‘Innovation for success’ was the theme at this year’s ECA Electrical Industry Conference, held in Malta. EMC reports on a mood of determination in the face of recession

It may be a difficult period for the economy at home in the UK, but the outlook was altogether sunnier at the ECA’s annual Electrical Industry Conference, being held this year in St Julian’s, Malta.

As well as enjoying the stunning weather on the Mediterranean island, there was a real mood of resilience and optimism, defying the recessionary climate back home.

This year’s theme was ‘Innovation for Success’. The message was that delegates should place innovation at the forefront of their thinking, as they attended business sessions, joined workshops and shared ideas on the topic.

New ECA president Martin Bailey was inaugurated on the opening morning of the conference. “This position is a great honour, accompanied by great responsibilities,” said Bailey. “I hope to fulfil those responsibilities to the best of my ability this year.”

Opportunities for the future

Bailey emphasised that, while the recession was hard for the industry, it would also create opportunities, and innovation was at the heart of exploiting these.

“In these difficult economic times I really do feel that innovation is more important for our industry than ever, and it should be at the heart of all of our business practices,” he said. “From initial ideas to implementation, innovation can generate gains for our sector through the recession and in the longer term.”

He urged delegates not to settle for their existing status but to target a place at the ‘top table’. Bailey also urged delegates to understand that “increasing the size of the pie” – the scope of their activities – was the key to thriving in straitened economic times.

ECA chief executive David Pollock used the metaphor of evolutionary adaptation in the natural world to stress the importance of innovation, particularly with sustainability.

“Like organisms, organisations, trades, professions and enterprises are affected by environmental changes,” he said.

“Indeed, we all have to anticipate them, both because of their impact on our own lives and to ensure that our industry, particularly, can play its proper role in managing environmental change.”

Key is sustainability

In these difficult economic times I really do feel that innovation is more important for our industry than ever

Martin Bailey

The connection between, and importance of, focusing on innovation and sustainability was one of the key underlying themes of the conference.

Pollock noted: “Sustainability continues to provide the major opportunity for contractors in building services of all disciplines.”

He emphasised that this was a major area of strength for the industry, and it lay at the heart of the ECA agenda.

“Reducing energy use by design and the installation of modern controls, heating and lighting and, yes, renewables, is what we do best of all.”

His message to delegates was clear. “Members need to adapt to take advantage of these considerable opportunities,” he said.

Continuing this theme, George Adams, engineering director of Spie Matthew Hall, discussed the connection between innovation, sustainability and client service, the latter so critical in these times. He focused on the potential of renewables, as well as the necessity of innovation in integrating all elements of the contractor’s work – from concept to design to delivery to operation.

Training still a priority

Linking together these themes was the recurring issue of skills and training, key both to pursuing innovation and to ensuring the future health of the industry as a whole.

Training has been a priority for departing ECA president Allan Littler. Martin Bailey reaffirmed this commitment for his year in office and linked it to this year’s theme.

“Training enables us to learn new skills, move into new markets and, most importantly, learn innovative methods for future success,” said Bailey.

David Pollock made clear that training also remains top of the ECA agenda.

“Training and the skills gap are still core issues for us,” he said. “We are grappling with the challenge of striking the right balance between training as the essential means to equip contractors to be able to do their work competently and safely, and our role in the certification marketplace, where there have been pressures to lower expectations.”

Sustainability continues to provide the major opportunity in building services of all disciplines

David Pollock

Parliamentary view

The conference also gained a clearer insight into the Westminster agenda from Labour MP John Spellar. He had a strongly positive message for the industry, particularly stressing its professionalism in regard to bodies such as the Joint Industry Board and its ongoing commitment to innovation.

Spellar noted that the sector had seen a continuous visible development and hoped that this would continue for years to come.

He also emphasised the importance of maintaining a strong relationship between the industry and MPs, so that the industry’s voice may be heard loud and clear in future policy development and government legislation.

Looking ahead

Martin Bailey rounded off the conference on a confident note. He said the attendance showed the industry’s strength and resilience.

“Your attendance and input into this conference shows the determination of our industry to rally round and beat the recession,” Bailey said. “This bodes well for the future.”

It was clear from the mood of the conference that the industry and ECA members are determined to overcome the current downturn, and this conference has played a crucial part in agreeing a way forward, collectively and individually.

In keeping with its role as the voice of its membership and the wider industry, the ECA will continue to drive forward its agenda and assist its membership in looking to innovation as the basis for future growth.

David Pollock reminded delegates that the ECA existed to support its members in good times and bad, and urged them to use ECA resources like the technical helpline to maximise their opportunities in a tough market.

While this is a challenging year ahead for Martin Bailey, the ECA and the wider industry, there was also a palpable sense of optimism that the industry will not just survive but thrive in the years to come.

Next year’s ECA Electrical Industry Conference will take place in Tenerife. Don’t miss out.

Originally published as "Innovative solutions" in EMC Jul/Aug 2009

Manufacturer innovation

Innovation is a topic that permeates all aspects of the industry and a major theme of the conference was to illustrate to delegates the many ways in which it could be deployed.

Representatives from manufacturers each gave speeches concentrating on different aspects of innovation and how it might help businesses to thrive in the face of declining markets.

Steve Grey of Schneider Electric urged delegates to focus on the most important aspects of their businesses, and to ruthlessly strip out any activities that do not deliver benefits to customers. His key message was a stark one: “If you are doing today what you did yesterday you will probably fail.”

He stressed the importance of investing in research and development, ‘looking outside the box’ and of working with manufacturers, who will be equally keen to launch new and innovative products in order to support the industry and secure their own futures.

Jonathan Sloam of Prysmian discussed threats to manufacturing and a new synthesised approach to customers, products, the market and the wider environment.

Sloam’s key message was that innovation must be integrated at all stages of the process, to compound the gains made and advances generated, and ultimately a business’ profit margins.

Gerry O’Donnell of Philips Lighting discussed the huge number of new business opportunities afforded by the development of LED technologies. He underlined the importance of government legislation in phasing out older, more inefficient light sources, creating new opportunities for manufacturers and distributors.

The Energy Using Products directive is a particular driver of this.

He also stressed the benefits to clients from new LED technology, which not only complies with new legislation but offers low whole-life costing, with ever shorter payback periods.

Action points from the conference

Be proactive and seize the opportunities
The emerging consensus from the Electrical Industry Conference was that the industry and its members must be aware of the potential created by innovation and that it was incumbent on them to drive this notion forward, internally and externally, to ensure success in the future.

Invest in sustainability
The sustainability agenda in particular is key to the future of the industry and provides a whole host of new opportunities for electrical contractors.

Look to new markets
It is important for the industry to reach outside its comfort zone to investigate the opportunites offered by new sectors and new methods.

Work with the ECA
The ECA will work with you. It is the responsibility of the ECA to serve its members and to drive forward the agenda of the industry. The ECA is both an ongoing resource and a proactive champion of your needs.

Innovate at every stage
Innovation should not be seen as a ‘boxed-off’ issue to be confined to the research and development department.

It must permeate every aspect of where we work.