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David Gordon’s success is based on a repeated combination of quirky ideas and canny observation of social and housing problems in his hometown of Glasgow.
Born into a family with a business that imported toys and fancy goods, the serial entrepreneur created his first product at the age of 19, when he designed a helmet with flashing lights for schoolchildren going to school in the dark.
His latest venture is as chief executive of Windsave, a company he founded to develop wind turbines that can help householders reduce their electricity bills.
It was the first in a string of products and businesses started by the 61-year-old Glaswegian.
“When I first came out with the concept of putting a turbine on the roof, people thought I was mad,” says Mr Gordon, speaking in Livingston where his turbines are assembled. “Until recently, most people in energy saving have looked at the commercial side. We’ve looked at the domestic.”
A much smaller version of wind- farm turbines, the roof-mounted Windsave model can produce 1kW of electricity to supplement the existing national grid supply – enough to power a television set and DVD player, computer, refrigerator, freezer and lights – and can operate in wind speeds of 3mph. The system is being promoted nationally by B&Q, the retail chain, at £1,498 and later this year a more powerful 1.2kW version will go on sale at £1,799.
The wind turbine idea follows a pattern of products targeting the practical details of everyday living. Mr Gordon’s first breakthrough came when he noticed the messy state of the back courts of many Glasgow properties and thought there had to be a better way of dealing with rubbish bins.
“I found environmental health had passed an edict that every household had to have its own bin store. But they were being built in brick, and the vandals were knocking them over before the cement set. So I designed a mini air-raid shelter, which was monolithic, and it worked.”
Although the product was successful, Mr Gordon realised it could be applied only locally because of Glasgow’s particular housing patterns, so he looked for something with a wider appeal.
One wet December morning in Easterhouse, he noticed that several houses were burnt out because they had been set on fire by vandals as soon as they were empty. “I thought: there has to be a better way of securing them. First of all, I assessed the market. I jumped into my car and drove to Edinburgh, and from there I went to Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. I got the shock of my life – I had the naive idea that Glasgow was the only place with vandals.
“I also realised the problems of social housing in this country. Something happened to me at that stage in my life: I became more to the left. Everything had to have a benefit for the public. This was around 1980. I was in my early thirties. It changed my life, that trip.”
Mr Gordon invented and patented a steel shuttering system for securing vacant properties. In 1993 he set up Bar-It Security Systems, and sold it four years later for £2.5m to Orbis, a property protection company.
He stayed with Orbis as commercial director until 1999, when he left to establish Homelink Technologies, a digital communications systems provider, valued at £10m when he sold it to BT in 2002.
But the entrepreneur already had the idea for his next business.
“I was coming out of a building in the Gorbals in late 2001. It was a very windy day, and I looked up and saw this tree swaying and I thought: ‘why can’t I take the energy from wind and put it into the building?’ That was how the initial thought behind Windsave started.”
Working closely with Jim Jamieson, chief executive of Livingston-based Flexible Manufacturing Group, Mr Gordon took until 2005 to produce a turbine he was happy with. It used a combination of Danish blades, a German generator and electronics produced in China by a US company.
Mr Gordon says his micro-generators are unique in being able to smooth out the fluctuating electricity created by the wind, so it can be fed into the household mains through a 13-amp plug.
He hopes that Windsave, which has been backed by an unnamed investment bank and hedge fund, will be floated on Aim within the next 12 months with a market capitalisation of about £100m.
There have been glitches along the way. The first turbines cut out if wind speeds were too high, and had to be switched back on manually by householders. The company has developed an automatic sensor that is much more efficient – but has incurred the cost of fitting the new sensors to the 1,250 turbines already installed.
Mr Gordon says: “We decided to keep [the business] private while we were finalising the development of the product to enable us, when we go to the market, to have solid revenues in place, which has been happening since last October. It has just taken us longer to refine the process than expected.”
With demand fuelled by government subsidies, Windsave has an order book for 12,000 units, and Mr Gordon says the main constraint is installation, which will be outsourced to more companies as sales increase. He says 20 per cent of all British homes – 5m in total – have enough exposure to wind to benefit from a turbine.
Windsave plans to launch a new generation of turbines, which will generate 2kW, at a retail cost of about £2,500. It also wants to offer a commercial turbine for businesses interested in microgeneration. The company will launch solar energy products this year and is also working on an unusual version of hydropower – using “grey water” from a household to drive a turbine in its drains.
As Mr Gordon says: “The aim of Windsave is to produce renewable energy products for the consumer. It has been a huge learning curve for us, understanding what is required.”
Tips from a serial entrepreneur