For the coachloads of visitors lured to Fort Augustus on the southern shore of Loch Ness by the prospect of spotting the mythical marine monster, a collection of green shipping containers parked in a nearby field warrants barely a glance.
But for some, those shipping containers represent green gold. Late last year, the Auchteraw battery storage project, which pumps renewable power into the grid, was sold by the investment firm ILI Group to Field Energy for an undisclosed price.
Auchteraw is one of several UK sites being developed by Field, the latest venture from an investor with a chequered history in the energy market: Amit Gudka, co-founder of the bust gas and electricity supplier Bulb.
Gudka, 38, left the energy supplier in February 2021, before it collapsed last November amid soaring energy prices in a market that has toppled 31 suppliers since the start of last year.
Bulb was by far the largest failure – it had 1.7 million customers – and it remains in state-funded “special administration”. The ongoing support is expected to cost the taxpayer £2.2bn. A six-month hunt by its administrator, Teneo, has yet to yield a buyer.
An independent review into supplier failures by consultancy Oxera, published this month, found that Bulb had “inadequate levels and horizons for hedging arrangements”, leaving it exposed when wholesale prices soared. Suppliers are expected to lose £110m owed to them when Bulb entered administration.
Its failure has put the spotlight on its co-founders, Gudka and Hayden Wood, who used slick technology and marketing to rapidly grab market share while recording huge losses. They extracted £4m each in a 2018 fundraising, but had their holdings – once valued at more than £100m each – wiped out by the collapse. A long list of investors were also left empty-handed, including JamJar Investments, the fund set up by the founders of Innocent Drinks.
After his departure from Bulb, Gudka, a former Barclays energy trader and DJ, set up Virmati Energy – named after his late grandmother – later rebranding it Field. At the time, Bulb said: “Amit’s work on battery storage has left him compelled to look further into this exciting and emerging field.”
Field aims to create a string of 160 megawatt (MW) battery sites, with the aim of reaching 1.3 gigawatts (GW) by 2024. Sites have been secured in Oldham, Lancashire, and Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, as well as the Loch Ness project. Gudka is aiming to benefit from a shift away from gas to electricity from renewables such as wind, solar and hydro, which relies on battery storage infrastructure.
Gudka has built the business with a clutch of former “Bulberinos” – as the startup referred to its employees – including former procurement chief Ben Saward and data scientist Beth Rice. He has tapped a pool of high-profile investors including Taavet Hinrikus, founder of the fintech Wise (formerly TransferWise) and Ian Hogarth, founder of live-music data service Songkick. Energy trader Phil Sutterby, who was also an investor in Bulb, is a backer and director of Field.
Industry sources have expressed concern that Field may suffer the same fate as Bulb, taking on large debts as it expands that could prove unsustainable if market conditions alter. Last month, the investment firm Triple Point agreed to provide Field a £45.6m debt facility. Gudka declined to comment on events at Bulb or his strategy at Field.
Meanwhile Wood drew criticism last month during testimony to MPs when he revealed that his £250,000 salary remained intact, funded by taxpayers, as he has stayed with Bulb to shore up its future.
The fate of Wood and Gudka’s business shone a light on the relatively youthful executives who set up new energy suppliers after a drive by energy regulator Ofgem to open up the market beyond the big six suppliers since 2015.
Ofgem has suggested current self-assessment checks on directors could be beefed up with a “fit and proper person” test. It would mirror the checks used in the financial services industry, requiring directors of suppliers to prove they have sound financial skills and are capable of managing risk to customers.
Many of the failed suppliers’ directors have rebranded themselves as industry consultants. The founder of PFP Energy, Adrian Leaker, boasts on LinkedIn of growing the business to 90 employees and a £70m turnover, but makes no mention of the fact that it ultimately failed. Leaker said he left PFP in early 2021 before the gas crisis began. He is now listed as an “independent energy consultant”. Former Zebra Power chief executive Mark Royle also lists his profession as consultant.
Ofgem has been condemned for letting companies founded by directors with scant industry experience, and who were putting up little of their own money, run a crucial service. The review by Oxera found that the regulator had allowed founders to take a “free bet” on the energy market.
