Lewis Bowen, founder of the company behind life-saving bio-ethanol gel Fuel4, was always destined for stardom
The entrepreneurial spark was ignited fairly early for 25-year-old Lewis Bowen, founder of Geco Industries. “I have had a business of my own from a very young age,” he reflects. “As an entrepreneur you tend to pounce on opportunities pretty quickly. So at 12, I was selling canned drinks at 5p less than the canteen was selling them. I bought them buy-one-get-one-free in Somerfield once and everyone started buying single cans from me.”
It was relatively clear then that Bowen had a knack and flair for business, and he was soon operating his own merchandisingenterprise within the gates of his school, employing the service of seven fellow students in the process. At that point, he was 15. Indeed, Bowen’s small team was due to take part in the Young Enterprise scheme only for his teacher to forget to sign them up – not that it had too much of a detrimental impact. “It worked out pretty well really, because it meant we didn’t get taxed on anything,” jokes Bowen.
The merchandising business fizzled out during sixth form as Bowen decided to dedicate a bit of time to furthering his education. However, it was in the time Bowen took travelling around the world between school and university that he really started to formulate the idea for Geco Industries. “Going round seeing different cultures makes you start to appreciate that business is a lot bigger than you realise,” he says. “You have got to have a real purpose.”
And the year Bowen spent working for global healthcare firm GlaxoSmithKline truly opened his eyes to the type of enterprise he wanted to build, even if he didn’t have the specifics in place quiteyet. “It was there that I realised I wanted my company to be a sustainable and ethical business, but at that point I didn’t have the idea,” he recounts. “Basically, I had a vision in place before I even had a product. I knew what I wanted the business to be and made sure that people knew that so if they saw any opportunities, we could have a look at them.”
Fortunately for Bowen, his father had encountered a South African woman named Mariette Hopley while on a shark fishing trip in the Rainbow Nation. She had developed an ethanol gel to be used as fuel in African townships. It was smokeless, non-toxic, non-explosive and clean-burning, and as soon as Bowen saw it, he knew he had discovered a product that matched his business vision. Hopley was equally convinced by Bowen’s grand plans and on May 20, 2011 – the day of Bowen’s last exam at Sheffield Hallam University – Geco Industries was born.
While the name of the new enterprise may not seem all that revolutionary – Geco being a blend of the words ‘green’ and ‘eco’ – Bowen admits that it took some time to nail down, not least because the decision would ultimately shape the company’s future. “It is crazy how much you start thinking about a name,” he recalls. Eventually though, Bowen was content that the brand name reflected what his venture was all about. “Our remit is to make alternative energy affordable as a business, which means we have to be green and eco, and eco means not just environmentally friendly but economically friendly.”
The name of Geco’s flagship bio-ethanol gel product, Fuel4, was subject to an equally rigorous thought process. However, the brand name simply reflects the four attributes (smokeless, non-toxic, non-explosive and clean-burning) that differentiate the product from other fuels that are causing the ill Bowen set out to cure. “The original problem was the two million deaths a year from indoor air pollution,” he says. “And that is very much within the third world, so things like paraffin and kerosene cause huge problems with fumes and with burns because of the liquid spilling, but also from people collecting wood. Women and children are going out for eight hours a day collecting wood to cook with, which doesn’t make any sense.”
As with all start-up businesses, funding was an essential consideration for the newly established enterprise. And in an age when the banks are getting something of a battering from the small business community, it may come as some surprise to learn that Geco Industries is largely bank-funded. That said, Bowen still had to deal with numerous knock-backs in the early stages. “We had a lot of nos, but we didn’t take those nos and just go somewhere else,” explains Bowen. “We reshaped how we were doing things and eventually those nos became yeses. Plenty of people are quite scared by these big banks that are lending the money but some of their doors are actually quite open and they want to lend.”
Whatever turned the bank’s head, one could speculate that the relentless ambition of Bowen had some part to play, as well as the unquestionably admirable aims of his venture. The entrepreneur was offering an innovative and environmentally-friendly product in a high-growth market – outdoor cooking – which also had the potential to save countless lives in some of the world’s hardest-hit areas.
Given the target market for Fuel4, it had struck Bowen in the early development stages that people would need an effective way to use it. An efficient stove was devised within which the gel could be heated, ultimately paving the way for the X-Series range of cooksets that Geco now sells alongside Fuel4. However, it was a conversation Bowen had in November 2011 with John Graham, founder and chief executive of outdoor retail chain Go Outdoors, that proved the catalyst Geco needed.
“John was at a networking event and I said, ‘Look, can I borrow some of your time?’ and he said, ‘Yes, absolutely, you can come in and see my senior team and tell us about the idea’,” says Bowen. “At that point we just had a stove and some gel fuel so we thought we would package this up and sell it into retail. So after we’d taken on the factory and set everything up, he turned around and said, ‘Can we have a range?’ Considering at this point we hadn’t made a product, let alone a range of products, and had never manufactured properly, we just said ‘Yes, we can do it’, and in two months we had a range on the table of pots, pans and everything.”
This was some undertaking but Bowen managed it, and did so while keeping the manufacturing process strictly British – yet another commendable string to Geco’s bow. And with all nine of its suppliers located within 30 miles of its Sheffield HQ, the venture is also a significant victory for the industrious North. Bowen adds: “One of the toss-ups for one part of our product was that it had to be done abroad, but we pay a UK supplier to do it. So we are trying to keep the money in the country, thus creating jobs, and this really comes back to the sustainability side of things.”
There are nevertheless two distinct facets of the Geco business model. On the one hand, it is tapping successfully into the burgeoning European camping and festival markets, and offering a viable alternative to the competition. “We are changing the way the market operates,” claims Bowen. “So, whereas before people have been using really toxic and unsafe fuels, they are now starting to look at different alternatives. We have placed the product so it is affordable to buy and there is not the high price on it that you usually get with environmentally friendly products.”
On the other hand, Geco’s focus is firmly fixed on humanitarian projects, and the imminent opening of a factory in Lesotho is a pretty clear sign of intent in this regard. It will provide a local manufacturing outlet for the African market, and a key point of contact for disasters occurring in the region. Moreover, it will be run on the basis of a franchise agreement, subsidised from the UK, representing the first such opening of what Bowen hopes will be a global Geco Industries franchise network.
“Part of our plan is to have franchises across the world that can react to disaster situations and military or humanitarian requirements,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense for us to make something here only for an event to occur on the other side of the world where we can’t really supply for them. It would take around two or three weeks on a boat, by which time it will be far too late.”
Such is the speed at which Bowen has managed to grow his venture, one can only wonder what else is on the agenda aside from international expansion. Well, the product range is set to be extended over the course of the next few years, with one item to be “aimed at the military”, according to Bowen. However, the ultimate goal centres on the product that is the business’s bread and butter. “We are looking to create our own fuel,” says Bowen. “We are creating our own gels at the moment but we buy in the ethanol so we want to actually create our own ethanol in innovative ways. But you are looking at two or three years down the line yet.” Given his progress thus far – and a projected turnover of £15m in five years – don’t be surprised if this becomes a reality sooner than expected.