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Q&A with Flexitricity's new CEO
Q: What motivated your move to Flexitricity?
A: The opportunities to continue in onshore wind development in Great Britain are very limited at the moment, and I wanted a change from wind farm development and construction. I was seeking work in a different and exciting sector, but one for which my industry knowledge would be relevant.
Flexitricity offers a fantastic opportunity for me to bring my leadership experience and broad knowledge of the electricity industry to a company that is innovative, responsive and adaptive to changes in its market opportunities. I was very impressed with the individuals who I met during the initial engagement process. I continue to be amazed by the collective talents of the whole team.
I was also pleased at the opportunity to return to working in Edinburgh, a city which I adore.
Q: Could you please describe your new role and your initial priorities?
A: The principal tasks for the CEO in Flexitricity are to:
- lead on the creation of strategy and drive the implementation of this once agreed by the Board;
- ensure that the company is appropriately organised and adequately resourced to realise that strategy;
- act as a liaison between the day-to-day management team and the non-exec directors (and the wider Alpiq organisation); and
- ensure that sufficient information is provided to the Board to enable the Directors to form appropriate judgements.
The objective is to advance Flexitricity towards delivery of sustainable profitability and growth. My three fellow executive directors (Alastair Martin, Alastair Kerr and Andy Lowe) ensured continuity of operations and service provision whilst the CEO post was gapped. I will lean heavily on them as I go through the steep learning curve to fully understand the Flexitricity business. I can also see that my predecessor contributed significantly towards the creation of firm foundations and the impressive initial growth of the company and was clearly well liked by all, so a tough act to follow!
The most important consideration for any organisation is to achieve an outstanding health and safety performance, and this will always be my main priority. I need to ensure that there are adequate policies, systems and training in place to achieve the common goals of zero accidents and ensuring everybody leaves work at the end of each day in the same state of health as when they arrived.
Other priorities include:
- Working directly with stakeholders and through our trade association (Association for Decentralised Energy) to influence policy and regulatory changes which can improve our market opportunities as well support the continued decentralisation, decarbonisation and digitisation of Britain’s power system.
- Ensuring that core business systems and processes are in place, and that there is opportunity for continual improvement
- Maintaining an appropriate balance between the drive to deliver new services whilst instilling a process-driven culture to secure sustainable growth.
- Promoting Flexitricity to extend our market leader position in our service offering. We will do this by continuing to operate with honesty and integrity and so maintain the strong trust which we enjoy with our Energy Partners.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by the energy industry today?
A: The challenge for many of the existing utilities is to change and adapt throughout the long journey from large, centralised, hydrocarbon fuelled generation to small, distributed, renewable energy with growth in storage and electric vehicle opportunities. I am sure that the established utilities will be very different at the end of this journey (in the 2050s) to when they embarked on it (in the early 1980s). Indeed, we have already seen significant change. These changes will create opportunities for many new entrants into newly emerging market opportunities but will cause casualties amongst some of the present incumbents. Flexitricity is an example of that response to a market opportunity which didn’t exist many years ago.
I recall that in my first employment after graduating, Rolls-Royce was the second most recognised brand in the world at the time. This was the mid-1980s (at which time the top brand was Coca-Cola). Rolls-Royce was unusual in that it was known for its cars, however it hadn’t made cars since 1971 (and still doesn’t – the brand was and still is used by others under licence). The most recognised brands in the world today include companies that didn’t even exist in the mid-1980s, and others that were in their infancy. Today, the top three are Apple (founded 1976), Google (founded 1998) and Amazon (founded 1994). Coca-Cola is at No 5 today, which shows that it is possible to retain a dominant position over decades. Rolls-Royce isn’t even in the top 100 today.
The main point here is that some energy industry big players will survive, but only by adapting to changes. My favourite example of company adaptation is Nokia, which began as a pulp mill, became a manufacturer of wellington boots and other rubber products and then transformed itself into a global leader of mobile phone handsets. It has since lost that dominant position, which reinforces the need to avoid complacency, especially if great success if achieved. Also, there will be dominant players in the future who are relatively small today.
The current raising of awareness in the public consciousness of the need to drive towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and the setting of this target in policy by many governments across the globe will promote an increase in rate of change in the energy industry, which will help drive further technology solutions to the decarbonisation of electricity. I believe that as transport and heating transfers across from hydrocarbon fuels to lower or non-polluting forms, this will bring significant increase to the scale of the changes.
Q: What are your predictions for what might happen in the energy industry in 2020?
A: The short term changes which we are witnessing, and which are likely to continue, involve consolidation in the supply industry (as witnessed by the significant job cuts in npower following its transfer to E.ON and, separately, the sale by SSE of its energy services business to OVO) and the failure of other smaller suppliers. There have been over 15 GB energy supplies who have failed in the two-year period 2018-19.
