Episode #23

Alan Lowry is the CEO at ESF – a serial entrepreneur and award winning director, he is also an expert in overseas trade and export sales.

He is an export champion for the Department of Business and Trade, and Chair of Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland.

Having worked and travelled all over the world, he is now based in Northern Ireland – a hot bed for innovation.

Alan never rests on his laurels, and is always interested in how to push things forward. In the street furniture sector he was one of the first to actively target the big theme parks like SeaWorld. A few years ago one of the biggest issues with the Parks was the fact that kids didn’t want to stay all day because their cell phones or their mobile phones died. So he started chatting to them about how he could come up with a solar powered device that would allow people to charge their phone in the park without them having to introduce any energy, which meant that was also movable, and it would then keep the customers in the park longer and therefore increase their food and beverage and their merchandise sales.

They’ve ended up exporting the idea to 30 countries around the world since then, and are on to generation three with USB phone charging, LED lighting, and SIM card enabled Wi Fi from the bench so that they can extend the Wi Fi signal.

And I haven’t even mentioned his collaboration with The Wombles! Yes, that’s right. Listen to find out more.


Dom Burch and Alan Lowry.

Dom Burch  00:05

Welcome back to the ubloquity podcast with me Dom Burch. This is the podcast where we get to speak to thought leaders from across the industry. And I’m absolutely delighted this week to welcome Alan Lowry. Now, Alan is the CEO at ESF, which stands for Environmental Street Furniture. He is a Northern Ireland export champion. And of course, in addition to being the CEO, he’s also the FSB, Northern Ireland chair and no less the IoD director of the year. I’m going to stop there, Alan, because if I keep on calling out all the plaudits will have no time to chat, but welcome to the podcast. 

Alan Lowry  00:38

Yeah, sometimes a few too many hats to wear, which is sometimes part of the problem. 

Dom Burch  00:45

I like to think you’ve got the most wonderful hat stand in your in your porch and you choose which one each morning. Now let’s go back a little bit tell me about how did you end up doing what you’re doing now? What was your sort of journey into this world of entrepreneurship and, and actually being so passionate about what Northern Ireland has to offer 

Alan Lowry  01:03

probably started quite early in my career, I left school at the age of 17, not having completed any A levels, I never went to university, out of school although I did end up at university a number of years later through one of my employers, my dad was an electrician who had got into sales, and really brought me into the lighting industry and the whole electronic side of things. And I really cut my taste with my first employer doing that, within a year of starting work, they started sending me overseas to sell stuff. From overseas I mean, they sent me to the Isle of Man and Scotland, which which the someone from Belfast was was very far away at that stage. And I guess I’m probably I learned on my feet with regards to I found I was quite good at chatting to people. I really enjoyed meeting lots of new people. And I was able to interact that with business which which was very successful. I did that for a number of years, and then really moved through the electrical and lighting industry ended up doing a lot of work in street lighting, which eventually brought me into street furniture, and by street furniture, I mean things like litter bins, benches, bollards, shelters, the sort of stuff that you would see on Main Streets and city centres and parks and stuff. And I guess it really started probably around about 1999 working for a Bristol based company, who at that stage was one of the UK’s largest civil suppliers, so sort of heavy and dirty underground stuff. But they’d a couple of nice ideas that they wanted to look at one of which included street lighting and street furniture. So they employed me for about 12 years, basically to look after that division for them. And that very quickly grew into opening overseas offices. So they sent me off to Australia and we open two offices in Perth and Brisbane. And they sent me off to China and Hong Kong, they sent me off to Dubai, and they sent me off to America. And I spent a lot of time travelling and it was I guess it was very blessed because I have two daughters who are no both in their 20s. But growing up, they pretty much travelled the world with me. So they spent most of their whole summers in America. And they spent most of their Easter and Halloween in Dubai, which was very nice at the time. And obviously I was able to work when they were able to holiday. So that sort of brought us around aboat to where we ended up in 2012. And the company I worked for within the administration. And I was left with the choice of trying to find another rule as international sales and development or setting up my own business and my wife and I decided we would try and do it ourselves and set up room business, which is just almost 11 years ago now.

