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Retiring director figures a future of finance and smart grids

The retiring director of Britain’s biggest electricity distribution firm has spoken of the rapid changes ahead in the business which keeps the lights on for 18 million people.

From Press releases - 14 March 2018 12:00 AM

FD retiring.jpg

One of Richard Robert’s regrets when he bows out as finance director at UK Power Networks on March 31 will be missing the advent of smarter, flexible electricity networks enabling more people to drive electric cars, use smart appliances, generate, store and sell their own electricity.

He said: “The energy sector has seen the pace of change really accelerate around the move to the low carbon economy in the last five years. That pace of change is only going to increase in the years ahead and that is one of the things that I will miss being part of.

“The next ten years will be exciting, with a huge pace of change. We will see numbers of electric vehicles increase significantly and have to make sure the infrastructure is ready to support this. It’s a great sector to be involved in because it’s crucial - nothing works without electricity; phones, tablets, IT.”

In finance he predicts technological advances will provide even better information to improve and monitor performance. “When I started, computers and IT were only just beginning to come in. We used A4 pads with 14 columns to capture the numbers. When you phoned customer services with a query about an account they had a large carousel of cards. It was a different world in 1985, but you could carry on in a power cut because everything was on paper.

“The functionality in financial IT systems and our ability to extract and report on information has improved immeasurably over the last 30 years. There will always be things we can be doing in finance to provide better quality information to the management and continuously improve and monitor how improvements are coming through. In the medium to longer term Artificial Intelligence (AI) may start to have an impact on what happens in finance.”

Richard has been finance director at UK Power Networks since its creation in October 2010 and held the role at its legacy firms, EDF Energy Networks and Seeboard. The last seven years were the highlight, at the financial helm of UK Power Networks, which delivers safe and reliable electricity supplies across London, the South East and East of England. Last year alone there was investment of over half a billion pounds to maintain and improve the network.

He said: “It has been a really great seven years and the performance of the business has improved beyond anyone’s expectations. It was a complete mindset change, for the better. We became really focused and had a proper vision, which had hard measurable targets across every area, so month-on-month we could track how we were doing. This has been the highlight of my career, helping take an under-performing organisation to one recognised among the best performing utility companies in the UK. I’m most proud of our safety performance. Safety starts at the top of the organisation and whatever role you are in you must care passionately about it and make sure everyone you are in contact with cares passionately about it.”

After qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1987 Richard gained experience in regulated and non-regulated activities in the energy sector. He started at KPMG, one of the big accountancy firms, where he worked on privatisation of the electricity industry. In this role he spent a lot of time at Seeboard preparing information the Government needed so it was a natural step when he joined the company as commercial manager 18 months later.

His role was to help parts of the business become more commercially focused following privatisation, growing the business. This led to an appointment as financial controller in Seeboard’s contracting business, the largest electrical contractor operating in the South East, providing house-rewires and street lighting contracts. He worked on the bid team for the 30-year contract to provide power infrastructure for the London Underground. The bid was successful and he was appointed into the new management team for the contract and worked on strategic mergers and acquisitions and under-performing areas of the business for the chairman and chief executive.

In December 1999, when the firm was putting a new management board in place, he achieved his first big break as financial director, a role he has fulfilled for over 18 years.

“I am sure I will miss it,” he said. “I have genuinely loved working for UK Power Networks, Basil (Scarsella, chief executive) in particular.  He is a great boss, a ‘proper’ chief executive who is very focused on performance. He gets frustrated with issues, not the person and wants things fixed quickly. He is the longest boss I have ever worked for and the first boss I have ever had who is also an ex-finance director, so he knows all the difficult questions to ask.”

And finally, his tips to young accountants starting out in the profession, like his own son Ben? “My advice is to work hard, show the right attitude, look for extra things to take on to demonstrate you have that right attitude and if you keep doing that, your time will come. It’s about having the right mindset and looking at what you can do to help the company, rather than what the company can do to help you.”

Jenny Harrison, currently financial controller at UK Power Networks, has been appointed as Richard’s replacement.

CV:

Education: BA (Hons) in Accounting and Finance, University of Brighton

Career: started with KPMG where he worked on privatisation of electricity industry, financial controller for the largest electrical contractor in South East, mergers and acquisitions, bid team for 30-year contract to run power supplies for London Underground and over 18 years as financial director.

Family: wife, Fiona, a daughter and son, originally from Yorkshire

Interests: Brighton and Hove Albion FC season ticket holder, he wants to get to more away matches after he retires, golf and travel.