He may still be in his mid-20s, but James Sirrell has founded one of the country’s most enterprising firms. Tracy Edwards meets the electrical contractor of the future

It’s difficult not to feel a stab of envy when a bright but otherwise unassuming 24-year-old assures you his firm is on track to hit a £1m turnover this year, notwithstanding the current economic climate.

“We’re perhaps not as busy as we were a year ago, but we’ll certainly be treading water,” says James Sirrell.

He has every right to be confident.

His Leicestershire-based electrical contracting company Spectrum ESM was crowned one of the country’s best new businesses in the HSBC Start-Up Stars Awards, and it is so far living up to the heady accolade.

According to Sirrell, the two-year-old firm gets close to 100% repeat business within its chosen specialism, shopfitting, which takes its electricians all over the UK as the company’s reputation spreads. Other contract wins include colleges, office blocks and warehouses.

Fitting out stores was Sirrell’s main focus while working as an apprentice for a small electrical contractor in his home town of Lutterworth, Leicestershire, and he enjoyed the trade. But the teenager was always incredibly driven and knew from very early on that he wanted to run his own business.

Sirrell feels that he owes a lot to the shopfitter who offered him his very first independent contract. The shopfitter paid him £30 000 up front which helped him invest in equipment, a van and the necessary assistance.

Shop fit-outs now provide more than 50% of Spectrum’s business, and they have included a prestigious £40 000 contract at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

“The project mainly centred around wiring cosmetic counters. We were really proud of that one because it was part of such a major, renowned project, and it’s really rewarding when you see them afterwards,” says Sirrell.

The schedule was a tight one, and the electricians had to work around an unusually large collection of other contractors.

“Most of the T5 problems didn’t really affect us, although it was a bit of a nightmare getting access sometimes. The lifts were bust one day and one of the lads couldn’t get in.”

Spectrum currently has a dedicated staff of nine, which includes a secretary and an estimator as well as seven fully trained electricians. Expansion is on the cards by mid-year, providing all goes well with the order books.

“Touch wood, the credit crunch isn’t really affecting us yet, but I think it’s going to be hard over the next 12 months,” says Sirrell.

Despite the firm’s moderate size, Sirrell has also taken on three apprentices. “I think it’s a good idea because you’re training them up how you want them to work.”

Quite an ambitious investment for a firm barely past its infancy, it must be said. Does he ever get wary about trainees being poached by the bigger firms as soon as they’ve completed their apprenticeships?

“That’s up to them, isn’t it? You can never keep hold of everyone. I mean, if you thought that way, you’d never train anybody up, and there would be no-one new coming into the sector. You’ve got to do it for the industry, not just for yourself. It is expensive, but how else will the trade keep going?”

James Sirrell’s notion is a noble one, but it is evidently personal as well as political.

A company we worked for was going bust, but it ended up on a company voluntary agreement and it took us for £26 000

“I had a break in life as an apprentice, and now I want to give somebody else a break in life,” he says with conviction.

The young entrepreneur talks with candour about his own beginnings on a government-backed JTL electricians apprenticeship.

“I left school at 16. I wasn’t that clever, so my dad said I had to use my hands to earn a living.”

Academically gifted he may not be, but Sirrell is enterprising and determined, qualities that have earned him deference, despite his youth.

“I wouldn’t say I get treated with less respect because of my age. It’s certainly a little bit harder, because when you’re young you’ve got to prove yourself, but it’s just something you take on board,” he says with characteristic pragmatism.

So, what in Sirrell’s opinion makes Spectrum one of the UK’s best new firms?

“Hard work. We’ve had a few knocks, though. We had a knock at the start of last year that lost us quite a lot of money. A company we worked for at the time was going bust, but it ended up on a company voluntary agreement [CVA], and it took us for £26 000.”

This proved a hard hit for such a fledgling firm, as CVAs place a ringfence around insolvent businesses, preventing creditors from attacking them. They allow the companies to repay their debts from future profits over a period of time.

“Basically, we are only getting 38p for every £1 of ours over five years. It works out at about £50 a month,” explains Sirrell. “We’ve all stuck together, but it’s been a long haul.”

Strong allegiance hasn’t always proved the company’s lifeblood, however. Business is business, and Sirrell admits that when Spectrum was originally formed in October 2006, it was set up as a joint venture with a friend. But Sirrell’s partner didn’t share his foresight and determination. If expansion was on the cards, he was going to have to go it alone.

“Getting rid of him was the main issue I faced initially. It didn’t work out, as we wanted totally different things out of the company,” he admits.

“Essentially, he wanted to have a wage and I told him he couldn’t have one. I actually prefer working on my own anyway, although it cost us a fair bit to get rid of him.”

Lack of cashflow also proved a challenge during Spectrum’s early days, and Sirrell now believes this was due to tendering for ambitious contracts too soon. “We took on a large project at Sutton Coldfield College, and looking back, we perhaps weren’t ready for it. We got over that, but it took a while to recoup the cash.”

So, what advice would Sirrell give to others who are thinking of setting up an electrical contracting business?

He laughs, but the serious undertones in his final reply are unmistakeable.

“I don’t like to give any advice away. I don’t want the competition!”

This article was originally published in EMC February 2009 as Talking Shop