STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ 27th April 2013 The Press www.press.co.nz
BUSINESS ON THE ROAD: Solar Bright's managing directors Nicola and Pat Martin, plus national sales manager Rob Haywood, right.
Christchurch lighting design and manufacturing firm Solar Bright has won a significant manufacturing and distribution contract with a British-based firm, and its unique ice-detecting "Pateye" invention is set to be trialled nationally and overseas later this year.
Last year the company was a finalist in the Champion Canterbury awards, and expects to generate revenue of between $2 million and $3m this year.
Founder Pat Martin's high school principal might be surprised to hear that the teenager he expelled many years ago is now a highly successful entrepreneur in Christchurch.
Pat got his first job at age of 14, working for an undertaker, after he was expelled from school. Pat says he didn't go looking for trouble but it seemed to find him.
He had severe dyslexia which wasn't recognised at the time, and he was simply considered a difficult student.
By 17 Pat was self-employed as a shopfitter and has been self- employed since then.
Twelve years ago Pat and Nicola Martin were living in England. Nicola, after a career in mergers and acquisitions, was at home in the Midlands with their nine-month-old baby, while Pat, by then a self-employed shopfitter, was frequently away working in London. They decided they needed a change in lifestyle, and left to spend two years travelling New Zealand.
But after a week here Nicola landed a job as a personal assistant at Talbot Plastics. Pat got a job as a shopfitter for Michael Hill and pretty soon was travelling the country, fitting out Michael Hill stores.
It was on one of those work trips that Pat came up with the idea for Solar Bright. Driving down the Desert Road at night he saw there was a need for streetlights that didn't need a reticulation or cabling. Why not use solar-powered lights, he thought.
That was the start of Solar Bright seven years ago in Christchurch. Initially they focused on solar-powered LED streetlights as their core business. Research revealed Edinburgh was using solar-powered street lights at bus stops, and the town council there was importing them from Asia. Pat took six months off work and drove around New Zealand talking to councils and generating leads.
It was sales to Kaikoura council which kickstarted the business. Initially the business imported equipment from Asia but Pat found local suppliers and developed a better quality product.
Solar Bright has now supplied hundreds of street lights, and lights for parks and bollards throughout New Zealand.
Dunedin City Council approached Solar Bright asking if they could do anything about icy roads.
"We couldn't find anything, and that was when the Pateye was born."
The device looks like a normal catseye on the median strip but if ice forms on the road it flashes blue. It is solar powered with temperature and moisture sensors.
The firm has patented the technology. It needs one charge of eight hours of winter sun, to be able to run for 400 hours.
The Pateye has been trialled by the Dunedin council, in conjunction with Fulton Hogan who helped install the device on the roads. The results surpassed expectations, they say. Speed testing showed that without the Pateye in place in a 50km zone, 79 per cent of vehicles were speeding. When the Pateye was installed, indicating ice on the road, the percentage of cars speeding dropped to 23 per cent.
Solar Bright is working with NZTA now with a view to doing a national trial to start at the end of June. A similar trial of the Pateye is set to take place in five states in Canada from December.
Solar Bright secured an exclusive distribution and manufacturing licence for Australasia for a new energy-efficient LED light developed by UK-based MHA Lighting. MHA's lights are currently used by customers like Gatwick Airport, the National Health Service, Trafford Centre and various government departments in Britain.
The company is determined to keep manufacturing the device in Christchurch, where they use local suppliers and manufacturers.
Current staff numbers of five are set to double or triple by the end of the year, Nicola says.
It has not all been plain sailing.
The company had to take on some minority investors over the years to get through "growing pains".