British firm working to lead U.S. home weatherization market

Posted: January 10, 2011

This winter's arrival brought home a shivery truth to first-time parents Josh and Tracy Diamond: Their seven-month-old daughter's bedroom was uncomfortably chilly - five degrees lower than the rest of the house.

The Diamonds hired an energy auditor, who recommended a list of improvements to fix their leaky three-bedroom house on Surrey Lane in Havertown. And the auditor suggested several contractors to do the work.

The couple chose the Mark Group Inc., a British company that opened a shop in Philadelphia a few months ago with the aim of expanding an operation that weatherizes 6,000 homes a week in the United Kingdom and Australia.

On Thursday, a four-man Mark Group crew, dressed in tidy uniforms with disposable shoe covers, spent the day adding insulation to the attic and basement of the Diamond's two-story house. They sealed air leaks around doors and electrical fixtures and took special aim at filling a drafty half-inch gap under the baseboard of daughter Sophia's wintry nursery.

Consider Josh Diamond a happy man. The day after the contractor left, he said his daughter's room was measurably warmer. He was also impressed with the crew's efforts to vacuum up when the job was over.

"I think my house is actually cleaner now than before they came," said Diamond, a pulmonary critical-care fellow at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

By importing a European model, Mark Group officials say they are moving deliberately to establish a national foundation for a service business that traditionally has been the realm of local contractors.

"Our goal is to be America's leading provider of weatherization services," said Jeff Bartos, the Mark Group's chief executive officer of U.S. operations.

Officials from the home office in Leicester, England, last year recruited Bartos and his chief operating officer, Dave Hopkins, from Toll Bros. Inc., where they had been regional executives for the Horsham home builder. The Mark Group's aim was to borrow Toll's nationwide model of tight quality control and emphasis on customer satisfaction.

Gov. Rendell rewarded the Mark Group for choosing the Philadelphia Navy Yard as its national headquarters with $3.3 million in incentives, including a $2 million Pennsylvania Industrial Development loan. The 26-year-old company, which employs 1,400 in Britain, said it expected to hire 300 people in the United States in three years.

So far the U.S. office employs just 15, but Bartos said it was about to ramp up operations.

"We want it to be perfect before we get bigger," Bartos said. He is already mapping out plans to expand the Mark Group's operations to Wilmington; Newark, N.J.; and Baltimore.

And the company this week will begin to train staff to fulfill a $1.7 million contract with Philadelphia Gas Works to weatherize homes of low-income customers. Mark Group is one of three contractors PGW will hire this year to do intensive weatherization of about 2,500 customers targeted by the utility because they are among the largest consumers of subsidized fuel.

Elliott S. Gold, PGW's manager of energy-efficiency programs, said Mark Group's pricing was competitive, and its proposal reflected the parent company's British experience.

"They just put together a superior proposal and product," he said.

Though business from utilities and public-housing agencies is expected to constitute a reliable stream of business, the Mark Group is also building up a private clientele, and making an extra effort to generate positive word of mouth.

The Mark Group performs its own energy audits and assessments, but it also relies on referrals from independent auditors such as Eric Lowry, an Ardmore energy expert who conducted an extensive review of the Diamonds' house in December.

Lowry recommended several contractors to the Diamonds, whose first choice was unable to do the work until late winter. The Mark Group sent a crew over in six days.

Lowry said the weatherization business was ripe for professionalization. "There are only a handful of contractors who run their business like a business - returning calls of clients, showing up dressed nicely, being polite, and not smelling like cigarettes," he said.

The Mark Group also appears to be aggressively pricing its services. When Lowry conducted his audit in December, he estimated his recommendations would cost between $2,900 and $4,900 to complete.

After the Mark Group reviewed the report - Lowry had removed the price estimates - it bid less than $2,600 for the job.

Diamond said he realized he may have been the beneficiary of a company bidding to establish a name for itself.

"I'm OK with that," he said.


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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