on your team, being a leader becomes a lot more complex.”
His philosophy in life is simple. “It doesn’t matter what you do in life but, whatever you do, you should do it with all your might. That’s the philosophy that’s worked for me all my life. Do what you do with enthusiasm. People who are driven, get on. And people who cruise, don’t. I’ve seen people sit in front of a fire and demand heat. If you get up and put wood on the fire, you’ll get heat. But you can’t sit back and expect the fire to light itself.”
If you missed my last “Chairman’s spotlight” you can find it here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chairmans-spotlight-michael-cairns-director-celsius-plumbing-port/