David Whitfield

30 October 2012 — David Whitfield, co-founder and chief executive officer of Sydney-based LED lighting supplier enLighten, which targets the growing building retrofit market, has a problem with the company’s growth.

Moneywise, or in “pure dollar terms” Whitfield says he is pretty comfortable”, but he says enLighten has grown too fast – talking figures of between 500 per cent and 650 per cent growth year on year.

That’s an expected turnover this year of $10 million.

In only four years since it started the company, which has 10 shareholders, can already name leading real estate investment trusts such as Mirvac, DEXUS and Colonial First State, as major clients and its conducted LED trials for some of the larger city councils including Sydney.

“Managing our cash flow is the biggest challenge,” Whitfield says.

“We have a six to eight week supply line. So you have to work harder at that (cash flow).

That won’t stop the company, which has a staff of 12, from taking on global expansion.

The company, which has recently won a swag of energy awards including the 2012 Australian Clean Technologies Competition, will represent Australia at the Global Cleantech Competition in the US in November this year

“It’s always been our strategy to be international and we have been quite aggressive in that desire,” Whitfield says.

“We have a consultancy working on how to take on the world.”

Whitfield, who describes himself as a “compulsive innovator”, reckons the company has only a few years in which it can make its mark.

“LED lighting will have a (global) turnover of $100 billion for the next 10 years in commercial and industrial applications,” he says.

“But by 2025 the size of the industry will shrink dramatically. We have a five to seven year plan.”

It annoys him that during this potentially lucrative growth phase there are no signs the Australian government is interested in supporting the creation of an LED lighting manufacturing industry locally, forcing suppliers to source this lighting from Asia. It’s “another wasted opportunity caused by Australia’s lack of a national industry development vision” he told a technology industry publication recently.

The company uses off the shelf components combined with “some clever re-designs” to produce lighting such as its Chamaeleon product for low occupancy areas such as car parks, fire stairs and “back of house” areas, which it says produces 93 per cent of savings compared with traditional fluorescent lighting.

The first crop was installed in the City of Sydney’s Goulburn Street car park in January last year.

The company also worked in LED trials with Willoughby City Council, and Gosford City Council and the AMP Royal Randwick Shopping Centre, using T8 fluorescent tubes combined with the company’s LED tube light, claiming energy savings of between 44 per cent and 65 per cent.

Whitfield hails from Tasmania where he says the tag “greenie” is a dirty word.

However, the self-confessed “compulsive innovator” says he has always believed we could “certainly do a better job looking after the environment”.

After starting, and closing, myriad companies, Whitfield came across LED lighting four years ago and realised it was going to revolutionise the way lighting was used.

“Steve Cahill [co-founder and general manager] came on board and we started to get serious, spending 18 months purely on research and product development,” he said.

Another non-executive director is Tony Fehon, a former board member of Macquarie Bank and a director of Ardent Leisure (formerly Macquarie Leisure Group).

“An awful lot of LED lighting out there is crap,” Whitfield said.

“But there is also another level, at the top range, which will give you solutions.”

According to Whitfield LEDs need to connected to a good quality driver which makes the difference between a long lasting LED light – up to 50,000 hours or even 100,000 hours – and a much shorter lasting one of only 2000 hours or so.

Offering companies longer lasting, more efficient LED lighting has resulted in cornering “a niche market” which has the dream combination of both high volume and high value.

Whitfield is keen to keep researching to provide better products to the marketplace.

Most recently this has involved intelligent lighting where lights automatically dim as they are not needed – rather than relying on someone hitting a switch.

For example, in warehouses, when someone is in the direct sphere of the light, it offers 100 per cent lighting but this drops as the person moves away from the light. The information is also passed back to the building and can result in airconditioning also dropping back as the light is now producing less heat.

This can result in a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in building operational costs, he says.

Whitfield, who spent six years in the navy on submarines, is all about enjoying his work and being innovative.

“I have been an innovator all my life. I have built some brilliant companies and let some die. I got older and wiser and looked for someone like Steve to let me do my thing,” he said.

“I’m not an engineer or an electrician. I am a lateral thinker – and sometimes we steal the show.

“And it’s a lot of fun.”