By Kristy Dorsey

To mark the 50th anniversary of the company his father co-founded in 1970, managing director Andy Pearson dove back into the annals to unearth the story of the innovations at the foundation of today’s Star Refrigeration.

Aptly named “Per Ardua” – a Latin phrase meaning “through adversity” – the tale begins with the demise of the Glasgow-based refrigeration division of L Stern & Co in 1969. Three of its former engineers, Stephen Forbes Pearson, Anthony Brown and Robert Campbell, pulled their redundancy money together and set up Star in Mr Pearson’s home.

The company now employs about 380 people in the design, manufacture, installation and maintenance of industrial refrigeration plant from its main office in the Thornliebank Industrial Estate and nine further locations across the UK. With annual revenues of £50 million, the Star group provides cooling and heating solutions to essential industries in the food supply chain and to leisure facilities such as ice rinks and swimming pools.

With his father steeped in the business from the beginning, the younger Mr Pearson was never in doubt that he wanted to pursue a career in engineering. After graduating in manufacturing science and engineering from the University of Strathclyde, he joined Star in 1986 where he started out working in sales and design, working his way up to become group managing director in 2015.

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During his recent research project, he uncovered a “multitude” of challenges that the company has overcome during the past five decades.

“It was very interesting to dig back in the archives and discover the background to all of that,” Mr Pearson said. “We have always been willing to try new things and look at things differently, and that has stood us in good stead through the years.

“There have been plenty of different things that we’ve tried and many have contributed to our success. People say you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs to find your prince, but an awful lot of our frogs turned into princes.”

About two-thirds of the group’s business revolves around the food industry, which has been a critical sector since the onset of Covid. Although the pandemic has been “a big worry”, Mr Pearson said staff have responded well to the challenges as the group has continued to trade profitably into 2021.

“It’s not just the supermarkets, but the warehouses that serve the supermarkets,” he explains. “If our plant goes down, they lose all of their cases, and then all 500 or however many of their supermarkets lose their cases as well, so it can be a very critical situation.”

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Pushed to identify the single most important ingenuity in Star’s history, Mr Pearson settles on the Low Pressure Receiver (LPR) technology that was first developed and applied by the company in 1975. Offering enhanced efficiency and faster quality installation, this remains a key component in today’s systems.

LPR also provides the opportunity to employ what is known as reverse cycle defrost (RCD), which effectively switches the flow and function of the system, allowing it to operate as heat pump rather than cooler: “It is the same system, you are just focusing on a different part of it,” Mr Pearson said.

This led to the formation seven years ago of Star Renewable Energy, which in conjunction with Vital Energi delivered two 2.65MW water source heat pumps to power the district heating network at Queens Quay in West Dunbartonshire.

Based on the site of the former John Brown shipyard, the network has been operational since December, initially supplying carbon-free heat to nearby offices, leisure and care home facilities. It will eventually be extended to cover a forthcoming health centre, 140 existing flats and retail units, and other homes planned for the site.

HeraldScotland: An artist's impression of the energy centre at Queen's QuayAn artist's impression of the energy centre at Queen's Quay

It is the first large-scale water source heat pump scheme of its kind in Scotland, and the first such project for Star Renewable in the UK. Mr Pearson hopes its successful conclusion will spur development of this market.

“It is a new string to our bow,” he said. “At the moment I would say that about 5 per cent of our business is heating, but it could come to be dominant.”

That said, the cooling business has been working “flat out” for the past two years. This has been driven in part by the 2018 acquisition of Yearsley, previously a client of Star, by US-based Lineage Logistics, which has retained Star as a supplier as it further expands its presence in the UK.

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Having increased its headcount by 10% in the last 24 months, Star is continuing to hire to meet demand for more energy-efficient chilling and freezer solutions. Mr Pearson notes that Star’s systems typically consume about a quarter of the energy last decreed as best practice by the Department of Energy in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Star’s nascent Azane subsidiary in the US is due to install the group’s first Azanefreezer in that country for a large client in southern Los Angeles. Along with the heating market, Mr Pearson describes the potential for expansion in North America as another “slow burner” that could be significant in the years to come.

“If any of the gleams in our eyes take off, I could see the rate of our growth really stepping up,” he said.

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I have been fortunate to travel all over the world for work and I can’t think of anywhere I didn’t enjoy. Two cities that stand out are Chicago and Durban – I took my family back to each of them for a summer holiday after having visited for work. In both cases it was the friendly people that really stood out.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I only ever saw myself as an engineer, I think because I always enjoyed finding out how things work.

What was your biggest break in business?

Our progress has been a large number of incremental steps building a complex business which is still growing so I suppose I’m still waiting for the big break. I was fortunate to be given responsibility early in my career and left to figure out what to do for myself, but always with support when it was needed. Career highs have included leading the engineering teams on large projects that were the first of their type in the world, ranging from freeze drying coffee at -50°C with a carbon dioxide system to heating a district water loop to 90°C using an ammonia heat pump.

What was your worst moment in business?

I took a group of six Turkish bankers to visit a data centre in Staffordshire where we had installed an innovative cooling system in the hope that they would select the system for the new computer centre they were planning to build in Turkey. They had spent the morning shopping in Oxford Street and then flew to East Midlands Airport in their private jet. It was one of those toe-curling days where everything that could go wrong did go wrong and clearly they would rather still have been shopping.

Who do you most admire and why?

Jesus – I became a Christian when I was 16 but the older I get the more I appreciate the significance of his example and the wisdom of his teaching.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I started reading The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells recently – it’s a bit gruesome in a good old-fashioned horror story way. I was given a pass for Celtic Connections for Christmas so I am enjoying dipping into the concerts online.