Former teachers Greg and Sue Sweeney may be forgiven for feeling they are living off the sheep’s back after their wool-based building insulation company won a coveted business award and an environment trophy recently.
Their 10-year-old firm, Eco Insulation, has taken out the Westpac Supreme Business Excellence Award in the 10th Anniversary Westpac Enterprise North Shore Business Excellence Awards. On the way, they also picked up the Smales Farm Excellence in Environmental Management Award.
Not bad for a business that started from their dining room and struggled for its first couple of years, forcing Greg back to the classroom until insulation sales reached a point where the company could afford to support them.
Eco Insulation is now in a strong growth phase, having recently expanded to larger premises in Albany, Auckland, to accommodate growing staff numbers — 72 in the Auckland region and 90 nationwide — and an increasing product range, as sales build throughout New Zealand and exports take off.
It’s a good feeling, according to Mr Sweeney, especially as the company is built upon sound environmental principles right from the manufacturing of the product to delivery and support, which gives Eco Insulation a competitive advantage.
With global warming putting the environment high on many business agendas, the timing of their win couldn’t be more perfect for Eco Insulation.
This fact wasn’t lost on the judges, who commented that Eco Insulation may well represent the “ultimate environmental business” since it uses a waste product (albeit very high quality) to make the rolls of natural insulation material.
It then cares sufficiently to put in programmes to minimise transporting orders to customers, and encourages staff to cut waste and adopt low energy use.
Eco Insulation has developed a range of insulation products for use in home and commercial building.
This includes products for walls, floors and ceilings using excess fibre from the manufacture of quality wool carpets to provide a competitive and very effective means of insulating buildings to retain warmth in winter, keep them cool in summer, reduce dampness and also insulate for sound.
Natural virgin wool straight from the sheep’s back is also used in some insulation products.
According to Greg, wool is ideal as building insulation material because it is a natural insulator, non-toxic, sustainable, recyclable, has superior insulation properties and draws moisture away from the living spaces, thus providing all-season comfort.
Greg got the idea when he and Sue purchased a small business that used a machine to blow loose wool fibre into lofts to form a bed of insulation above the ceiling.
But he found that it was not suitable for using in walls, so approached a textile manufacturer with the idea of turning the loose wool fibres into thick thermal blankets before launching the product in the late 1990s.
While there was a lot of interest, sales didn’t exactly take off because it was priced higher than traditional insulation. Then he was approached by a carpet company to see if he was interested in using excess wool fibre from the manufacture of pure wool carpets, which helped to make the price more competitive. Eco Insulation was then on its way.
The company has invested in gaining quality appraisals with leading building industry organisations, and it has forged relationships with Housing New Zealand, several local authorities and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority to further its business, supplying insulation for retro-fitting to thousands of homes around the country.
To date, Eco Insulation has supplied insulation to more than 12,000 homes nationwide, including 7000 Housing New Zealand homes alone, saving many millions of kilowatt hours of energy.
The way the company is set up is quite unconventional — being a manufacturer, distributor, retailer and installer, with associates based at strategic points throughout the country.
The business and management systems used by Eco Insulation are based around sustainability and triple line performance — the bottom lines being environmental, economic and social.
As the company has grown, management have honed the environmental message and instilled it through the company. A delivery programme has been designed to combine trips where possible and reduce unnecessary transport.
A franchise sales system has been set up with the idea that local sales are made by local people, which minimises travel as well as making good business sense.
The message is even spreading overseas, with Eco Insulation having broken into the home insulation market in Ireland and, more recently, Japan. A new general manager has been appointed to run the day-to-day business, with Sue still running the office, while Greg now focuses on new markets, with Japan high on the list.
The company is also diversifying into other energy-efficient products, such as solar heating, heat pumps and low energy lighting systems, building further on its environmental programme.
And it is intensifying its commitment to the development and fostering of sustainable products and practices through such things as the Enviro-Mark programme, and by being active members of the Sustainable Business Network and the New Zealand Green Building Council.