Dom Burch  03:45

brilliant and let’s talk about that business then and some of the things that you’ve been up to because you’ve been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to street furniture and you’ve been looking at things like solar powered products, you’ve been looking at mobile phone, charging stations, benches, illuminated litter bins, all this sort of stuff, right that, you know, to the naked eye people might notice or not even realise is there but this is really innovative stuff. So what was it? Where did this come from him? Um, what was the you know, the opportunity you spotted that perhaps hadn’t been spotted? 

Alan Lowry  04:17

I think there was a number of things behind it. Obviously my heart was always for export. So you know, once we had our own business established a couple of years, we had enough money to pay the staff, we started looking at export markets, but the market had changed because we’re working for a company that turns over half a billion pounds a year to working for yourself with three or four other people is a completely different opportunity. So you know, we weren’t able to sort of stack at high sell it cheap the way big companies do. So we really needed to look at niche markets. And one of the markets that we get introduced to was the experience attraction market, which would include things like theme parks, zoos, anything where you would go to anywhere where you would go to have a bit of a an experience obviously, so I was introduced to that probably around about 2014 / 2015 by the UK Department of International Trade. They spoke to me about opportunities in that and said they were going off to Orlando, basically to do a bit of an exhibition. So I got myself signed up for that took myself off to Orlando. And I have to say I was completely blown away. As someone who had grown up travelling to Disney pretty much from the year after we got married, and our kids growing up going to all the theme parks in Orlando, and California and Paris and everywhere else, I’d never really thought of it as an opportunity to sell into. So I really started trying to get into the nitty gritty of what made it work, and quickly realised that really, there wasn’t anybody selling into this market, it was a market that people supplied opportunistly to, but nobody was actually going out of their way to target it. So we really started targeting it. And what I found was when I got in front of the right people, they would give you the problems that they have, and would then give you an opportunity to come up with a solution. So my first solar bench that you mentioned, was was developed back in 2017. And it was actually in a meeting with the procurement director of SeaWorld. And if you recall, at that time, SeaWorld were going through a number of issues to do with some of their killer whales, and various things with Greenpeace. And when I got in front of them, it basically said to me that the biggest issue with the Parks was the fact that kids didn’t want to stand the park all day because their cell phones or their mobile phones died. And when they couldn’t connect with their friends who weren’t in the park, through social media, or through whatever other forum they would use, that they wanted to go home. And obviously then going home meant their parents went home met, the park missed out on potential merchandise sales, food and beverage sales. So I started chatting to them about how we could potentially come up with a solar powered device that would allow people to charge their phone in the park without them having to introduce any energy, which meant that was also movable, and it would then keep them in the park longer and therefore hopefully increase their food and beverage and their merchandise sales. So that was really where the first idea came from. And I developed the product, which then became our stellar bench, and which we’ve ended up exporting to 30 countries around the world since then, and we’re on to generation three of that now. And with that, we were able to allow USB phone charging, we had LED lighting, we also put in a SIM card adapter that allowed you to provide Wi Fi from the bench so that they could extend the Wi Fi signal. And again, that allowed them to do things like advertising. So no one was doing that. And that was really our first foray into me, using my electrics and my electronics background into the street furniture, which was at that stage get very old style business, which hadn’t really changed and probably hundreds of years. 

Dom Burch  07:49

And that’s amazing. I love that story. And I love I love that, you know, frankly, the gift of the gab to go in and get in front of the right people and then not be afraid to ask the right questions to figure out what are the some of the issues you’ve got? And then how can I go away and solve them. And it’s classic, isn’t it, it’s like, if you understand the customer, and you can feel the pain points, and you can come up with a way that can help them overcome it, you got an opportunity to do business together. Let’s talk about some of the other stuff that you’re up to. Because actually on the bin side of things, you know, if you’ve got bins that have those, and I’ve seen them, they’ve got the kind of solar panel on them, presumably the bin then is crashing down the waste that’s been put inside it. So the number of times it needs to be collected is minimised, which then starts making the collection of that refuge much more efficient. But also are these now smarter bins so that it can actually alert the people who are coming around to collect them, which ones need collecting, and which ones don’t, and all that kind of stuff. 

