Monday interview: John Forster, chairman of Forster Group

GROWING up on a farm may not seem like the most relevant training for the world of business, but according to John Forster, chairman of roofing and solar services provider Forster Group, it proved excellent preparation.

John Forster: If carbon fuels drove the energy revolution in the 20th century, it will be renewable that transforms the future of energy in the 21st. Picture: Ross Johnston

“It teaches you a great work ethic,” he says, with its mixed fortunes of a great harvest one year followed by less success the next serving as a “salutary lesson”. On this theme, he notes that Forster Group started its journey in the middle of a recession, and more than 25 years later he has observed that, as in nature, cycles “tend to repeat themselves”.

And just as a farmer relies on the weather, the group harnesses the power of the elements with its solar and roofing services for sectors including domestic, agricultural, commercial and the public sector. In Scotland, its roofing operations now cover 20 per cent of all new homes built and its energy business installs 20 per cent of commercial rooftop solar.

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The group is now the largest north of the Border in its fields, and Forster has certainly realised the ambition he held from an early age of running his own business.

He started his first enterprise in his early teens when he set up a sweet shop at school, operating from his locker, after realising that he could save his fellow pupils the 20-minute walk to the shops, selling more than 200 Mars Bars a week.

Years later Forster Group came into life after he observed another gap in the market, when working for Newbridge-based roof tile manufacturer Scotcem.

He says: “It became apparent that there was an opportunity for a highly service-focused roofing business, co-ordinating the supply and installation of roofing products, particularly to larger house builders and construction projects.”

Forster Roofing came into being in summer 1990, and in 2003 “we established Forster Group and launched our specialist roofing distribution division Caledonian, which quickly became Scotland’s largest importers of slate”.

In 2007, Caledonian was sold to the world’s largest slate producers, Spain’s Cupa group, and Forster explains that the same year the group started to explore opportunity in renewable energy, launching Forster Energy, which moved into solar in 2010.

A third group division, Forster Industrial, was launched in 2009, taking the group back into specialist distribution, covering roofing, solar and construction chemicals.

Forster Group celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and is clearly not resting on its laurels.

“We have the next 25 years planned out – we’re a very strategic business,” its chairman says.

Specifically the group is working on its ten-year planning period, with “significant plans” up its sleeve, he says, including expansion into England from 2017.

Forster says he “thoroughly” enjoys the range of customers the company works with, and he is also extremely enthusiastic about the role the group provides in education.

It welcomed six apprentices to its Brechin skills academy in December and last month joined The 5% Club, which promotes the recruitment of apprentices and graduates into the workforce. “We have a real culture of constant improvement,” he notes.

He also points out that while the move into solar has not been without its challenges, it adds a “new dimension” to his work. He is also chairman of the Scottish branch of the Solar Trade Association, which launched last March to create a voice for solar in Scotland, with 35,000 homes and 600 businesses benefiting from solar technology.

This includes “advising and developing policy with the Scottish Government and raising awareness of the benefits of solar,” and the organisation has the backing of key figures in the energy industry, including Fergus Ewing, Scottish minister for business, energy and tourism, who described it at launch as a “valuable asset for Scotland”.

Forster praises the Scottish Government’s “clear commitment” to solar, for example with new building regulations introduced in October 2015 involving “progressive carbon reduction targets”.

But he has been vocal in opposing proposals by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change to impose cuts to the feed-in ­tariff scheme, the UK government’s subsidy for generating renewable power from small-scale installations.

Forster says that while the plans, which came into effect this year, were not as far-reaching as first feared, “this will be little consolation to the Scottish companies and their employees who are directly affected by the cuts”.

He adds that even the UK government has estimated that more than half of solar jobs may be affected, amounting to a potential 1,600 solar job losses north of the Border.

But Forster stresses that the short-term gap between solar benefits and solar costs “must be closed if Scotland is to achieve its solar potential and reach its renewable electricity target” of subsidy-free renewable technology by 2020.

“If carbon fuels drove the energy revolution in the 20th century, it will be renewable that transforms the future of energy in the 21st,” he says.

“As we move to decarbonised generation and the transformation to an electric future in key areas like transport, it’s not surprising the International Energy Agency estimates that solar will be the largest source of energy generation within the next 30 years.”


Born: Aberdeen

Education: Merchiston, Edinburgh , ‘university of life’

First job: Working on the family farm from age ten

Ambition while at school: To run my own business (aged 13)

Favourite mode of ­transport: bike

Music: Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell (First listen, 13)

Kindle or book: I prefer to read a book

Reading material: 
JRR Tolkien – Lord of the Rings (First read aged 13)

What makes you angry? Lack of consideration for others

What inspires you? Challenges and achievements

Favourite place: Being on top of any mountain with my skis on

Best thing about your job: Being able to make a ­difference