Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Christine Griffiths, Founder of Aeolus Power

CHRISTINE GRIFFITHS was growing tired of laying posh patios and driveways with the decorative concrete business she and her husband, Peter, ran from their farm near Bristol.

“We were getting bored with the company,” said Griffiths. “I noticed that our electricity bills were high, so I started thinking about renewables.”

Her application for planning permission to install solar panels on the roof of their grade II listed house was rejected. The council suggested a wind turbine in the orchard, land not covered by the curtilage of the building.

“The more we looked into it the more annoying it became. Everybody wanted to sell us solar panels, which we knew we couldn’t have, and nobody could sell us a wind turbine.”

In 2007 she set up Aeolus Power, supplying and installing 50kW-100kW wind turbines for landowners, businesses and communities across Britain. Aeolus has grown from sales of £6m in 2012 to £7.5m last year. It was the first UK distributor for Endurance Wind Power, a turbine manufacturer based in the city of Surrey in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Installation costs between £250,000 and £300,000.

“We knew wind was going to be very important in the future, but there wasn’t much interest back then,” said Griffiths. “We went on the few training courses available and were soon teaching others.”

Griffiths and her husband co-own the business, which they run from the farm in Pilning, South Gloucestershire. They have two installation teams and employ 10 staff, including their two daughters.

Jessica, 25, is working on a project encouraging churches to set up community energy projects. Victoria, 27, has just been appointed chief executive. “Vicky is taking over land-leasing,” said Griffiths. “We pay rent to farmers who don’t wish to put up a turbine themselves but are happy to have one.”

Not everyone likes the idea of wind turbines on the landscape. Griffiths said: “I cannot understand people’s adversity to one wind turbine on a farm producing electricity to be used on that farm. It should be a permitted development so a farmer with a high usage is allowed to secure his electricity prices.”

Recent reports suggest that David Cameron is intending to rid the countryside of onshore wind farms as part of next year’s election campaign.

“We have to find ways of satisfying our enormous consumption of electricity in this country,” said Griffiths, who has spoken at Exeter University and the Country Land and Business Association on the subject. “Wind won’t do it all, of course it won’t, but it has its place.”

Griffiths, 57, grew up on her father’s dairy, arable and sheep farm in Veryan on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. Her mother was born in South Africa to Cornish parents and became the first female teller for Barclays bank in Truro.

Griffiths attended Truro High School in 1961 and continued her studies at Mid Cornwall College of Further Education. She left for London aged 17 to pursue a career in hospitality. For 10 years she worked for Forte Group Hotels around the southwest before settling in Bristol, where she met and married Peter in 1983.

She joined his waste disposal company Ava-Yellaskip, which he sold in 1989. The couple started Avon Cobblestone together in 1990, laying coloured and imprinted concrete, and continued to run it until 2013 to help fund Aeolus Power.

“Wind power was a very small, protected industry back then, so nobody knew us. To get the first turbine we had to pay £50,000 cash.”

Cashflow can be a big problem for Griffiths if planning consent for a new turbine is slow. In April 2013 she met Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary, to press for legislation that would ease planning regulations on installation. It is the company’s greatest headache as the turbines must be paid for in full before they set sail from Canada.

“The first three months of this year have been incredibly busy dealing with customers whose planning didn’t come out till January,” said Griffiths.

The delays are holding up Aeolus Power’s move into biomass, which the company introduced last year. “Biomass has been on the back burner, but we’ve taken on a couple of new people to move it forward.

“We’re still only a small company; we’ve grown quietly and steadily, and we’re certainly looking to grow further.”

Griffiths’s advice to entrepreneurs is to think of their business as a baby. “You will have enormous pleasure and enormous heartache,” she said.

“Until it’s old enough and big enough to stand on its own two feet it will need you all the time. Even then it will still come back for help.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Christine Griffiths of Aeolus Power

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