Alan Lowry  08:43

It’s quite interesting. You know, our company is called Environmental Street Furniture. But when the company got its name, originally, the word environment just meant being outdoors. You know, we had things like the Department of the Environment and stuff like that the word environmental has a completely different connotations now than than what it would have had maybe 20/25 years ago. So people actually used to come and challenge us at exhibitions and used to walk on our show stand and go. So what makes you environmental and that was that was a bit of a challenge to us because we then had to come up with an answer that wasn’t what we would term greenwash and actually come across what did make us environmental. So you mentioned our solar compacting bin and we weren’t the first company to develop this. It was an American company who basically started down this track. But what we did was we looked at the issues that people were having with their bin and the concept of it is that you fill it up with litter, it compacts down up to 10 times so it holds probably 10 times as much litter as a normal bin would. And then you come along and you empty it. And you know when you have them here because it sends a signal through an app or to a dashboard, which then allows someone to decide what vehicles have to go where to empty that and it can be used for councils and cities and towns and theme parks and lots of different opportunities and, and the more relevant connotations now are to do with sustainability and to do with people looking at their ESG agenda and how they can reduce carbon by keeping vehicles off the roads. But but one of the big issues was, if you keep compacting litter down, it gets really heavy. So if you can imagine how heavy a bin would be left, and then multiply that by 10, you end up with issues around health and safety, and other issues to do with maybe vermin and stuff like that. So what we did was we actually developed the concept of having a wheelie bin inside the bin. So no matter how heavy it was, you were still able to wheel it out, put it in the back of a normal vehicle. So there was no issues to do the lifting and stuff, and then put it back in. So on one side, we’re looking very much at the technical side of it to do with data collection to do with when you empty it, but on the other side, we’re looking at the more physical tangible issues around maybe weight limits for lifting and various other things. So because of the experience we’ve had over the years, and it allows us to look right across the whole spectrum, and not maybe just try and solve one problem, but I can look at them all. 

Dom Burch  11:08

And let’s talk then about data collection. So as you get I mean, I’ve come from a world of retail back in the day at Asda and the thing about data was we were were swamped with data with data every second of the day, and Walmart systems meant that it knew by the second, every single sale across the world, and where every product was across the world, so huge amounts of data. But I remember this marketing director saying to me, it’s not about the data, it’s about the insight. And the Insight has to be actionable. It has to be something that you can do something with. So here we are now, Alan, in this world, that data and IoT and devices and sensors and signals. And you know, unbeknownst to probably most people walking down the street, even the bin is sending out data. What is it that you see? Because you’ve got the ability see around the corner, right? What What can you see coming over the horizon? That means that actually having these smart street furniture out there in the real world, whether it’s SeaWorld or whether it’s, you know, on Bradford, High Street, what’s your vision? How do you see all of that data coming together? And what use Can you see it being put to, that’s going to make people’s lives easier, simpler, better, smarter? 

