After seven years in London sharpening his sales skills and managing 150 property agents across London and the Midlands, Chris arrived back in Australia in 2011 to suss out the hottest growth industries on the horizon. He chose energy, a pretty good fit given he's a bit of an energy source himself, and within 18 months of joining solar installation company Sun Connect as National Sales Manager, he was appointed CEO.
As he moved Sun Connect's focus from residential to commercial customers, Chris became aware that clients were feeling increasingly powerless in the face of runaway power bills. Opportunity was knocking. If he and his friend Alan Gill could find ways of helping companies cut their energy costs they were in business.
They scraped together $180,000 between them and hung out the Choice Energy shingle, initially as a B2B energy broker, later adding solar installation to the mix.
"Our core principles are pretty simple," explains Christopher. "Use less power and pay less for what you do use."
With such limited capital, early days were precarious. Chasing up invoices to ward off creditors, future planning compromised by short term decision-making, oh for a bit of cash in the bank!
"Having adequate funding or resources behind you is the key to running a business properly," says Chris in retrospect.
But with the business growing as quickly as it was, new challenges came thick and fast. Building a strong team was paramount, recruiting, training and retaining, not to mention the need to move offices three times to accommodate them.
Chris is a great believer in investing in people. A willingness to learn and grow is a fundamental qualification in any interview. Everyone is given $30 a month towards self-improvement books; rewards like trips, dinners and awards are frequent; allowing a late 10am start one day a week during winter has had a positive effect on sick days and morale. Only two staff have been lost on the way to a current team of 28 dedicated people.
The energy industry itself is going through massive change. Coal-fired power stations are closing, renewables are exploding, storage solutions are emerging to overcome intermittency and further disruption is coming from electric vehicles which are predicted to grow from 3 to 300 million worldwide in the next ten years.
"If 50% of vehicles in Victoria were electric today the grid would crash," notes Chris.
"Everyone getting home from work and plugging in their cars at the same time means we’re going to have to change the way we generate and distribute our power."
Governments have struggled to respond, with policy divisions toppling prime ministers in giddying succession. Agility is crucial for Choice Energy. What started as an energy broking businesses has had to adapt over and again as more and more business and residential consumers take their own measures to counter rising power bills.
While energy broking still accounts for 80% of Choice clients, solar installations now contribute about 70% of revenue. 'Power factor correction' has become a focus to improve consumption efficiency. Group buying is allowing industry groups to negotiate better rates by pooling their usage. Metering to validate charges and correct tariffs has saved clients up to $100,000 a year.
Looking forward, the company is in the throes of replicating itself in New Zealand, as well as assessing the feasibility of offering clients a direct finance facility.
It's an exciting space to be involved in, one that motivates Chris every time the alarm goes off in the morning.
As with any startup business, there was a period where 70+ hour weeks were the norm. But the arrival of a young family generated new goals and a determination to reset the balance between work and home life. Now Chris arrives between 7:30 and 8, takes a proper lunch break, leaves by 5, and feels all the more productive for it. And encourages his staff to do the same.
But the great escape from the business has been triathlon, an outlet Chris took up just two years ago but has thrown himself into with his usual gusto. Improved fitness, reducing stress and building relationships outside work have been healthy on so many levels, and several other staff have joined in the fun.
Early on in his career, Chris embraced the idea of investing in himself. Books were his pathway to knowledge and he became a voracious consumer of volumes instructional and inspirational. He devoured Dale Carnegie six times over, and recommends A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden as a must read on mindset, method and motivation.
A year or so ago Chris was invited to do a presentation to one of The CEO Institute syndicates. He's done a number since, and realised this was the perfect opportunity to spend more time working on instead of in the business. In June last year, Chris became an enthusiastic member of Syndicate 1.
"It's been amazing getting different opinions from people who have done what I'm trying to do," says Chris, who loves getting out of the office, turning the emails off and sharing ideas with other experienced business owners.
"The next challenge for me is going from 10 to 50 million, and it's easier learning from other people's mistakes!"
At just 36, Chris Dean has been lightening quick out of the business blocks. But like any serious triathlete, he's in it for the long run.
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