February 3, 2021
Some people just have entrepreneurship in their blood.
They could work for any company, claim any salary and any amount of benefits and job security, but nothing would ever quench their thirst for stepping out and starting up on their own.
Dan Martin is one such person.
No matter how many times he was burned by bad business ventures, no matter how often his family told him to go back to his trade as an electrician, the chief executive of electric vehicle (EV) charging company Elmtronics never lost sight of his dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
Even when his first business went bust, leaving him living in a caravan having just split up with his wife, the Gateshead-born executive would not be moved.
Looking back, it’s fair to say that dogged determination has paid off, with Dan entering 2021 at the helm of one of the North East’s most exciting businesses, primed for further investment and to play a leading role in the green automotive revolution.
It’s been some hard yards getting to this point, but as Dan says, “if you fall down, you’ve just got to get back up.
“That’s what makes the difference,” he adds, “that’s what makes you an entrepreneur.”
Dan’s entrepreneurial journey started early in his career.
He remembers working on building sites across the North East as a youngster and, at lunch times, when the other lads were reading the daily sporting headlines, he was looking up businesses for sale in local trade magazines and plotting how he would run them.
Coming from a working-class background, it was expected that Dan would follow in his father’s footsteps and get a trade.
“My entrepreneurship wasn’t really encouraged,” he says.
“It was something the city lads and the university graduates could do. But I never went to university, I went to my local college.”
It was at the bus stop aged 16 on his first day of college when Dan met Anthony Piggott, co-founder and technical director of Elmtronics, who was also doing an electrician apprenticeship at the same time.
They were both hired by electrical contracting firm McVickers, working on schools and hospitals throughout the North East that helped develop their trade skills.
But when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Dan and Anthony were made redundant and found themselves in need of new careers.
It was the first of what would be many waves of adversity the pair would have to face.
Following the redundancies, Anthony went to university to study IT and Dan, ever chasing after his passion for business, went into the pub trade. After running a string of venues across the North East, he and his wife got their first pub in Lanchester, County Durham.
The sparky turned publican tried everything to make the pub financially viable, often working from 7am until 2am the following morning to save labour costs.
“Whatever we tried, we just couldn’t get enough trade through the door to pay the bills,” says Dan.
“It was business lesson 101. The pub didn’t have a strong enough business plan behind it and totally went bust.”
It was at this point Dan had what he calls “a proper hardcore kitchen floor reset” moment.
After losing the pub, Dan and his first wife split up and he ended up living in a caravan, with all of his worldly possessions wrapped up in bin liners.
When you consider that he now drives an Audi e-tron to a business he founded that employs around 55 people and has just secured £1.5 million of investment, it makes you wonder how Dan got through such a difficult period.
“It’s all about perseverance,” he answers.
Persevere he did.
After his kitchen floor reset moment, Dan got a job running a caravan park up in Amble, Northumberland, which allowed him to get back on his feet and figure out what he was going to do next.
Combining his background as an electrician with his experience of running a business, Dan set up Elm Electrical Contracting Ltd in 2011.
The company got off to a rough start.
After putting flyers through people’s doors trying to drum up a bit of business, Dan’s contracting firm got its first job at a school in the Cotswolds of all places.
He worked all summer between there and another site in Scotland for the same customer, often sleeping in his van to save costs and to get his fledging business off the ground.
“For about six months, I didn’t pay myself, as you don’t when you start a business and that’s what puts so many people off,” he explains.
Unfortunately, the customer wasn’t paying Dan either and when he confronted them about the £15,000 he was owed, he got the worst possible reply – that they were calling the administrators in.
Not only had Dan worked all summer for nothing, he also owed the electrical wholesaler £5000 for materials, taking his total losses to £20,000.
This was business lesson 102, one that took an unbelievable amount of perseverance to get through.
“That was probably the hardest point with that business,” he says.
“But I dug down, managed to get some good contracts on my own and ended up paying off the debts I’d accrued to the wholesaler.”