Alan Lowry  12:15

I think collecting information in any format is going to be useful to someone. And that’s something I’ve probably learned over the last few years, I would never have been a big exponent of data, I was one of these ones who sort of licked their finger and stuck it up in the air to see what way the wind was blowing. So I think from that perspective, I’ve learned a lot about it. I think what we’re seeing is, there’s a lot of challenges coming to business, and have been over the last few years, you know, you’ve got, you’ve got very high interest rates, now sort of post COVID. So you have a lot of companies, and even councils, I mean, we literally saw Birmingham council going into administration, there’s a lot of other councils teetering on the edge of that, because they don’t have the right people in to be able to react to a lot of the challenges post COVID, high interest rates, wars in Ukraine issues in the Middle East. And all of this doesn’t necessarily have a direct relevance to business. But it all has an indirect relevance, because you know, whether it be fuel issues or supply chain issues, or whatever, so the more data you can get, the better. And if you can, now have all of your, say your street furniture products on perhaps an asset register. So in the past, what would have happened with councils was, they would have had a pot of money set aside. And they would have gone and bought a lot of benches and a lot of bins, and they would have put them out in the Main Street and left them there. And when it was spent, that was spent that was the end of it, what it now means is that they can actually register those as an asset. And they can actually have them on their figures on on their end the year returns. So all of a sudden, they’re maybe not teetering on the edge any longer. It’s almost like having stock if you’re a warehouse or you’re a wholesaler, and you count that at the end of the year, there’s a value that’s attributed to what they’ve done. So it’s not all about upfront money now going out on a big capital being spent, there’s actually an opportunity there to collect that. And with that, then the ability to collect data, and it may be simple data like temperature, like how many people walk past the bin, it may be things like how often the bins used, how often it’s compacted. You know, there’s lots of different stuff that’s relevant to different people. You know, whenever you look at maybe high streets and someone wanting to lease out a shop have a bin outside that can count the footfall outside that shop, they can very easily then use that data in order to get additional rent and the from the shop, because maybe the footfall is 10 times more than it was five years ago whenever they originally did the survey. So there’s a lot of that sort of stuff and I think going forward, people are now looking for tangible evidence on things. They’re not just looking for people to have a best guess. And you know, back to me sticking my finger in there. That doesn’t really cut it any longer. People actually want to see something physical now to know that what you’re telling them is actually going to be relevant to them. 

Dom Burch  15:05

And I guess once you’ve got that data, been able to verify the data is accurate, be able to then store the data in such a way that, you know, we use this phrase because we’re blockchain people immutable, but you know, I had to google what’s immutable mean couple of years ago, but basically, that the data then can’t be tampered with once it’s verified as being correct. It’s they’re time stamped, and it can’t be altered. So unlike a spreadsheet, you can go in and fiddle with it. Once you’ve collected that data, you can keep it in such a way that you know, you can rely on it as being the truth, and then gives you that chain of custody doesn’t it? Gives you that reassurance. So you can really, you know, as you say, your finger and air analogy, you can stand by that data and go, that data is 100%. Correct. And therefore, you can build what finance models around it, you can build prediction models around it. And actually, you can say, this is real, this is actually happening. 

Alan Lowry  15:55

You can, you know, I mean, it’s not just relevant with data, you know, what’s relevant was so much stuff I mentioned earlier, but a lot of greenwash stuff going on at the minute when people are talking about ESG. And greenwash is really just a term of people saying they’re doing something and not actually doing it. And over the last year, we’ve had the privilege of launching a new brand with the Wombles, which is a blast from the past. So the Wombles hit TV 50 years ago, this year, but interestingly enough, next year, there’s a new movie coming out. And the Wombles mantra was making good use of bad rubbish. What we’ve actually managed to do now is we’ve managed to partner with a company who collects all the recycled plastic, post-consumer waste, recycled plastic, melts it down and turns it into street furniture, which we then sell under the Wombles brand. So, you know, we’ve got things like planters and benches and picnic tables and so much stuff. And the beauty of recycled plastic is that it doesn’t rot like timber doors, you know, you can’t damage it in the same way, and it pretty much lasts for a really long time. But the idea of linking the Wombles to it is actually to educate kids as well. So you know, we’re going to be able to go to schools and take away empty yoghurt cartons and plastic bottles and computer carcasses and back ends of carpets and stuff and turn that stuff in to actually stuff the school can use and we’re putting together an education programme around litter and recycling and everything else. So that’s us being on the ground, given someone actual benefit of recycling and being able to do that and not greenwashing but actually using 100% recycled product. So you know, whether it be data, whether it be product itself, you know, I think you have to be willing to stand up for your convictions. And um, I think you know, there’s a lot of companies at the minute who have been saying they’re doing things have now been found not to be doing them and they’re not going to be aboat for very much longer. She, you really got to, you’ve really got to buy into that and stand up to it. 

