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Bright spark leading the industry in dark times

Bright spark leading the industry in dark times

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Twenty seven years on from his electrical apprenticeship, John Horan has come full circle as the President of Master Electricians Australia, an organisation which mentored him in the early days of starting an electrical company so successful, it was bought out by Australia’s largest energy provider.

John and his wife Rosemarie started their electrical business in 2004, and partnered with Scott and Sandra Bird in 2007 to create Horan & Bird. In 2010 John and Scott decided to invest in and focus on solar in response to the government rebates that were on offer.  At that time, their competitors were buying one pallet of solar panels at a time and incurring additional freight costs as the shipment would arrive in Melbourne.  After several trips to China and intensive research, they selected the best supplier and risked everything to order a bulk supply delivered directly to Townsville Port.

“We had to sell our house to buy our first container of solar panels, as the banks would not lend us the money and we had to pay for it upfront in US Dollars,” he recalls.

“It felt like the longest six weeks of our life waiting for the container to turn up so we could get cash in the door.” 

“I was 10 kilos overweight and super stressed, but it was the strategic move that helped Horan & Bird become the business it is, and now we have four containers arrive per week!”

The solar industry became an increasingly competitive market, but Horan & Bird maintained a solid advertising campaign focusing on their local roots and earned themselves a good reputation.

“There were so many fly-by-nighters who preyed on regional cities and pensioners,” he says.

“The amount of Townsville people who were affected was significant, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

When the 44 cent feed-in tariff incentive ended, many solar installation businesses closed as quickly as they had opened, but Horan & Bird continue to grow.

“We kept the same strategies in place and slowly grew into other regional and metro areas, and we’re still doing as much solar today as we were then,” he says.

“We’re electricians and electrical engineers who sell solar, and our target market would rather buy off an electrical contractor for peace of mind.”

The company expanded rapidly, winning multiple awards including the Australian Small Business of the Year 2012 and 2014 Regional Employer of the Year. In 2015, Horan & Bird was acquired by Origin Energy and John stayed on as Managing Director.  The Head Office remains in Townsville with 80 staff, with offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Gold Coast and throughout regional Queensland.

“My goal was always to build a business that was sellable,” John explains.

“I had everything in place to list the company on the stock exchange when Origin Energy came along and they bought us out.  

“It’s been a hell of a ride to start a business with your wife from the garage and 15 years later being bought out by Australia’s largest energy provider.  

“At the start we were living pay to pay and working incredible hours, but we had a strategy in place and kept our focus.”

On the transition from business owner to employee, John says his role as an executive in an ASX listed company continues to bring challenges that he thrives on, and he is proud to see the Horan & Bird brand throughout Australia.  

John’s commitment to professional development for himself and his team has been critical in the continued growth of Horan & Bird, which boasts a highly trained sales team and an inhouse training facility and mentoring program for apprentices.

“Our best tradesman are apprentices that we put on and grew ourselves,” he says.

In addition to holding an MBA, John has been studying Emotional Intelligence (EQ) for 15 years and believes it is one of the best skillsets you can learn to better understand your own personality and other people’s thinking behaviour.  Not only does it influence his own leadership, but he delivers training sessions to his team to teach them how to use EQ and read personalities to sell.

“The number one skill in business is to sell, and you can’t sell the same way to everyone because we’re all different.

“Our sales team’s absolute point of difference is their ability to close sales,” he says.

“By knowing which people you can and can’t go hard at, and by knowing the questions they ask based on their personality type, it’s quite easy to know what to say.”

Providing leadership and mentoring nationwide within his industry is a natural progression for John, and he was proud to be elected as the President of Master Electricians Australia last year, an organisation he says was a lifeline for him when he started out in business.

“They helped me out with everything from HR, payroll, industrial relations, the right insurances and safety procedures,” he says.

“It’s like the grandfather you need when you first start out in business, that you can go to for advice and the reassurance that they’re just a phone call away in the event of an electrical emergency.

“When I first started my apprenticeship, I never dreamed I could become part of such an awesome organisation.  I’m at the cutting edge of what is happening in the electrical industry, and that helps me pave the way for future electrical contractors.”

He says that some electrical contractors are experiencing a great deal of anxiety as a result of COVID-19, and he is aware that there have been some lay-offs as a result.  

“We have been proactive in helping out people in trouble right now, and I have been doing national webinars to offer advice,” he says.

“We’re working to keep them motivated, helping them to relax, and reminding them that we’ve been through a few of these tough economic times before.”

While acknowledging that COVID-19 has had a significant effect on his industry, John reminds business owners that sometimes it takes an event like this to shock you into getting “business fit”. 

“Absolutely understand what makes you the best in your industry, and if you aren’t the best, what is it you can do that makes you the best and different from everyone else, that would make people go to you,” he advises.

“Know what your goal is, have a 5 year plan and break it down to each week.  

“Once you’ve got all that in place, you can move forward, and when a COVID-19 comes along, it doesn’t matter, because people will still come to you.

“On the other side of this we’re going to be a much more efficient business, all of us are.  We’re going to learn from our mistakes, we’re going to get better at it, and we’re going to make more money and be a stronger business on the other side.”

– Written by Julie Johnston for BDmag online.

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