Interview: Secure in the knowledge of CI1 August 2011
Nick Fletcher and Alistair Ingram drew from a broad base of professional experience when they founded UK-based custom integrator ClearSphere five years ago. Now, in the wake of the company’s second consecutive victory at the Crestron International Residential Awards, Fletcher (pictured) speaks to David Davies about finding a path in the competitive CI sector and the growing clamour for security system integration.
What was the starting point for ClearSphere?
I was working in a very different field prior to ClearSphere. I had started my career as a system designer developing propulsion systems for trains, before spending some time as a management consultant. But I had always had a great love of AV and home cinema, so when I was looking for a change about five or six years ago I began to think about the possibility of working in the CI sector. So I embarked upon a period of research, attending the CEDIA Expo [now Home Technology Event] and talking to people who had reasonably comprehensive systems installed. It seemed like a viable option so I linked up with Alistair [Ingram, co-founder] and set about establishing ClearSphere.
Did you have a defined idea of the market segment you wished to concentrate on at that point?
Definitely not. Like a lot of people, I suspect, we went into the market thinking that we could be all things to all men. In our first year of trading we did whatever we could get; a lot of projects came through family and friends, and their referrals. Pretty quickly, however, we realised that we wanted to specialise in high-end products. Because of my background in very complex system design, we realised there was an opportunity to focus on those installs requiring very elaborate integration: not just AV, but heating control, integration with security systems, etc. Some installers tend to shy away from those other areas, so we felt that we could add some value there.
For the last 2-3 years, our work has predominantly revolved around whole-house, Crestron-type installs of at least £50,000 in value. Many of the projects are in the Chelsea/Kensington area of London, but we do also work further afield; one of our first major installs was in Devon.
In what ways are customers’ requirements of whole-home integration changing?
We definitely see a lot of requests for security integration. We don’t install alarms, but we will integrate them and other security components, such as CCTV, so that people have the ability to monitor their homes from, for example, a Crestron touch-panel. Despite this, we always stress the need to retain some keypads from the original alarm manufacturer so that if everything falls over there is still a means of turning the alarm on and off.
How many projects do you usually have on the go at any one time? And how is the order book looking from now into 2012?
I would say that we probably have about 10 sizeable projects in progress at any time, most of which take at least 12 months from start to finish. The work is mostly retrofit, but we do undertake some new builds as well.
Right now, we have about 10 substantial installations lined up for the next 12-18 months, which is a nice place to be. It’s noticeable that projects that first came up about three years ago but were then put on the shelf because of uncertainty are now being taken out of mothballs. People are looking up and thinking, ‘hey, the world hasn’t ended after all!’
It’s a competitive industry these days, so what are the principal USPs of ClearSphere?
Firstly, we focus predominantly on Crestron-based high-end installations; we don’t try and take on projects across the board. Secondly, because of the background of our staff, we really understand large-scale systems integration and the project management of systems with lots of moving parts. Last but not least is our focus on customer service. The market we operate in is as much a service industry as a product one. Looking after clients and being on call when required is integral to our business, not least because plenty of projects come about through personal recommendation and word of mouth. The success we have enjoyed is partly attributable to the time that we spend keeping our clients happy.