Staff must be altruistic and keen to make money
Eddie O'Connor has put his money where his mouth is and invested 90pc of his fortune into a firm behind a project to export €2.5bn worth of green energy a year, writes John Mulligan
'Without a vision, people perish," muses Eddie O'Connor, sitting across the table in his office in a sprawling Dublin business park.
"That's a quote from the Bible," he explains, somewhat reverently. Perhaps not a precise quote, but it's gleaned from 'Proverbs' and it's not the last pearl of wisdom from the Good Book that O'Connor proffers during a frank interview.
There's little doubt that head of energy firm Mainstream Renewable Power – with a doctorate and a thirst for knowledge – is well read. That reference to the Bible is quickly followed by musings on the Russian revolution as he ponders how people manage to get things done.
"Without Abe Lincoln would there have been the abolition of slavery? Without the Bolsheviks could they have created an empire in Russia for 80 years? Without 12 Apostles – I mean there are 800 million Catholics (1.1 billion according to the 'Pontifical Yearbook') now. That all began with one guy who said 'I'm God'."
"And I'm not God, in fact I'm denying it categorically just in case you think my lunacy has spread," he laughs.
O'Connor's own trip on the road to Damascus, his conversion from heading Bord Na Mona and its rampant harvesting of a non-renewable resource to establishing wind energy firm Airtricity, is well recorded.
The Roscommon native from Elphin made about €50m from Airtricity's €1.8bn sale to Scottish and Southern Electricity in 2008. People thought he was crazy setting up the wind energy firm back in 1997 with a £25,000 (€32,000) loan from Bank of Ireland, but he proved the detractors very wrong.
He resigned as chief executive of Bord na Mona in 1996 after the now disgraced and then minister for communications and energy Michael Lowry queried O'Connor's expenses. O'Connor claimed at the time he'd been subjected to a concerted campaign to impugn his reputation.
With Mainstream, O'Connor has massive ambition and has put his money where his mouth is, stuffing a big chunk of his personal fortune – an estimated 90pc of his net worth – into the business.
It's currently trying to advance plans for the so-called Energy Bridge project, which would see about 1,700 turbines erected in the midlands – heart of Bord na Mona country – and exporting €2.5bn worth of energy a year. It would involve an initial €1.5bn investment and it's one of two such controversial and separate schemes being proposed for the region.
But even now – nearly two decades after the trouble at Bord na Mona – does O'Connor feel he's propelled, to a degree at least, by rancour and a need to stick two fingers up at the people who hounded him from his job there?
"Not really. Everyone can have dark moments, but I think very little on that. I'm a positive person and you've got to walk away from that stuff," he says. "I'm very happy it happened. My wife is very happy it happened. I was doing a great job and we turned around the business, but it was time for me to move on."
His credentials with Airtricity have helped Mainstream raise over €273m from backers and recently secure €60m financial backing from institutions such as Australia's Macquarie Group.
The company is involved in projects such as huge offshore windfarms in England, Scotland and Germany, while it also has up-and-running wind and solar energy projects from Chile to South Africa. But the business is cash hungry and Chinese investors with deep pockets are the most likely providers of the sort of finance that Mainstream will need.
At an age where many of his peers would be eyeing retirement, considering the scale of Mainstream's ambition, the workload must be punishing. Will everything just fall to pieces if he's hit by a bus in the morning?
"No," he says matter-of-factly. "I get that question from a lot of people who want to invest in Mainstream. I got it a lot when people wanted to invest in Airtricity as well. I always recruit the best people who I can get my hands on. We have a fabulous team here."
"My preferred mode – and I was able to do this in Airtricity – is to take my hand off the tiller completely and to give the guys the vision for the future," he explains.
"I want to motivate them by painting the bigger picture. I don't tell them how to do it and I don't want to be. That's wearing.
"I really do prefer to operate in a semi-chairmanly mode. I have a very good chairman already, but I find my experience is necessary. I find I'm still contributing."
He insists he's not a workaholic, "contrary to an image I might like to portray sometimes". A keen fisherman, he says he likes to relax at weekends.
"I like to be surrounded by total excellence. If I was to keel over tomorrow, which I have to allow could happen, an awful lot of my net worth is tied up in Mainstream and I want to see that it's not frittered away."
His three weekly visits to the gym might also extend his longevity.
"Failure I don't want," he says when asked what still does drive him the most. "Maybe that's a bigger thing than anything else."
And while O'Connor talks about how renewable energy will become the backbone of supply in the future, it's not just altruistic and touchy-feely green credentials that are the over-riding raison d'etre for these business pursuits. "The dynamic here is an interesting one," he explains. "You love what you're doing, you're passionate about it and you have a vision for a different future than exists now. You have to assemble resources and those resources are money and people.
"You have to make profits because if you don't make profits nobody will give you money. You'll go out of business and your staff won't have a job."
O'Connor says he's going to practice what he preaches too, at least around the house. He's intending to make it carbon neutral, complete with solar panels and all the rest.
"When people look into your eyes and see you mean stuff, they're motivated to do things when you've got a higher purpose. The sustainability issue is a big thing for me and the primary way to do this is to electrify the world. Everybody likes money and all that, but some people are a nice combination of liking to make money and being altruistic at the same time. They're the kind of people we like to recruit," he says.
But he's a man still keen on creature comforts. The soon-to-be green home has a wine cellar stuffed with about 1,400 bottles and he's just bought a new Audi A8 (the cheapest model here is €97,000). Wouldn't an electric car have been more appropriate for a man trying to power the world with green energy?
"Well, it's a diesel and I reduced the size of the engine – it's a three-litre now. It's a fantastic car. I've driven electric cars and they're great but they don't hold my golf clubs." Seriously?
"You're laughing," he says good-naturedly. "It's an issue. There are certain practical things a car has to be able to do. I drive very little but I like being comfortable and I have a dickie enough back. When I fly, I fly well and I fly the best that I can afford. I make no apologies about that because to run a business like this, whose goal is to rid the world of fossil fuels, my presence is necessary in certain places. I want to arrive fresh. One day all planes will be flying using biofuels."
O'Connor has plenty of things he'd still like to do, even outside of Mainstream. A vineyard is something that's on his wish-list but he concedes that you'd need about €100m to get a good one – money he says he doesn't have.
He'd also like to get fully to grips with quantum mechanics. One suspects that being able to be in two places at once would suit him down to the ground.
"There's so much of this world I haven't seen yet. Bilocation is a great goal, but as I've said, I'm not God."