Alumnus Chris Richards (BSc Physics 1979) has developed a successful and entrepreneurial career in the renewable energy business over the last 30 years. From his beginnings as a new graduate in accountancy, he reflects back on his career path and what lies ahead. For Chris, this includes his ambition to use his knowledge and experience to help young entrepreneurs reach their full potential; an area of great importance for Southampton, and useful advice for new graduates - communication is the key.
I took up my place as an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the autumn of 1976. Reflecting over thirty years later on, on the many great experiences that have followed, there is no doubt that my time at Southampton was one of the most enjoyable and enlightening of my life. Although I quickly realised that an academic career in my chosen subject was unlikely (I was never quite sufficiently in tune with the world of theoretical physics!),
I enjoyed the course, the campus and the social life tremendously, although probably not always in that order. After graduating in 1979 I joined the international professional services firm now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although based in South Wales, prior to qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in the mid 1980s, I spent time in London and Dubai, which was just beginning its ascent towards its current place as a global centre of commerce. It was also a fun place to be.
In the mid 1980s, the UK Government decided to privatise the Water and the Electricity industries in England and Wales. This move towards private sector ownership of major utilities was part of a controversial paradigm shift in the political landscape at the time. I was fortunate to gain some great experience and insight during that period, spending eighteen months travelling between Cardiff and The City of London working, pretty well day and night, on the Prospectus of Welsh Water in preparation for the share placements. That period (I was in my late twenties) taught me a lot, both good and bad, about what makes the commercial and political world tick.
At the end of 1990 at 33 and having spent an invaluable short secondment as an advisor to The Chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, I was asked by the Chief Executive of the newly privatised Welsh Water Group to join his team with responsibility for Group Business Planning and Corporate Strategy, including acquisitions and disposals. This business later became Hyder PLC employing over 10,000 people worldwide and I joined the Executive Board.
Although by now I was established principally as a commercial business manager, there is no doubt that my scientific background from university days helped me to understand and appreciate a group of businesses that included water and electricity utilities as well as a major worldwide engineering consultancy. I guess that fairly early on at University I recognised the potential for combining a scientific background with a business and financial skill set. I think that balance has served me well over my career.
In 1993, I was asked to start up a renewable energy business for the Hyder Group. Renewable Energy was just beginning to capture the world’s attention and at Hyder we had reservoirs, land and infrastructure that were suited to the development of generation from hydropower, wind power and anaerobic digestion. This was the starting point for my continuing interest and involvement in renewable energy over the past 17 years. I jumped at the opportunity to start up a new business from scratch in this young and enormously important, emerging sector.
Over the next few years with a team of managers and enthusiasts from a range of backgrounds we built up one of the most successful “first generation” renewable energy businesses in the UK at the time. This business was sold on to United Utilities around the millennium and I stayed on as Managing Director for a period before, with a group of financial investors, setting up a new independent renewable energy business called Eco2 Ltd in 2002. Eco2 has subsequently gone on to become a very successful developer of renewable energy projects in the UK and overseas with over £500million of projects currently in various stages of development. Having been a founder member, an Executive Director and Chairman of the Business for a number of years, these days I remain involved principally as a non executive director and an investing shareholder.
At 53, my remaining career ambitions are centred on guiding young enterprises to reach their potential, probably taking on, some sort of mentoring roles. The energy and enthusiasm for future success in our ever changing world will most definitely come from the younger generation, particularly in the ethical and environmental sectors. Hopefully some of the lessons I have learnt over the past thirty years can help a few of you along the way.
One point I’d make to young graduates preparing to set out in life would be that despite the advantages that academic and professional qualifications clearly bring, it has been an understanding of people in the workplace, and developing my ability to communicate effectively, that has helped me to succeed. Times are currently tough for young graduates just setting out (tougher than in my time) and I think that most employers value “people and communication skills” highly alongside a good degree.