Alistair and CE Pro Europe meet in country town of Lewes, in East Sussex, as Alistair had a rare afternoon off and was combining chat with some paragliding, a sport popular in the county due to its high cliffs and the hills of the South Downs.
This spirit of adventure is nothing new in Alistair’s life as after leaving university he worked in the professional yachting industry, as an engineer and then as captain of privately owned sailing yachts.
Not a conventional lead up to a life in CI, but one that certainly taught him how to deal with clients who expected very high levels of service.
After returning to education with an MBA at Imperial College, London, Alistair also spent three years as an active-investor in a technology-licensing start-up.
ClearSphere was created with business partner Nick Fletcher in 2008 as the two decided their combined experience and talents would be well suited to the market.
An experienced and successful engineer, Nick had already spent 12 years at Alstom, a multinational engineering firm, becoming director of engineering at just 29.
The company is one of the leading Crestron installers in the UK winning seven Crestron Integration awards in the last five years, not to mention Best Whole House System at the recent Smart Building Awards hosted at Essential Install Live! South.
Alistair explains: “We started out doing multiple platforms, but we are pretty much exclusively Crestron these days, we have a great relationship with the company and the platform can do everything we need it to.
“Working at the top end of the market as we do, it’s reassuring to know we have such a powerful system and great back-up available.”
These days the business is split roughly 50/50 between working with developers and directly with end users.
Alistair says: “These groups have different priorities. With developers you have to walk a thin line between adding the gloss on the property that the developer wants, whilst keeping within a budget.
“Building Management Systems (BMS) are at the heart of what we do, particularly in this category.
“Providing an efficient, intelligent building with reporting and fault-finding is paramount. If the person moving in is an AV fan, then of course we can add that later as we pre-wire for that, but the start has to be a proper smart BMS system.”
CE Pro Europe is curious as to the level of awareness with developers for the CI sector.
Alistair adds: “The top end of the property market is definitely aware of what our industry offers. Above a certain price point it is now a requirement driven by the expectation of the client.”
Alistair is clear about what is driving the property boom in the South and in particular London: “We worked on a block of luxury apartments on Old Street in central London and the expectation was that many of them would be purchased by workers in the City.
“Most actually went to foreign buyers who see London as an attractive option with great shopping, cultural attractions, universities, excellent private health care and security stability. We call this phenomenon, boutique Britain.”
So how does dealing direct with the client differ?
“Working direct with the home owner can be more complex and the ability here to accurately communicate with the client and find out exactly what they want comes to fore.
“More often than not, its ease of use that really impresses the customer, the disparity between how easy something is to do and how impressive the result is, takes the project to the next level.”
So how did the company move so quickly into the upper echelons of the sector?
Alistair explains: “We had a good introduction as our first project was to fit out Nick’s house with a Crestron system, shortly after that a former business associate of mine was renovating a house in Devon and we delivered a complete system there.
“Working on these projects put us at the right level from the get go and we won our first Crestron award for the Devon project, picking up lots of good PR from that.”
So once a good business has been established, what’s needed to keep it that way?
“We do keep an eye on what’s happening with technology of course. One development might be a lessening of lighting control within a project as this seems to be heading to a situation where much of the technology can be contained in the bulb/fittings themselves negating the need for sophisticated systems to control them,” explains Alistair.
“However, there will be other aspects that will come through to compensate and what’s important here is that we concentrate on the client, not the technology.
“We are always very careful with new technology. We often wait until a technology has matured before we will recommend it.
“Building trust with our clients is hugely important we don’t want to be shouldering the blame for approaches that have introduced before they are fully bomb proof.
“4K is good example, we are lucky in that the Crestron DM system is very good, but before that was available we often advised clients to wait.”
One technology the company has been happy to back from the start is Dolby Atmos.
“We are including this in quotes now as the technology is solid, the content will come and it means of course we can sell more speakers.”
Operating at the top end of the market, all the systems the company delivers are high-quality, but the team finds that even with something like a home cinema, its ease of use and access that is important.
Alistair explains: “We use quality brands, but even with AV fans we find people are more concerned with usability than audio or video quality, this might come back in time, but in the post iPod world, convenience is still king.”
So what is the company working on at the moment?
“Right now we are working on a number of large homes in the Home Counties which are developer driven and we also have an interesting penthouse flat project on the go in London which is for an art dealer who wants a very clean look so the emphasis here will be delivering an extremely discrete system,” says Alistair.
“I am also spending time on business development, we do monthly newsletters and we are upping our social media game these days and looking at updating our website.”
Off for some well-earned relaxation time hanging in the air over East Sussex, CE Pro Europe is left in no doubt that Alistair will continue reaching for the skies to keep his customers happy.