Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

New Bord na Móna CEO has ambitious plans for the semi-state company

The big interview: Mike Quinn

Bord na Móna CEO Mike Quinn returned from the US to take up the position
Bord na Móna CEO Mike Quinn returned from the US to take up the position
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

He was living the dream aged just 23.

Working next to Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak in a high-tech lab at company head quarters in California, go-getter Mike Quinn thought to himself, "life can't get much better than this".

After four years with Apple, the Limerick native went on to spearhead some of the world's leading manufacturing and industrial goods companies in Ireland, Britain and US - including Tellabs, Stryker, Lufthansa Tecknik and Precision Castparts Corp (PCC) in the United States. The latter had a turnover of almost $10bn annually, 3,000 staff and 10 thriving factories across the globe.

Although Mike, his wife Gill, and their young family were settled in Philadelphia, when an opportunity to take the reins at Bord na Móna (BnM) arose in 2015, the Quinns knew it was time to go home.

Sitting down with the Farming Independent at BnM headquarters in Newbridge, Co Kildare, the CEO says he has no regrets and is fully committed to making the iconic, semi-state company bigger and better than ever.

Less than a year into his tenure, BnM announced plans to cease harvesting energy peat and to turn the ship towards new sustainable businesses by 2030. These include: renewable energy development, domestic fuels, biomass development, resource recovery, horticulture, eco-tourism, and community amenities.

Although the transition has faced environmental challenges recently, Mr Quinn is confident biomass fuel will completely replace peat supplied to BnM power plant at Edenderry, and also the two ESB peat-using plants, at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, within that time-line.

"Year one was getting used to the company, last year was nailing down solid actions and the next three years are about implementing and delivering our plan," said Mr Quinn, who studied in Dublin City University, Cranfield University in Britain and at the University of Michigan.

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He is acutely aware of the importance of BnM in heartland communities.

"Peat harvesting has been going on for 80 years. We've a duty of care to the midlands. I visit all the sites regularly. There are 2,400 employees but when you consider the families, towns and villages that rely on the plants, that increases fourfold. We won't see Google, Facebook or Silicon docks down in the midlands so there is a huge dependency on BnM going forward," he said.

Although last year, Edenderry co-fired almost 400,000 tonnes of biomass, Mr Quinn says it will take up to five years for a domestic biomass supply chain to develop.

He addressed misconceptions of biomass power.

"We don't cut down trees to burn in the plants, that's a complete misconception and very frustrating. We use sawmill residues, by-products of wood production, saw dust, bark that has been stripped off the tree, that's what we burn," he said.

While domestic supply grows, BnM plan to import wood pellets - made of brash and the tops of trees - from the south east of the US. "Wood pellets are the second lowest carbon emitter of fuels across the globe used in power generation. The plan is to import from the US until we have our own supplies. Pellets today are trading at between €110-130 a tonne and we'll be very competitive with that," he said.

Mr Quinn - who revealed that he also spent time earning a crust as a silage contractor -admitted that the company is also looking at Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Africa for wood chip.

But he insisted that BnM is committed to importing one less tonne for every tonne it can get domestically.

"We're not in the import game long-term. Our long-term goal is to be self-sufficient from the island of Ireland. So be it in private forestry, energy crops like willow, fast growing trees like eucalyptus - that is where we are going with the project," he said.

However, on BnM's horticulture side, Brexit is a concern.

"Irish peat is regarded as world class. We're the largest supplier in the UK for grow meal for gardens and we've taken a good hit on our profits from exchange," Mr Quinn said.

He said Ireland should remain in the EU.

"We'd be insane to leave. We're an export-orientated country and our place is within the EU. We're in a very good place now because we're the only English speaking country left. We will be a beachhead for investment," said Mr Quinn, who also believes the US will boom under President Donald Trump.

"Rightly or wrongly, I think it's a good time for the US and I think Irish companies may benefit from that," he said, adding that the future was bright for BnM.

"We've got such a strategic asset in our 200,000ac land-bank. Ourselves and Coillte are the biggest landlords in the country. I'm inundated with requests to access it. This transformation will set BnM up for the next 30 years,"he said.

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