It started with his father and a work colleague developing the technology in a shed. Today Jon Hiscock runs a 90-employee enterprise with a formidable reputation in the power industry. Swindon-based Fundamentals occupies a clearly defined niche in the area of automatic voltage control, with its customers being electricity distribution network operators (DNOs).
The year had started with a big plan, says Hiscock. “We had started to put a detailed five-year plan together; I am a great fan of Jim Collins’ Good to Great and this was the first leg of our longer-term journey to greatness. Then, whack, Covid.”
Although there were immediate concerns as projects were halted, orders resumed quickly. “If you are going to be in an industry in a pandemic then power is not a bad one,” says Hiscock, “as the lights have to stay on.”
Part of Fundamentals’ plan had been to raise finance – and Hiscock and his advisers were weighing up whether to use debt or equity or a mix. Here Covid opened up an unexpected option; and Fundamentals successfully applied for a £2m CBILs loan from Lloyds Bank. “We have yet to use it but it helped our confidence,” he says. “We know we can carry on delivering and don’t have to hold back. The CBILs loan could be the finance to help us ride through Covid and push through with our plan.”
The timing could not have been better. On the other side of world – in Perth, Australia – a key supplier had gone into administration. “We had to get hold of it to ensure security of supply,” says Hiscock, “and just as we were looking at it, the CBILs loan came through.” Rapid due diligence over Zoom followed, and Fundamentals was able to unite with SystemCORP Energy. “We have gained some amazing engineers.”
One of the major components of Fundamental’s five-year plan is to expand its international presence; at present, the UK accounts for about 90% of revenues. Aside from a fully-owned subsidiary in Australia, the company has a value-added reseller in the Middle East and is ambitious to build sales in Europe and South East Asia.
The move to zero carbon provides a tailwind for Fundamentals. “Our mission is to improve the health and performance of the grid,” explains Hiscock. “The UK’s national grid was designed in the 1950 and 1960s with big power stations generating power that flowed from the top through the network and down to the consumer. When the grid was designed, there was no concept of renewable energy, electric vehicles, or battery storage which we see today. Power flows are now uni-directional and the system becomes increasingly dynamic which introduces significant challenges for network operators. The ideal solution would be to build the grid again from scratch but that is preclusively expensive. We therefore have to adapt the existing grid to cope. On top of that is digital transformation. The grid has to be digitised but it’s the existing electro-mechanical kit that keeps the lights on. This is where Fundamentals has an important part to play in combining digital and analogue technology to help realise the smart grid.”
Finding the right talent and skills is one of the main challenges for the company. “The UK did lose its way as far as STEM education was concerned but I think we are getting back on track, and we do have a few apprentices. However, we have experienced difficulties in finding in the UK those experienced, technically skilled people who can hit the ground running.”
Hiscock is a firm advocate of the value of peer networking.
“It is lonely at the top and there are conversations that you can’t have with management.” He is a member of Vistage, for which he regularly sets aside a day each month. “It has helped me tremendously,” he says.
Fundamentals is part of the Wiltshire-based Inspire network: “I have always wanted my wider team to have something like I have enjoyed with Vistage. Inspire gives that; it means my team have the opportunity to get out and think about different things.” And through Inspire, Hiscock was also introduced to the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses UK programme.
“Overall this year, we are down on budget but not badly,” he says. “If you had told me we would achieve that at the beginning of the outbreak, I would have taken it.”
Beyond Covid, Hiscock is optimistic. “We have seen that working from home and using more digital ways of working is not a problem. We are in a brilliant place in terms of morale. We’re anticipating a couple of big projects landing, and we will pursue our international agenda. We are going heavy on R&D in order to expand our product portfolio. And this year has led me to conclude that it’s OK for us to slow down a bit.”
“We know we can carry on delivering and don’t have to hold back. The CBILs loan could be the finance to help us ride through Covid and push through with our plan.”
Jon Hiscock, Managing Director, Fundamentals
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