GrowthBusiness meets the man on a mission to make the world a better place, while building a booming business, naturally.
Not many companies can claim to play an instrumental role in world peace, but Freeplay Energy Group is no ordinary business. A sustainable energy company, it’s built on the back of technology allowing radios to be powered by simply winding them up – a concept made famous by inventor Trevor Baylis. The company has since moved to embrace solar energy and is looking forward to utilising fuel cells, wind energy and various hybrids of such eco-friendly technology.
With turnover around the £6.3 million mark, according to latest figures, and a successful AIM launch in March 2005, the business is certainly going places and CEO Rory Stear is proving that it is possible to build a business that’s both successful and environmentally responsible. But then Stear says Freeplay’s mission won’t be accomplished until the whole world is using sustainable forms of energy, which gives you some idea of the scale of his ambition.
‘Freeplay has a radio handset return rate of under 0.75 per cent,’ he explains. ‘The products pile up and it would be crazy to recycle them or, worse still, put them into a landfill. I mean, some of them have soiled packaging or a rubber foot missing, but they still work.
‘The Freeplay Foundation was working out in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world and one very much in the news due to its food shortages. It’s a country with a lot of radio stations but not many radio handsets. People were anxious to get their hands on radios. So, by partnering with the United Nations, we set up a guns-for-radios exchange scheme and gave away more than 12,000 radios.’
New markets matter
Of course, Freeplay is a business first and foremost and doesn’t spend all its time dishing out free radios. Stear says the company is tightly run with a core of loyal employees and an emphasis on outsourcing certain aspects of the business, such as distribution and manufacturing. It focuses on customers, research and development and getting into new markets. But, says Stear, ‘these new markets are tricky to crack, being both globally and economically diverse.’
The company is about to unleash the first ever wind-up digital radio in the UK in October, but now the technology behind its products has been mastered, Freeplay has to overcome the barriers to further international trade.
It’s all about explaining to 40 million-odd Americans living on the West Coast that when major power cuts occur, as happened a couple of years back in Los Angeles, a radio that doesn’t rely on electricity could be helpful. It’s also about tapping into other massive US markets, such as the fishing and boating world (a radio that doesn’t drain a boat’s battery is an attractive proposition). And it’s about reminding Europeans to put their money where their sensibilities are when it comes to becoming truly conscious of resources. Stear clearly has his work cut out in the coming months.
‘And then, of course, there is the developing world and more specifically, Africa,’ he says. ‘In a continent which is only 22 per cent electrified, the potential and need for our products are great. Most people in developing countries have never made a phone call and few have ever switched on a computer. They rely on radio for information and education – in fact, for the greater part of the world’s population, radio is critical.’
In a world of satellite and digital TV, Stear’s belief in the power of radio seems to hark back to a bygone era. But with the advent of digital radio in particular, the medium is enjoying a global resurgence of popularity, something to which Stear believes as many people as possible should have access.
‘Radio is vital to those isolated by geography, language, conflict, illiteracy or poverty,’ he argues. ‘Millions is spent each year to create radio programming in underdeveloped countries, yet the audience, the poor, may never hear it.
‘There is no electricity supply in most rural areas and the cost of batteries is prohibitive. As a result, critical information that can help prevent deadly diseases, improve hygiene, raise agricultural productivity, discuss animal caring skills or warn of an impending flood may never be heard. Nor are the distance learning programmes that develop literacy and other educational content, which could help to provide a way out of abject poverty.’
Freeplay Energy Group’s Lifeline, a multi-band, self-powered radio, is designed specifically to provide dependable access to information across a range of humanitarian projects. The radio does not require batteries or mains electricity and can be used practically anywhere because it runs on wind-up energy and solar power. Fully charged, it can give FM/AM/SW reception for up to 24 hours, ensuring sustainable access to radio to those most in need.
Man on a mission
Freeplay radios have already become an integral component in a variety of projects in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, covering such diverse issues as agriculture, healthcare (including HIV/AIDS education), conflict resolution, disaster relief, electoral education and information and education for refugees.
It’s a genuinely laudable product and defies cynicism, but one can’t help wondering how Freeplay makes a viable business out of it. If the millions of people it’s targeted at can’t afford batteries, how can they buy radios? One reason for the company’s success to date may be Stear’s networking ability. First and foremost, the man is a physical giant. Probably the only place he might go unnoticed is on a basketball court, but even then you sense he might stand out. Getting spotted in a crowd is not a problem.
And the man knows people. He knows Nelson Mandela (well enough to refer to him as ‘Nelson’). Terry Waite stays over at his house. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The people Stear knows make a long and important list, not that he’s showing off about it – he just knows them. In fact, it seems there are few business people better connected around the world than Stear.
He defines his role at Freeplay as effectively executive chairman and he speaks at all manner of philanthropic events around the world from Davos to Tokyo, rubs shoulders with representatives from the United Nations, UNICEF and other global agencies and is a fellow of the prestigious Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. But far from exploiting his connections for purely selfish ends, Stear is on an altruistic mission. All this is carried out in the name of achieving his goal of powering the world in a sustainable manner (while listening to a Freeplay radio, of course).
Next on the list
Stear has just taken on a new member of staff whose job description is something like, ‘sort out Africa’. Unfazed by the task in hand, Stear is typically direct when he talks about how to deal with it.
You write a list and put at the top of it the greatest priority for the year ahead,’ he says. ‘Then write down your next four priorities. Never have more than five things on your list.
‘Of course, I’m not talking about your average shopping list. The Africa list will be along the lines of: 1) Get retail operation up and running in Kenya, 2) sort out the aid side of Freeplay, 3) set up joint venture with Vodafone, and so on.’
Stear makes it sound so simple, and in many ways it is. Do you live in a sun-baked country but have no electricity? Get a solar-powered or wind-up radio. Better still, swap that gun for a radio, use it to get yourself an education, become more productive and start alleviating the poverty you face. It all sounds farfetched and idealistic, but with Stear’s forwarding-thinking products and top-class connections, you never know, it might just happen.
Name Rory Stear
Business philsophy We’re not just a business; we’re a philosophy business with a soul. We’re creating a whole new industry that can improve people’s lives, whether they’re in Los Angeles or Lagos
Rule of thumb Never have more than five things on your to-do list