Wood wind – How Coillte’s boss plans to con­duct agency’s re­new­ables re­birth

Irish Independent - Business Week - - INTERVIEW -

The chief of the State-owned or­gan­i­sa­tion has wielded the axe and cut 200 posts since tak­ing con­trol in 2015, now he’s out to con­found Brexit fears and boost Gov­ern­ment cof­fers by up to €40m, writes Colm Kelpie still pay a de­cent div­i­dend.

“It might be a lit­tle lower than you’d want it, but in the good years you pay a lit­tle bit more. It’s within a range.”

And so to the fu­ture.

“If we get this right, and we con­tinue in the jour­ney we’re on, you’ll have an or­gan­i­sa­tion that is the best forestry land so­lu­tions com­pany in Europe,” Leamy says.

“It has that po­ten­tial. We have some very strong as­sets in this coun­try.”

One fu­ture in­come stream is re­new­able en­ergy. Coillte has just ap­pointed fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers IBI and Capricorn to help the agency seek out a joint ven­ture part­ner to help it man­age its re­new­able en­ergy am­bi­tions.

Be­tween now and the end of the year, their task will be to work with Coillte and fig­ure out what is the right plan for that side of the busi­ness.

The com­mer­cial semi-State has iden­ti­fied around 1,000 megawatts of de­vel­op­ment for wind and re­new­able en­ergy projects on its land. But it be­lieves that to press ahead on its own would take con­sid­er­able eq­uity and “un­bal­ance” the busi­ness.

“My pri­mary aim and the aim of our board is to have a sit­u­a­tion where we’re not giv­ing away the fam­ily jew­els,” Leamy said. “We’re retaining the up­side on the wind side but we’re not tak­ing the risk. That is the ob­jec­tive, and I think we’re in a po­si­tion with the sites we have that we can achieve that.

“We could have taken the de­ci­sion to do this our­selves, but it would have been such a dis­trac­tion. You would have had to think about the two parts of the busi­ness sep­a­rately.”

Longer term, the agency doesn’t see it­self as a util­ity com­pany, Leamy says, but more a de­vel­oper of wind as­sets – a view that is shared by the board, he adds.

“To do oth­er­wise you would lose fo­cus on forestry and it may well be some­thing for a share­holder in a fu­ture point to look at.

“But from Coillte’s per­spec­tive, it prob­a­bly would be the wrong thing for us to do be­cause we would get dis­tracted by it.”

For Leamy, the fo­cus is to put Coillte on a sound fi­nan­cial foot­ing – of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance given the threat from Brexit.

He is up­beat about the agency’s prospects for deal­ing with the UK’s EU with­drawal.

But he ac­cepts there none­the­less re­main con­sid­er­able chal­lenges for which the com­pany needs to pre­pare.

“There are 40,000 trucks that move be­tween Ire­land and main­land UK ev­ery year with tim­ber prod­ucts on them,” he says.

“That’s 150 to 200 trucks a day. That’s not in­clud­ing what goes north and south. The sheer vol­ume here is ex­tra­or­di­nary.

“So it’s mak­ing sure of sim­ple things – like our IT sys­tems can process doc­u­ments that might need to cross the Bor­der. We’re do­ing a lot of that prep work at the minute.”

I wrongly sug­gest that de­lays for tim­ber prod­ucts at bor­ders may not be quite as prob­lem­atic as those for food prod­ucts.

But Mr Leamy says time is para­mount as cus­tomers in the UK re­gard Coillte al­most as a Bri­tish com­pany.

“For us to sup­port that, the slick­ness of the sys­tem is ex­tra­or­di­nary. Ma­te­rial leaves our fac­to­ries in Water­ford and Clon­mel and all of our cus­tomer fac­to­ries across the coun­try and is some­times on-site 48 hours later – 24 hours later when it needs to be.

“We are look­ing at things like ware­hous­ing in the UK. It’s a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge to food be­cause of their per­isha­bil­ity. But if a B&Q in the UK be­gins to see us as non-home­grown and they favour the home­grown, then that is a chal­lenge. We’re ac­tu­ally in­vest­ing more in mak­ing us as much a UK-based com­pany in that seg­ment as pos­si­ble.”

And what of his own plans?

The Water­ford man and fa­ther of three has had an eclec­tic back­ground that has in­cluded a stint as a min­is­te­rial ad­viser un­der Si­mon Coveney, some time in pri­vate eq­uity at

Terra Firma Cap­i­tal Part­ners and three years in Aus­tralia as CEO of agri­food busi­ness Con­sol­i­dated Pas­toral af­ter spend­ing four years in the US as head of Green­core US.

“I’ve spent 15 years trav­el­ling and I’m thor­oughly en­joy­ing my time in Coillte. It’s al­ways for me about com­ing in and lead­ing that trans­for­ma­tion, and we’re not done yet.” ‘There are 40,000 trucks that move be­tween Ire­land and main­land UK ev­ery year with tim­ber prod­ucts on them’

Coillte chief Fer­gal Leamy says there is plenty more to be done to trans­form the agency de­spite re­cent progress

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