Newsmaker: Ovo Energy's Stephen Fitzpatrick battles the big six

The stage was set but the big-name actors failed to show - and at the Commons Energy Committee meeting this week Ovo Energy's Stephen Fitzpatrick took full advantage.

Stephen Fitzpatrick: seizing the energy industry agenda
Stephen Fitzpatrick: seizing the energy industry agenda

Laying into the big six companies, of which only one put forward its CEO to face a firing squad of MPs, the leader of an industry minnow took his chance to blast at bigger rivals.

Labelling them "the best filibusters in the business" when it came to revealing their profit sources, he also lambasted their reasons for the price rises.

To be fair, it is not as though the big six – or the "power cowards" as The Sun called them yesterday – didn’t have it coming.

A tough few months for the sector saw the big-name firms being battered by public and politicians alike, with recent price rises fuelling the fire.

Step forward Fitzpatrick with clear words to reflect his company’s message of "cheaper, greener and simpler."  

A former City trader, Fitzpatrick is by no means a comms man.  

But he is evidently aware that using a personality to drive the brand forward amid the seemingly faceless titans that dominate the market is a good idea.  

Pointing to a "great intellect and great communicator", Ovo marketing director Charlie Smith says:  "Stephen started with what customers want, which is simplicity, transparency and better service, which was not happening with the big six. What we want to do is use Stephen’s values, which reflect the company’s, and put them out there."

To demonstrate this, in recent months Seven Hills joined Edelman on the company’s books with the remit to boost Fitzpatrick’s credentials as an entrepreneur.

As Seven Hills associate director Anna Bifield explains, his appearance at the select committee followed a "real ramping up" of his media activity in the past few months.

These efforts may be paying off.

As well as extensive coverage this week, Fitzpatrick’s positioning of the company and performance on BBC’s Daily Politics Show earned a tweet from presenter Andrew Neil stating that he, too, might switch to Ovo.

Ovo has 135,000 customers, generated revenue of £103m and employs 170 staff.
In the world of the energy markets, it is not a major player.

But the resonance of Fitzpatrick’s words is not due to the size of Ovo, but the anger felt at his bigger competitors.

A lobbyist for one of the big six disputes some of the assertions put forward by Fitzpatrick at the meeting but accepts his timing was perfect.

"These committee appearances can offer a fantastic opportunity to set the agenda," he says.

"The coverage shows that people are looking for a refreshing narrative in a market that has caused them frustration."

With energy minister Ed Davey yesterday announcing a new annual review of the market the industry tumult is set to continue, creating more opportunities for firms like Ovo to exploit.

And likely to help the company is the fact that Labour leader Ed Miliband’s announcement over an energy price freeze was not answered with a unified voice by the big six.

Afraid of living up to their cartel reputation, they are instead split on how to react, with Energy UK only able to apply a band aid of coherent argument over the industry fractures.

One top comms figure from the big six says reactions from his rivals is split in two, with foreign-owned companies NPower, EDF and E.ON taking a more confrontational approach to claims of collusion.  

He adds that this has given firms such as Ovo a chance of getting a foot in the door but warns: "The spotlight is now on them, and now they’ll have to deal with the scrutiny that brings."

Not that Fitzpatrick and his team at Ovo are likely to be phased.

As Smith says: "What Miliband’s announcement did was start a debate about fairness and transparency. We don’t necessarily agree with intervention – we want competition – but we see an opportunity to move the debate forward."

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