Celebrating Heritage and Embracing the Future
Interview with Ann Brown, Managing Director of FG Wilson
Tell us a bit about the history of FG Wilson?
We were founded in 1966 by Fred Wilson. A true entrepreneur, Fred saw opportunity for generator sets amid the economic chaos of the early 1970s, and in the 1980s, under the leadership of his son Tom, FG Wilson was among the first to bring mass-scale production to generator sets, launching self-contained generator sets which were simple to buy and operate and were easy to install.
They say it's important to be in the right place at the right time but equally important is how you act when you see that opportunity. Both Fred and Tom had the vision and the willpower to make the most of the position they were in.
What changes do you see coming in the generator set industry?
Certainly over the last five to ten years, we've seen engines become more environmentally friendly and efficient and that has helped to drive down the cost per kVA of generator sets which has been good for customers. That’s going to continue.
Twenty years ago if you'd asked us about industry structure, we'd probably have said that the industry was likely to consolidate, with two or three big global players, operating with economies of scale occupying the greater part of the world market and the rest of the business fragmented into many smaller players. Yes today there are a handful of global generator set brands, of which FG Wilson is one, but there has also been an explosion in the number of regional players, packaging locally, and riding on the reputation of the engine brands which they package into their products. These local packagers can be very cost-competitive and it's given customers more choice.
But in the next five to ten years, we see customer expectations rising in terms of product quality, performance and support. It’s going to be common across all industries. The mentality of price-is-everything and sell-and-forget will always be there in a part of the market but overall we see expectations rising.
Is this where you are putting emphasis?
Yes very much. It's about more than just putting the metal together.
Since 1990 we've installed 600,000 generator sets with a total installed capacity of almost 90GW - more than the total installed mains electricity capacity of a country like the UK. In Africa, we’ve installed over 130,000 units with a total capacity of over 12GW, double the total installed mains electricity capacity of Nigeria. With that number of machines operating across the world, we take no risks with quality or performance. Assembling a generator set isn’t difficult, which is why we're seeing many new industry players today. The real value comes in the testing and validation before a product launch. We don't accept engine performance data without validating it ourselves in the environmental conditions which our products will see. When someone buys one of our products, we can safely say that wherever it will be operating, it will have been tested for that environment.
Also important is the way a generator set is sold. We've worked tirelessly to grow and develop a global network of over 300 distributors who offer automotive industry levels of service starting with product selection through to installation and a lifetime of support. They're trained by us and supported by our parts system which stocks over 11,500 parts and delivers three million parts a year, not only for our current products but also for legacy products.
Product testing, validation, establishing dealer channels and support are more difficult to do well and over the last 50 years we believe we've invested more time and resources in all of these than most other generator set brands.
None of our industries live on islands on their own. More and more we’re feeling influence and behaviours from other industries and at FG Wilson, we’re finding our customers are expecting the same levels of service as the very best from other industries. In real terms, products may be becoming more cost-effective but customer expectations of service and support are increasing exponentially. And that creates many new possibilities for engaging with customers over the lifetime of their experience with products.
You mentioned the environment earlier. Does renewable power enter into your plans?
It’s certainly in our thinking. Today in terms of cost per kVA, flexibility and responsiveness, there’s no better source of standby power than a diesel generator set. However our parent company Caterpillar has entered the microgrid market and is actively selling integrated systems where you might have solar panels, batteries, wind turbines and generator sets all linked and capable of powering remote settlements. In regions like Africa and Asia, this has huge potential.
And you see great potential for the generator set industry?
Yes, definitely. All of us in the industry are feeling some economic turbulence right now, but there will always be a growing and insatiable need for electric power. As the world goes more digital, we're going to see exponential growth in demand for electric power and for systems which act as standby for mains failure.
Some forecasts see 25 billion connected devices in 2019, three times the world’s population. Maybe it’s going to be more. And as the world becomes more digital, our tolerance of power outages will fall to zero – maybe it already has. Fifteen years ago, faced with loss of power or internet connectivity, many businesses would have comfortably been able to fall back on paper-based processes. But today? Many of us would have sleepless nights at the very thought. And just try talking to any teenager who has lost their data connection.
Much new demand for power will also come from developing nations: 17% of the world’s population have no access to electricity, and in Africa, the figure is as high as 50%. At the 2016 World Economic Forum, access to electricity was identified as a major investment priority, particularly for Africa.
We’re all feeling economic turbulence right now. But think of Fred Wilson growing his business in the early 1970s, in conditions much more challenging than any of us see now. Today things are different. We live in an exciting and demanding world with a growing and insatiable need for electric power. Huge opportunities exist but they may look different to what we have known in the past. We just need eyes that see them.
- Telephone: 028 9049 5000