26 May '21

6 minute read

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“Founding a business is like jumping into a lake,” says Nick Proctor. “It’s a leap of faith and colder than you expect. But once the shock subsides and you realise nothing terrible’s happened, you start smiling.”

Nick plunged into icy waters to create Amber Energy in 2009, aged 25. His diving board was Royal Bank of Scotland, where he’d worked for three years, picking up the nickname ‘Golden Balls’ for his habit of winning entrepreneurial awards. “I’d always wanted to launch my own business,” he says. “What inspired me to create Amber Energy was the idea of helping companies to reduce both their carbon footprint and energy costs. Our mission hasn’t changed since 2009 – we take businesses towards net-zero carbon and beyond.”

Although Amber Energy’s goal hasn’t shifted, the company’s success levels have. Today, the Cardiff-based business turns over £9m and employs nearly 100 people. But to survive that initial plunge, Nick had to tread H2O like a lunatic.

He says: “Year one, I did three jobs: tennis coaching, experiential marketing at weekend events, and a role as the ‘Redbush Ranger’ for Tetley Tea. That involved dressing up, attending NTC classes and serving red-bush tea. I’d drive to London in my hat, badge and shorts, do my tea talk and by 11am I’d be in Starbucks, still in my outfit, working on Amber Energy!”

Nick looks back on his struggling founder days fondly. “That first year was like a honeymoon of freedom. It was electrifying, amazing,” he recalls. “But it was also about raw survival. No one teaches you what to do, so you end up doing all the wrong things. And when you’re thrashing about in cold water trying to stay afloat, you’re not able to listen properly, so the good advice rarely lands.”

Nick evolved from a nearly drowning entrepreneur (and Redbush Ranger) to a successful business owner and – ultimately – a CEO and owner of a multi-million-pound company. With the benefit of hindsight, what’s driven his success?

The first factor, without question, is his decision to work in a sector that energises him. “Protecting the environment excites me; always has,” he says. “Carbon neutrality has to happen in our lifetimes. To wake up every day and play a part in that is really cool. We all watch the Attenborough stuff and it’s alarming. But we can achieve positive outcomes in our lifetimes. We must protect the ice caps and coral reefs.”

Secondly, Nick’s made his business a modern, enticing, exciting place to work. In 2016, he gave 20% of Amber Energy to employees, offering them share options after five years’ service, boosting motivation and loyalty.

More recently, he achieved similar results by ensuring Amber Energy became a B Corp-certified business. B Corp describes companies it certifies as “new kinds of businesses, balancing profit with people and the planet”. It’s a tough-to-attain stamp that adds value, improves working practices, boosts authenticity and enhances recruitment and retention.

“B Corp means a lot to us and it took two years to pull off,” says Nick. “It’s not something you just go and get. It’s not even like winning an award. It’s more like being baptised! By getting it, you’re saying: ‘This is my purpose. This is what I believe in.’ Doing things the right way means a lot to us. B Corp reflects that.”

Critically, Amber Energy balances its idealism with gritty realism, and this is the third key reason for its success. Nick explains: “We’re a purposeful business; we’re on a mission. But doing positive work doesn’t protect us from potential commercial failure. We don’t have a ball of cotton wool wrapped around us because we’re trying to protect the planet.”

Nick’s response to the pandemic is an example of his hard-headed pragmatism: “When Covid struck, it was the first time that I felt I couldn’t control all the levers,” he says. “It hammered home that you can’t let complacency creep in. You’ve got to always be on your mettle and build contingency plans to deal with new threats. Covid – from a business perspective – will happen again, but next time it will come dressed as something else. It will be a new technology that could wipe you out, a competitor with a better business model, or a new form of regulation.

“So, for me as a CEO, the pandemic is a fire drill. We must use the experience to sharpen our focus, constantly remove unnecessary expenditure, keep everything on track, maintain communication across the business, and so on. Doing anything less would be foolish.”

The fourth and final major factor behind Nick’s success is his ability to evolve. Over the years he’s progressed from a fleet-footed solo founder to an owner-CEO leading a team of 100.

Shifting shape has taken stamina and resilience. He says: “At first I tried to resist the transition because I wanted to show you can be a CEO but still act like a founder. But it’s not possible – it gave me a rude awakening. As your company grows and you move to CEO, you have to change, get better at decision making, become more resilient, hold the mirror up more often and listen more effectively.”

Nick Proctor’s personal evolution reflects Amber Energy’s evolution. Both have grown vigorously since that speculative dive into the lake in 2009. What started as a tentative leap of faith followed by a frantic doggy paddle has turned into an eye-catching synchronised swim towards an exciting new shore.