Sunday 25 September 2016

Companies don't have bright ideas - the people who work for them do

Eddie O'Connor of Mainstream Renewable Power makes the case for innovation as the key to growth - especially in the area of green energy

Eddie O'Connor

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

The only way for a business to remain alive, never mind to grow, is to innovate
The only way for a business to remain alive, never mind to grow, is to innovate

The purpose of business is to sell products or services to paying customers at profit. For a business to be sustainable over time, account has to be taken of three huge forces: technology-induced change, completion, and environmental degradation. The only way for a business to remain alive, never mind to grow, is to innovate.

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Competitive advantage is about a company's ability to out-compete others. Innovation is involved at every stage of the process to achieve competitive advantage.

Choosing the right paying customers, keeping the cost base as low as possible, selling the right product or service, delivering it cheaply and on time, and managing customer communications and brand positioning all present opportunities to innovate.

But companies don't innovate. People who work there do. Of course the culture of a company either encourages or discourages innovation. Culture is nurtured by leaders and staff do what leaders do.

Innovation is not only about inventing a brand new product. It could be, for instance, deciding not to service a particular sector of customers where payment is slow or competition is fierce. It could be in finding a new bank which is more efficient in its service delivery and charges marginally less for debt.

Only one thing is certain, if a company hasn't got innovation in its DNA, it will die.

And so to another question: how do the Irish stand up to other nations when it comes to innovation? Probably the best in the world but not always at home.

There is tremendous pressure to conform in Ireland. We live in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. In a world where five degrees of separation is the norm, I would be surprised if everyone in Ireland was separated by more than two degrees.

Unlike more populous nations, we live with the consequences of our personal interactions more acutely than elsewhere. Getting on with people is more important here because we will be meeting them frequently. This closeness encourages conformity but equally creates great managers.

Of equal significance is the fact that we were all poor up to one generation ago. No industry, no prospects, few natural resources and lousy weather all conspired to drive us away in droves.

We are spectacular at expressing ourselves. This is not a mechanical thing. The imagination plays a huge role here. Our writers, our artists, our actors, our film-makers, our musicians have exploded on to the world. They have made it a richer place for the rest of humanity.

And now that innate imaginative talent is beginning to have a huge global impact on business. The recent history of business in Ireland inspires.

When Denis Brosnan took the North Kerry Milk Disposal Board and turned it into the world's leading food ingredient company, we rightly celebrated.

When Tom Roche created CRH and it went on to be number three in building materials in the world, we celebrated. When Tony Ryan created GPA and his successors made Ireland the leading world centre for aircraft leasing, we celebrated. When Michael O'Leary showed how to grow a regional airline into the world's most profitable continental carrier, we celebrated. Tony O'Reilly, Dermot Desmond, Denis O'Brien, John Teeling, Michael Smurfit, all have made entrepreneurial contributions on the world stage.

You have to stand in awe at the ongoing ability of Ireland to attract, - having only 1pc of European population - 95pc of US inward investment into Europe. Yes our tax rate and our membership of the EU helps, but it was not sustainable without the quality of Irish managers and workers.

Now we face into a new era in world history. The atmosphere of the planet is wounded. The way we have made our energy, the way we have used it, the way we treat the atmosphere as an infinite dump, has to stop.

Burning carbon worked for hundreds of years. Now in a few decades we have to put it behind us. There is no bigger business opportunity in the world today.

We are moving from a situation where a few companies with large power stations in each country supplied millions of consumers to one in which the customer is becoming the producer. The great bulwarks of European business, BP and Shell, will be replaced by companies driven by innovation who extract energy from the sun and wind.

Energy storage, including electric cars, is needed to compliment variable wind and sun. Interactive electricity systems driven by the customer are able to adjust demand to the available supply.

It is my intention that Mainstream Renewable Power will commercially lead this transition to renewables. To date there has not been a single normal financing of projects done by us - we have had to innovate just to stay alive.

Yet all of our projects have been done on time and to budget. We go further. While building our 138 MW wind farm in South Africa at Jeffrey's Bay, 1,100,000 man hours were expended without a single lost time accident.

Mainstream will lead the transition because we are Irish and because we will unashamedly employ great Irish talent. In addition to the imagination displayed by young Irish graduates, there is a great will to work hard and to travel to where the next job is that needs doing.

We will interact with the universities and help them to understand the needed skills and to teach these skills to our youth who will lead the transition to a sustainable electricity future.

There is a sense of purpose about Mainstream that is not found in other companies catering for the future. We have come through the most difficult birth and early life that it is possible to imagine.

The global financial crash, followed by two euro-induced recessions, thinned out the great number of companies that had started doing renewable energy.

Mainstream never copied anyone - it invented new rules for our kind of company. Now it stands as a living testament to the fact that the blow that doesn't kill you strengthens you.

Mainstream is the number one independent brand delivering the renewable global future. Profitable we are, and dedicated to the proposition that we lead the world on this once off path to a renewable energy future.

Eddie O'Connor is co-founder and chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power

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