Many suppliers were squeezed by the jump in wholesale gas prices and the UK energy price cap, meaning they were forced to supply energy at a loss without the option to raise prices. Peter McGirr, the former chief executive of bust supplier Green, said the government had been “blindsided” by the energy crisis despite repeated warnings from industry.
Live and kicking: what former energy bosses are up to now
Supplier Orbit Energy
Went bust November 2021
Customers now with Scottish Power
Now Chief commercial officer, The Lettings Hub
In spring 2020, Parker spoke of her pride at Orbit Energy’s contribution to the NHS when it decided to donate all profits from new customers to the service, hoping to raise £2m. Just over 18 months later, Orbit was bust.
Parker has had a varied career, working in admin at the Royal Academy of Dance in the 1990s, before holding senior marketing roles at Royal Mail and British Gas and doing a stint in insurance. She quickly rose from sales and marketing director to run Orbit, which was “on a mission to make energy cleaner and cheaper”. She’s now chief commercial officer at a technology business focused on the home rentals market, offering IT platforms for home insurance, tenancy agreements and references. She declined to comment.
Supplier Utility Point
Bust September 2021
Customers now with EDF
Now Co-founder, Solace Utilities
Utility Point co-founder Simon Yarwood is a keen skier, but saw his energy supplier crash down a black run last autumn.
He cut his teeth working in financial and commercial roles at accountancy firm Smith & Williamson, car seller Olympian Renault and telecoms specialist 4Com. He entered the energy industry in 2016, setting up Utility Point on the south coast of England two years later.
On LinkedIn, he lists many achievements (right back to his respectable A-level grades at Bournemouth grammar school) but omits Utility Point’s demise from his CV; the Dorset-based company collapsed last year, putting its 197 staff at risk.
Yarwood is now co-founder and finance chief at Solace Utilities. The company, based in Poole, is listed as a nationwide gas and electric “meter operator and meter asset manager”. He has blamed an “incompetent regulator” for the failure of Utility Point and its peers.
Supplier Ampower UK
Bust November 2021
Customers now with Yü Energy
Now Managing director, Ampergia
Sandip Sali only set up Ampergia, his current venture, in April but has big ambitions. “Our vision [is] to supply green energy through various means including installing the renewable assets and introducing energy efficient technologies such as; Solar PV, Heat Pumps, EV chargers & Battery solutions,” he says on his LinkedIn profile. The company provides renewable energy generation and storage using specialist technology.
Customers will hope he fares better than he did in his previous venture. The former software sales executive clocked up nearly five years as managing director of Ampower UK before the gas price surge sent it into administration. Sali said the Department for Business and Ofgem had been “responsible for creating chaos”.
Bust November 2021
Customers now with Pozitive Energy
Now Voluntary ambassador, Institute of Directors
Dr Paul Stanley boasts three startups, three turnarounds and six “exits” – selling businesses to trade buyers or floating them on the public markets – in his lengthy career. He said the business energy supplier CNG had initially been distressed due to the freezing “beast from the east” storm in 2018, a problem “further undermined” by the 2021 energy crisis. CNG went bankrupt late last year after failing to secure an offer from 29 interested parties.
Stanley now provides pro bono support through the PEPTalks network, is a voluntary regional ambassador for the Institute of Directors and a visiting lecturer at York business school, and is on the board of investor TowerBrook Capital. He said the failure of CNG was “very sad for all involved” and beyond management’s control, due to the failure of four wholesale customers in quick succession.
Bust September 2021
Acquirer Shell Energy
Now Investor in Switch Business Gas & Power
McGirr spent part of his career in financial services, including at Halifax Bank of Scotland, the bank rescued by Lloyds before the financial crash. He set up Green in 2019 in the north-east of England, using artificial intelligence to underpin its tech.
But last autumn he admitted: “I don’t think we’ll survive the winter if there’s not a material change,” and claimed calls for government help had “fallen on deaf ears”. The business went bust shortly afterwards.
McGirr – who is also a property investor – said he had worked “tirelessly” with Shell to move over customers. In December, he became the majority shareholder in Switch Business Gas & Power, restructuring its operations. He has also acquired energy consultancy Spiral Utilities.
He said his track record in offering good service meant customers should trust him again.