Peter Bird is an investment banking veteran, with almost three decades’ experience as an Executive Vice-Chairman. Based in Singapore for the past 11 years, he is now enjoying a portfolio career including as a Senior Investment Banking Advisor, as an Expert Witness in disputes, and in his new, Nurole-appointed position, as an Advisory Board Member for clean energy firm Reactive Technologies. Bird’s career has focused on M&A in the power, utilities and infrastructure sector, with an international reputation as an expert in electricity sector restructuring and privatization; he’s also been a board member of listed New Zealand utility Vector.
Your belief in fighting climate change inspired your application for your latest role at Reactive - how much do you think NED board members can have a role in influencing environmental policies?
Non-Executives can be influential in changing their companies’ environmental policies: they have an overall responsibility for the way in which the market views the business, and have a big input into strategy. Investors now expect corporate strategies to cover all challenges - including climate change - that companies face. So NEDs must challenge management on their environmental strategy, and make sure they present it properly to the market. Non-Executives should be pushing for Executives to be able to answer two questions: what is the impact of climate change going to be on the company’s business, and what can the company do to address that impact?
Having set up a green energy practice in investment banking, do you think corporates globally are acting fast enough?
Some are. Some impressive firms are addressing climate change, setting up a strategy for dealing with it, and implementing it well. But a lot of other companies are ignoring the challenge - and by doing so, they are travelling in a current that has rocks ahead. But they’re oblivious.
My experience has mainly been in the energy sectors and with utilities; here most firms see climate change coming, and the best look at warming not just as a threat but as an opportunity, considering how it will disrupt their business and create new markets. But there are also many who completely ignore it.
Who’s doing it well?
A stand-out example to me is Vector, a listed electricity distributor in New Zealand. I used to be on its board and saw first-hand how it’s recognising the particular challenges facing electricity distribution and how they will impact demand. It’s understood that the government is going to put in place policies that will lead to growth in renewable energy, and that renewables will potentially disrupt demand for electricity, because rather than buying it through wires people will be providing more of their own power, via things like solar panels.
So Vector is grasping the disruption nettle rather than ignoring it - and telling the market exactly what it’s doing. It’s moved into the renewable energy and related markets and changed its business model, so it’s not just a regulated electricity firm.
And who’s not?
Some of the fossil fuel companies are still not recognising climate change. Shell stands out amongst big energy as a firm that’s recognised the changes to its business, but many of the other oil companies are still being more traditional and not adapting fast enough.
You’ve had a global career - what’s been the biggest business culture contrast you’ve noticed?
On a board trip to California when I was on Vector’s board, we were in San Francisco, talking to tech companies, utilities, and energy market consultants. It became very clear to us that people out there are a), seeing changes coming b), welcoming them and c), coming up with strategies to deal with them. It’s a big contrast in other parts of the world, where some companies still have their heads in the sand and are ignoring the challenges. It’s that culture contrast: do you welcome disruption as an opportunity to add new value, or resist on the basis that this is a threat to your business and you’ve got to stop it?
You’ve advised on energy sector privatisation, what’s your view on Corbyn’s plans to renationalise in the UK?
You have to look at the plans not from an ideological point of view, but simply asking, ‘what benefit does this bring to consumers?’ To date, privatisation has bought substantial benefits to consumers - costs in real terms have come down, productivity has risen massively and waste has been cut out. In water, for example, if you contrast the years since privatisation with the period leading up to it, there’s been far more investment since. It hasn’t been perfect - but I’m not convinced that Labour’s nationalisation plans would improve productivity and investment. The danger is they take away incentives to increase investments and be efficient. The loser would be the consumer.
… but that hasn’t put you off your eventual return to the UK after 11 years in Singapore! What are you most and least looking forward to?
Where there are infrastructure problems, I hope I can contribute to solving them! I’m really looking forward to spending more time with my family, and catching up more with old friends, and to facing a new set of problems whilst at work. I like challenges and I’m sure there’ll be plenty to come back to. But I like being warm - and in Singapore I’m warm all the time!
Where in the world do you think energy provision works best (from an economic and environmental perspective)?
New Zealand is doing a very good job - but it’s blessed with a very good renewable resource endowment. The UK, I think, needs to focus not just on renewables but a wider energy plan that secures the decarbonisation in the most efficient way; nuclear plays a part too; we need an integrated strategy.
How did you find the Nurole experience?
Extremely efficient - I was very pleased to be referred by a former colleague as I think that the way Nurole utilises its database of contacts is very efficient; the model works very well.
What’s your favourite book?
To fail is the norm, to succeed is rare.
In Paignton, when my son Damian learned to swim.
What do you do to have fun?
Watch Fulham FC win.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
8am, which gives me seven hours.
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