Dom Burch  17:54

I mean, I can hear it in your voice, right, and the passion and the energy that it’s just like, just sings through. Now tell me a bit about being on the FSB within Northern Ireland. Because, you know, the thing about Northern Ireland is I remember there was a guy from AWS said to us in a meeting from Northern Ireland, he said the thing about Northern is a bit like Goldilocks, right? It’s not too big, it’s not too small. It’s just about the right size. And for innovation to emerge, because of the network because of the connected ecosystem. Because of the economic situation of actually being in and out of Europe at the same time. There’s a huge amount of vibrant activity taking place, loads and loads of innovation. What is it that you see, because I guess you’re right in the heart of that Alan, you must be bumping into all sorts of things in and out of your sector. Tell me a little bit about that. Because I guess you’ve got a you’ve got a very special vantage point. 

Alan Lowry  18:42

The FSB in Northern Ireland is probably one of the most vibrant  business organisations, you know. The Federation of Small Businesses is any business up to 250 employees. So right from a one man band right up to 250. And the FSB gives a lot of benefits. So we’ve 6000 members in Northern Ireland, but it’s the individual who joins not not the company. So a lot of people in Northern Ireland are serial entrepreneurs and a lot of them own two or three businesses so we don’t have an exact figure, but it’s probably somewhere between 12 to 15,000. Businesses represented. A lot of these are startups, a lot of them are entrepreneurs. A lot of them are people who are in the aerospace sector, technology sector, really clever, clever people. And they’re just looking to do things differently. They’re looking at modern technology. You know, we’ve got one company who was making guitars out of wood Now, they’re making it out of carbon fibre. Because they can now. You know, and similarly, we made benches out of wood and now, we make remoter recycled plastic because we can. So there’s a real ethos of entrepreneurship, there’s really ethos of working together and what the FSB role allows me to do is to see a lot of that be able to connect people. You also mentioned earlier that I also work as an export champion for the Department of Business and trade. I’ve just come back actually from two days in London, where we had the 10th anniversary of export champions. They were only launched in the devolved nations last year. So England has had them for nine years prior to us. But what we’re already finding is even just as we start to talk to other companies that were taking their goods to international countries, the passion that people in Northern Ireland have to do that is phenomenal, because they’ve got a great story to tell, you know, we have some super places here, you know, you’ve got Game of Thrones has come from here, you put the Giant’s Causeway, you know, way back, you’ve got the Titanic, which was originally built Belfast and it was okay, when it left here, that’s all I’m saying. You know, we’ve got such that you then look even further. And, you know, the defibrillator, Frank Pambridge, who developed the defibrillator came from Northern Ireland, you know, Harry Ferguson, who developed the tractor came from Northern Ireland. So there’s real entrepreneurship, which has been about here for years. I mean, interestingly enough, we’re now looking at actually developing street furniture that we can actually integrate defibrillators into to get more of them into the public domain, because so many of them are inside buildings that might be locked at five o’clock in the evening. And so if something was to happen in the evening time, we have no access to that, whereas if we can build them into furniture, on the streets, people would have access 24/7, which means that it might save a life. And so you know, we’re looking at things like that just to see what other opportunities and that came about from a contact in the FSB from a guy that sells defibrillators. So, you know, it’s great to be able to see that we’re seeing that all the time. You know, Northern Ireland is such a hotbed of innovation, and of entrepreneurs wanting to collaborate together and to move that forward. 

Dom Burch  21:39

Alan it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you on the ubloquity podcast. We’ve run out of time, but for the time being, Alan, who’s the CEO, Environmental Street Furniture, thank you so much for coming on. 

Alan Lowry  21:50

No problem. Thanks, Dom.