VAE Group chief executive Ben Carter

3 October 2013 — As far as Ben Carter’s VAE Group in Brisbane is concerned, the energy retrofit market is on fire.

Take a look at Carter’s hiring history. Three years ago he was a one man band. Today he has 90 staff; and he’s hired 52 people in the past year, an average of one new person a week. And he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

If you are a mechanical engineer, an engineer specialising in energy efficiency or a service technician looking for work then give him a call. Especially a service technician.

Right now Carter is looking for all those people.

What’s interesting is that about 75 per cent of the work is in buildings. Energy retrofits for the old secondary buildings and some new buildings. The rest is in the mining industry.

“We started as an engineering consulting firm,” Carter explained this week. “In the last few years it’s become a multifaceted company with one division focusing on energy solutions for clients. So within that division we provide any type of energy upgrade savings initiative that a client can include in their building.”

The work can include all around building automation systems.

“In the marketplace no one is really focused on conventional solutions – a one-stop- shop.”

Services are generally packaged under the firm’s eMOB label, which stands for energy monitoring and operations bureau.

“eMob sucks up data from the building energy metering and it can then trend that data against historical data,” Carter says.

What’s driving this growth in business?

Carter says it’s the evolution in technology that has become far more sophisticated in recent times and can pinpoint not just problems but the cost of rectifying them, right down to the return on investment.

“Software packages have evolved so far they can pinpoint what’s not performing optimally in your building and they can give you a cost for each component you need to install to fix the problem.”

What VAE does is “take out the painstaking equation” of the client doing these calculations itself.

There’s plenty of work on offer, says Carter, and not all of it in the second tier buildings well known for their energy guzzling habits.

Tier One buildings also come in for their share of poor performance, he says, sometimes because the building controls are poorly managed.

“We haven’t found a building in town that hasn’t got opportunities, even those with NABERS [ratings].

In one example identified just this week, Carter’s team found that in a 5 Star Green Star, 5 star NABERS building, the electric heaters were working harder during August than in July and June, which were considerably colder.

The reason?

“We found the electric heaters were working more because the chiller plant was working more.”

The regular maintenance team had set the controls incorrectly.

“The rooms were being overcooled and being reheated, and this is a state of the art Tier One building.”

With a building in Eagle Street, the company has put forward a proposal to take the building from two star NABERS to 5.5 stars.

Included in the scope of works proposed is a full NABERS compliant energy monitoring system.

“We also propose to reuse the main component aircon plant and to revamp that to get large savings on the all the air handling.”

Other items will include changing the chillers to smaller, more efficient models and a new set of lighting.

Carter started five years ago as an engineering consultant in his own company, Enertec, after several years working with bigger consultants such as Dalkia for 10 years.

Much of his work ended up in the oil exploration industry.

After one big contract with Exxon Mobil he went on to win some major building retrofit contracts including 150 Charlotte Street with Hutchinson, taking the building from a very low NABERS to a target of 4.5 Star NABERS and 4 Star Green Star Office Design.

During some of the work Carter needed some extra engineering help so he teamed up with VAE.

“The relationship worked really well so then I purchased VAE and took the Value Added Engineering name and changed it to the VAE Group.

“In 2011 there was just me and Enertec. VAE had five staff.”

But the growth has been organic, he emphasises. There’s been no lucrative injection of venture capital funds, and no private backers, with Carter hinting only at some well-priced contracts in the past that have given him a boost.

Among the staff now are 16 engineers, working on a heavy engineering project related to the mining industry in East Timor and the Timor Sea, 15 service technicians, “20 or 30 on tools and construction in buildings and on the property side” and about 12 staff focused on building automation systems.

He estimates about 75 per cent of the work is in buildings, the rest in oil and gas exploration.

Work is mostly in Queensland, apart from one contract at Broken Hill in NSW, and quite frankly the company is Queensland through and through, says Carter.

“It’s 100 per cent Queensland owned, I’m Queensland born, educated in the Queensland state schools, and I went to the University of Queensland.”

And no, he doesn’t have any plans to change that at all.

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