Politically, there is potential for significant change as the UK leaves the EU and the debate about Scottish independence continues. Both of these can impact the market in which we operate.
Change is likely to continue to be a factor for the energy industry. The best way to manage in the future is to embrace and engage with change, and so our ability to cope with and adapt through change management processes will be important. We should continue to be engaged, optimistic and embracing of innovation.
Q: Could you give an overview of your career path and how you got started in the energy industry?
A: My degree is in aeronautical engineering. I studied at City University in London. My first job after graduating was at Rolls-Royce in Derby, working in the product support department. This involved assessing the performance of new engines for civil airliners as they were delivered and then ensuring that the performance remained within agreed limits during service, as well as being a point of contact for certain customer airlines on a range of matters. I joined the RAF as an engineer officer 4 years later, on a short service commission, however the opportunities to work with whole aircraft systems weren’t realised because the end of the cold war brought a significant reduction in defence manpower, scale and spending. I moved to Lincoln and joined European Gas Turbines, working as a mechanical engineer with responsibility for the engine package, which varied with each installation.
EGT produced industrial gas turbines, many of which were used to drive electrical generators, and it was this employment that brought me into contact with the electricity industry. One of the customers for a project on which I was working was Scottish Hydro-Electric, and in 1997 I joined them as a project manager for new gas-fired generation development and moved to Scotland.
SH-E became SSE (one of the “big six” utilities) one year after I joined, and I remained with them for 14 years. The company had chosen not to become involved in development of onshore wind farms during the earliest incentive schemes but recognised the opportunity which the renewables obligation legislation introduced in 2002. The small department in which I worked was tasked with becoming the onshore wind development team and we started from scratch to address the task.
Although SH-E had developed a significant portfolio of renewable energy schemes during the 1950s and 60s (when many of the hydro-electric schemes were built), it had only developed gas-fired generation since privatisation. The new renewables brief was extremely fulfilling, allowing engagement across a great breadth of topics and to visit some remote and scenic parts of the north of Scotland, which I otherwise might never have seen. The first projects took about 5 years to achieve planning permission, which was an enormous surprise to us. We had initially expected a matter of months, but each one involved the introduction of a new form of structure into a landscape which until then had very little visible infrastructure. I was (and remain) completely convinced on the absolute need to develop and operate additional renewable generation. Over the 9 years working on renewables with SSE and the subsequent 7 years with Infinis, I was delighted to witness onshore wind changing from a novel form of generation to a mainstream activity, with turbine sizes and wind farm capacity growing significantly.
When SSE acquired Airtricity in 2008, I was promoted to General Manager for new renewables development in Great Britain, and led teams in Perth, Glasgow and Bristol. Our combined team size grew from under 30 to about 100, and after a couple of years we were developed and put into construction over 1 GW of new renewable energy across several sites. The Clyde Windfarm in South Lanarkshire was one particularly exciting project, as it was the largest onshore wind farm in Europe at the time of consent.
I moved to Infinis in 2010, as Director responsible for development and construction of new onshore wind farm sites. Although the sites were smaller than those which SSE developed and there were fewer in the team, we achieved some great successes and put several more new wind farms into operation in Britain.
After Infinis was sold by its owners, I spent 14 months with KPS, which was (and still is) developing an airborne wind energy system for electrical generation, using tethered wings (kites) rather than wind turbines.
For all my career, other than when I was in the regular RAF, I have held a commission in the reserve Armed Forces, most recently with the Corps of Royal Engineers in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Through the Army Reserve, I have deployed on operations to Iraq and Afghanistan and participated in exercises in Germany, Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Gibraltar and South Korea.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: A couple of years ago, I decided to work towards gaining a licence to fly flexwing microlights. Microlights are defined as an aircraft with (in most cases) a maximum all up weight of 450 kg. This can include 3-axis (or fixed wing) type which looks more like a conventional aeroplane, whereas the flexwing consists of a delta wing (similar to a hang glider) with a 'trike' unit to which the engine is fitted suspended underneath it. I gained my licence in April 2019 and have been working through the continuous development programme which the national association has devised. I own a one-third share in an aircraft based at East Fortune in East Lothian, which is one of the biggest flexwing clubs in Britain.
I also own a motorcycle and completed a 4,500-mile tour of 14 EU countries in late summer this year. I have also been researching my family history, and my aiming point for my trip was to visit my great-grandfather’s grave in the WW1 military cemetery in Doiran, northern Greece. He was killed on the Salonica front but my cousins and I were completely unaware of this. He appeared to have married bigamously just before being deployed, which is possibly why his sacrifice was never mentioned in my family. I did reflect that I am probably the first relative to ever visit the site, over 100 years after he died.
I have participated in the Edinburgh half marathon on four occasions in the last few years and have entered again for May 2020.