In late 2012, new contract wins enabled Dan to bring his old friend Anthony into Elm as an electrician.
It was a conversation between the two of them around this time that started their journey into the EV market.
Dan explains: “I remember being in the wholesalers with Anthony, picking up a magazine and reading an article about electric cars.
“I said to Anthony, ‘what do you think about this?’ and he said, ‘if these things kick off, you’re going to need charge points everywhere’.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2013, Dan wrapped up Elm Electrical Contracting and launched Elm EV.
It was just about the most DIY business launch you could imagine.
The duo got some wood and plasterboards and literally built their own office on a farm in Burnopfield.
They had just a few thousand pounds between them and went 50/50 on the venture.
Elm EV generated £400,000 of revenue in its first year.
The company benefited from the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme – a Government-backed grant offering 75 per cent funding towards the cost of installing charging points at domestic properties.
Dan and Anthony scaled the business fast and moved to Sunderland.
But once again, adversity was just around the corner.
The grant scheme started to be scaled back in early 2016, meaning the cost of installing domestic charging points went through the roof.
“We had the business built up and we did the classic thing of trying to keep going with the work diminishing,” says Dan.
“We didn’t have the foresight to make changes and reduce costs.”
After bringing experienced financial director Paul Lancaster on board, the decision was made to put Elm EV into administration.
Dan reflects: “When a business goes bust, it’s a very sobering experience. Ultimately, you’ve got to take responsibility for what happened.”
This is perhaps the most important business lesson Dan has learned as an entrepreneur, and one he’s keen to pass on to others.
“The second you start taking responsibility, that’s when things start happening for you,” he says.
After licking their wounds following the failure of Elm EV, Dan and Anthony headed back to County Durham and launched Elmtronics in Consett with a new team and a new business model focused on commercial customers.
They managed to transfer some existing clients over from the previous business and attract some new ones, such as FedEx, BMW Group and the London Ambulance Service.
Their knowledge of how the technology behind EV charging was developing, and a growing reputation for customer services, saw the business grow healthily and sustainably for the first time.
“A lot of it was word of mouth, which I still think is a really powerful thing,” adds Dan.
Having taken some initial investment from FW Capital to the tune of £400,000, Elmtronics launched a second funding round in 2020.
Like all things in the business world, though, this was severely disrupted by COVID-19.
Dan explains: “We were ready to sign when the first lockdown hit.
“Then the market crashed, and it didn’t matter what you were doing, funds were pulled, and we couldn’t get the investment across the line.”
After months of uncertainty, the company finally completed a £1.5 million investment round in November last year. The investors were the North East Venture Fund, supported by the European Regional Development Fund and managed by Mercia, and the Ingenious Infrastructure Ventures EIS Service.
The money will enable Elmtronics to scale up operations just as the market for EVs in the UK is maturing.
Finally, it seems that Dan’s perseverance and entrepreneurial ambition has paid dividends.
Elmtronics finds itself in an incredibly strong position as one of the UK’s top EV charging companies and has developed its own software platform called Hubsta that is highly scalable.
It’s also working with a listed-company in the US on rolling out an American operation, something which holds enormous promise.
Dan adds: “We’re in a good place. “What we’ve done is concentrated on getting some really key people into the business and now that we’ve got the right board structure in place, we’re starting to plan our next round of funding, which is more likely to be £5 million or £6 million to enable us to action some really exciting projects.”
Headquartered in a former coalmining and steelmaking town, Elmtronics is flipping history on its head by providing employment for local people in the low carbon economy.
The same thing is happening in many parts of the North East – a region that has suffered from being behind previous waves of innovation is now riding the crest of the green automotive revolution.
Dan, much like the North East itself, is a living example of how fortunes can change if ,when you get knocked down, you get straight back up again.
He concludes: “We’ve got a real chance here to be at the forefront of this low carbon transition.
“Let’s use this history of the North East being an industrial powerhouse to our advantage for once.”