By Julia Rebholz, Blueprint Practitioner in Residence & Group Director of Sustainability, Centrica
From 2009 – 2013 I was living in Houston the energy capital of the world, surrounded by sunshine and abundance, fulfilling the Director of strategy role for our North American business, Direct Energy. During this time I was totally oblivious of the global economic crisis as our business was growing, acquiring and investing. One sunny Monday morning in 2012, I was assessing our strategy for the next 5 years and started to ask some very different questions to stretch my natural curiosity – I got some very different answers, by 11am I was in shock, and by 1pm, I had concluded that we had an unsustainable business model, due to the drop in global energy prices and customers switching at a high rate between energy suppliers. Over the next few months I continued to ask different questions and we discovered that customers spend 6 minutes a year interacting with their energy company, so is the conclusion that the life blood that we depend on for our technology driven world, we don’t really care who provides it, as long as we get it!! Well it’s certainly a possibility and one for you to think about, but what it left me was – What an interesting and huge opportunity to transform from a utility to a meaningful relationship that delivers on behalf of all stakeholders.
As my curiosity grew I wanted to seek out new business models that started to consider these questions and in 2013, Centrica had decided that they wanted to do the same and I was provided an opportunity to come back to the UK to set up a £10m Impact investment fund backed by Centrica, the first corporate to set up an energy impact investment fund. In July 2013 Ignite Social Enterprise was born (www.ignitesocialenterprise.com), Ignite invests in early stage energy entrepreneurs that are creating social change in the UK. Ignite provides £50K – £2m investments in debt or equity as well as business support to help these business develop and grow. For Centrica this provides a window in to new business models and macro-economic trends and it provides development opportunities for its people. Over the last two years Ignite has made 9 investments and supported 20 business in pre-investment support. The fund will be fully invested in 2016 and we are currently assessing growth options.
After the sweeping and rapid success of Ignite I was asked to expand my role in 2014 to consider how Centrica could bring its purpose to life, how could it resonate with its stakeholders at the time when it’s major brand British Gas was under scrutiny for profiteering by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA) following Ed Milliband’s promise to freeze energy prices which wiped almost £1bn off Centrica’s share price and at time when energy companies were trusted less than banks. I started out asking some different questions and then following a meeting with Sam Laidlaw our CEO was introduced to the Charles, Loughlin and the Blueprint Principles. What I found in the blueprint was a space where companies could ask themselves questions, that had never asked before and be vulnerable and authentic in answering them. What was interesting, was that we were all struggling with similar issues and questions and there was solidarity in thinking about where to start.
At this same time I was also having lots of conversations with my 9 year old son, who one day during a long car journey, said “Mummy, you do all this business stuff, what are these businesses trying to do” I started to explain how businesses were providing things to help people live better lives and about how money had been created following of bartering, feeling pretty good about myself and how I had not ducked the question in a moment of learning for my son, he replied “So Mummy from what you have said, basically, money isn’t real as it is just a mechanism and business is supposed to help people – so if that is true why don’t they!” A crushing but true assessment, a small voice rose from within me “Because they don’t know how to?” he seemed satisfied with the answer, but it made me think about the world he would be part of in the future and my role to create a future he would want to live in.
Since my initial engagement with the Blueprint I have continued to work closely with my peers in the movement, Charles and Loughlin and I took Centrica back to its roots of purpose, from 1812, when in my interpretation the organisational purpose was “Bringing heat and light for the significant good of the people”. A great and noble purpose that has enabled the prosperity and growth of the developed world, and with that has come some unintended consequences that were unimagined in 1812, those who accept climate change, accept that it has been entirely man-made from the use of fossil fuels. So much of human progress has had unimagined and unforeseen positive and negative consequences. Following our strategy review earlier this year Centrica has reimagined itself as a 21st Century Energy company that provides energy and services to satisfy the changing needs of its customers (present, past and future) transforming ourselves to what is now required from society in relation to energy provision, which at its most basic level is to use less energy and transform the energy system for the first time since 1812! We are making great progress and I am very pleased to see Direct Energy and all of our businesses transform to create a sustainable business model – It will take time and we are assessing the character traits required for the organisation and society to prosper in that scenario.
What I have learned through this process is that it is the dialogue with each individual and their own character that builds the new level of consciousness required for the collections of individuals within future organisations to obviously be on the side of society and for society as a whole to be glad that companies exist. This will take time and is a movement, which is why I am delighted to spend part of my week designing and furthering those conversations with Blueprint as a Practitioner in Residence.