Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Janet Thornton, founder of Inspired Energy

Janet Thornton is a fierce self-starter. She left school at 16 to support her mother and two older siblings. When she started her own family 25 years ago she worked as a seamstress and topped up her qualifications at night school.

“I have spent hours working on my own to make sure I am where I need to be,” she said. “I’m not frightened of hard work.”

Her determination paid off when she founded Inspired Energy, a consultancy that helps businesses to cut their energy bills. The company, set up in September 2000, had sales of £5.3m last year and expects a rise to £6.8m in its latest accounts.

“We’re a growing business in exciting times,” said Thornton, who employs 37 staff. “The industry is changing every day.”

Her team negotiates with energy companies such as British Gas and Npower to provide clients with the most cost-effective energy contracts.

Synetica, the energy efficiency wing of Inspired Energy, is central to the process. It employs engineers to track a company’s carbon emissions, see it complies with legislation and help to cut its bills.

Thornton is managing director. “I have a desk in every office so I can assess all the components — sales, clients, reports and contracts. I am very busy but I love it.”

She invested £6,000 of her own money to get Inspired Energy off the ground, avoiding a bank loan by selling her car and taking out a second mortgage on her home in Wilmslow, Cheshire. The business is based in Kirkham, Lancashire.

“If I want something done I’ll roll my sleeves up and do it myself — even if it is cleaning the office kitchen.”

Thornton, 51, took her first job at 13, cleaning in the evenings after school. When she left Carr Hill High School in Kirkham, with O-levels and CSEs, she became a secretary for a publisher and went to night school to take A-levels in business management and fashion design.

Her mother managed a chemist but stopped work to provide childcare for her grandson Morgan, Thornton’s youngest child, and is now a part-time administrator at Inspired Energy. Thornton’s father, an engineer, was employed at British Leyland, the car maker. He too now works at Inspired Energy alongside her father-in-law, previously a senior British Gas manager.

An accomplished seamstress, at the age of 16 Thornton designed and created a brand of clothing, Janevie, for friends and family. Over 10 years she expanded her portfolio to include wedding dresses, flowers, hair design, baby clothes and nursery furnishings.

In 1991 she took up an apprenticeship at the cost reduction and tax advisory consultancy PCMG in Blackpool. “I was their sixth employee and gained vast experience in the energy sector.”

Six years later she was offered a job at McKinnon & Clarke, an energy consultancy, but found it stifling. “I started in a very male-dominated sector,” she said. “It was full of men saying I couldn’t make a career of it, that it wasn’t a business for women.”

Thornton joined Chess Telecom at Alderley Edge, Cheshire, in 1998. There she helped with sales and began training as a direct energy agent for Powergen.

Later that year she was offered a senior operational position at Utility Auditing (now Chamber Utilities), the energy broker for chambers of commerce, where she oversaw employment and training.

“I embraced the job but felt there was more to do in the sector. I wanted to interrogate the energy suppliers and markets to develop more effective buying strategies and energy products.”

The solution was to start her own business. Inspired Energy floated on AIM, the junior London market, in November 2011. Friday’s closing share price of 9p values the company at £36.3m. Thornton now owns 41% of the business with her husband, Matthew, the sales director.

He joined in 2002 after a career in technical recruitment. In 2005 he established the company’s risk management division, now advising 110 clients with a total energy spend of £500m a year. Customers include the chemicals distributor Brenntag, Interfloor and Wedge Group Galvanizing. “My husband has always been supportive, so much so he gave up his career in recruitment to join Inspired Energy,” Thornton said. “Meanwhile, I have been able to manage the business, its finances, the staff and how we are going to grow.”

However, the business already serves 800 customers and she is reluctant to expand it much further. “My dream was to create a super business without compromising our focus on the client. I think we have it.”

Thornton’s daughters Charlotte, 25, and Jessica, 23, served their apprenticeships with Inspired Energy and are now energy analysts. She hopes Morgan, now 11, will join the business after university.

Budding entrepreneurs should think carefully before starting a business, she said. “Be sure of what you’re doing and be prepared to take some risks. Be motivated. Look for like-minded employees.”

Link to Sunday Times Website

PDF – Janet Thornton of Inspired Energy

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