When Keith Bastian bought German heater company Fischer for £6 million, he clinched the deal on a mere handshake,
It’s unusual for a British company to acquire a German one.
And to clinch such a massive deal so informally is virtually unheard of, some might say foolish, but Keith Bastion is anything but that.
The former sales manager for the UK sales of German-based Wibo heaters quit his job in 2010 with no plans at all, but was supported by his Spanish-born wife, Maria, who was always coming up with fresh ideas.
The couple had three children so it was a hard decision to leave the security of paid employment.
Keith said: “I quit all of a sudden. I’d had enough, so on my 45th birthday I told them I was leaving.
“I didn’t like the way they were doing business.
“I wanted to give my customers excellent service.
“It was my wife who encouraged me to leave. She is the one with all the ideas.”
Fischer Energy are taking on the so-called Big Six Energy providers
When he made the decision to quit, he admits it was frightening – his children were aged 16, 11 and nine.
The first thing he did was pay a visit to Rudolph Fischer, the owner of one of Wibo’s rival companies in Germany.
Keith said: “I got on well with him and as he knew I had 12 years of experience and success selling heating systems in the UK, the trust was there already.
“I wanted to set up an independent UK business selling dynamic heaters supplied by his manufacturers and he agreed.
“And so we set up our business independently on the kitchen table at our family home in Aylestone seven years ago.
“In the first year it grew rapidly and we soon employed 18 people, some part-time.
“We were living upstairs and had a ‘department’ in every downstairs room.
“Our kitchen became the accounts department.”
When turnover hit a million, it was time to expand.
So Keith bought premises at Frog Island in Leicester and upgraded them, much to the delight of the city council, into plush offices and warehouses.
Liz Kendall MP opened Fisher Energy last January. From left: Maria Bastian (owner), Brad Goodfellow (head of operations), Liz Kendall and Keith Bastian (owner)
Indian-born Keith, who has lived in the city since 1991, said: “There was Maria and myself plus only two employees and little money. Now Fischer Future Heat employs 300 people and has a turnover of more than £33 million.”
That’s no mean feat in just seven years of trading.
Keith said their customer service is what has enabled the company to grow year-on-year, and their annual profits now stand at £2.3 million.
The company is owned and run solely by the Bastions, who are the only directors and have no intention of handing any of it over to eager investors.
Keith said their ethos is to make the customer’s point of contact from the top down, unlike many other large companies.
In 2014, Keith upped his game – going from supplying for Fischer to owning the brand.
He said: “I took Rudolph out for dinner near his home in Germany and told him ‘I want to buy your company’.
“He said nothing at the time, but the deal was struck soon after with his assistant and we shook hands on it. It was enough. We trusted each other.”
Fischer has the ground naming rights for Leicestershire County Cricket Club – L-R LCCC chief exe Wasim Khan and Keith Bastian (Image: Alex Hannam)
Rudolph Fischer’s company manufactured the electrical heating units that Keith identified as fitting in with the needs of Britons, given our changeable climate.
He also said it was lucky that the time was right for Rudolph.
“He was at retirement age and his sons didn’t seem to be making too much of a go of it so it was a lucky time for us,” said Keith. “He was ready to sell.”
They kept the brand name as it was well known, and out of respect for the inventor, Rudolph’s father.
Fischer’s heaters, Keith explained, are a million miles away from the old night storage heaters which make the house warm in the morning but are cold again by the evening.
Keith said: “How is that an efficient way of heating? It doesn’t really work and
especially for the older generation in our British climate.”
The heating systems the company sells now are super-efficient in every way, said Keith.
They provide a separate wireless-controlled thermostat in every room so that no electricity or heat is wasted in rooms you aren’t using.
The temperature can be set and will automatically keep the room at that heat until it is altered by the user, with no sudden drops or power wastage.
If the weather changes suddenly, the ambient temperature in the room will remain.
The systems are popular with the over-60s, who also like the low maintenance.
The Bastians with city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby at the new Frog Island premises
It was feedback from the older generation – and the couple’s ethos of sorting things out from the top – that led to Keith’s new bold venture of becoming a power provider.
He said his new company, Fischer Energy, is trying to take a share of the gas and electricity market from big six suppliers such as N-Power, British Gas and Scottish Power.
Since launching at the start of the year, they now have 9,000 customers nationwide.
Keith said: “About 18 months ago our heating system customers started to tell us they were getting fed up with electricity companies and their complex and varying tariffs.
“Also, why should two people living in the same street and same town be on totally different tariffs for the same commodity? It doesn’t make sense and isn’t fair.”
Keith set up a small department of Fischer to help customers sort out their tariffs for them with the big energy companies.
He was shocked at the difficulties and time his staff had to spend on the telephone trying to sort out all the various complexities.
Keith said: “We saw for ourselves how time-consuming this was and we learned first hand about the problems they were having.
“This was simply not acceptable to us. Again it was Maria who suggested we set up our own power supply company.
“No more hanging on the telephone, no more need even to phone at all because every one of our customers is simply on the best possible supply tariff we can get for their region.”
They sank around three quarters of a million pounds into the new company and the family is taking it slowly.
Keith said: “We need to grow organically. I learn quickly but can’t think properly if fire-fighting all the time.”
The couple’s business philosophy has led to success, plus premises overlooking the River Soar at Frog Island – about 30,000 sq m at present, but with more expansion planned next year.
Keith said: “Growing the energy company is my main focus at the moment.
“I estimate that in a few years’ time we will employ between 600 and 1,000 people. It’s a huge market.”
Not bad for a business that started off with the accounts department on the kitchen table.