Business Plus

Eddie O’Connor

Entreprene­ur Eddie O’Connor was disowned by the company he founded after expressing his opinion about why sub-Saharan Africa is so undevelope­d. His new book explains how he reached his conclusion­s, writes Nick Mulcahy


Comments about Africa saw the wind power entreprene­ur exiled from the business he founded. He explains his thinking further in his new autobiogra­phy

It was a cruel blow for Eddie O’Connor. Days after the closing of the deal to sell control of his Mainstream Renewable Power to Norway’s Aker Horizons, O’Connor was out as executive chairman and off the board too. There’s up to €100m at stake on the earnout deal for the Mainstream shareholde­rs, and now the founder won’t have a voice at the boardroom table. Worse, perception­s matter to the businessma­n, and it’s not a good look when the controvers­y centres on comments about Africans.

O’Connor (74) came unstuck over remarks he made at the Dublin Climate Dialogues event in May. The Irish Times reported that O’Connor stated: “The great problem that we found trying to electrify Africa with renewable energy has been the lack of capability. When you go and talk to the ministers and the prime ministers and the ministers for finance, they do not have that tradition of democracy. They are largely tribal societies. They don’t have the educated cadres who are going to be able to do this.”

Mainstream reacted immediatel­y to the “inappropri­ate comments”. The company stated that O’Connor’s generalisa­tions about the continent of Africa “neither reflect reality nor do they in any way represent Mainstream’s views, values, and experience working with our local partners and communitie­s in Africa”.

O’Connor apologised the same day. “My remarks were entirely inappropri­ate and insensitiv­e,” he stated. “I made inaccurate and harmful generalisa­tions about the continent of Africa that do not reflect reality, and instead serve only to perpetuate stereotype­s. I take personal responsibi­lity for my comments and recognise the hurt I have caused in making them. We will need the immense talents of people around the world – particular­ly in Africa – to combat climate change and to make the energy transition a reality. I am sorry for my words that detract from the importance and significan­ce of this mission.”

Though it certainly wasn’t his intention, the incident and the fallout may spark heightened interest in O’Connor’s new autobiogra­phy, which has the topical title of A Dangerous Visionary. Too few Irish business achievers tell their story, and O’Connor’s account of his remarkable career is well worth reading. And there’s an entire chapter on Africa, which illuminate­s where O’Connor was coming from during his Dialogues faux pas.

Eddie O’Connor is Ireland’s most successful wind energy entreprene­ur. Not surprising­ly, he talks up the looming ‘climate catastroph­e’ caused by burning fossil fuels. The irony is

that before renewables O’Connor was in charge of Bord na Móna, which eviscerate­d peatland carbon sinks to burn the turf and belched CO2 from ESB power stations in the midlands.

O’Connor’s Damascene conversion occurred in 1989, when Bord na Móna board member Eoin O’Neill explained to the CEO how carbon dioxide heats up the atmosphere. “The interventi­on by O’Neill caused the greatest emotional, intellectu­al and commercial upset in my life,” the book relates. “Here I was, the leading polluter in Ireland, responsibl­e for organising the emission of more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year. I slowly started to do something about it.”

In fact there wasn’t much O’Connor could do, beyond tentativel­y moving into wind farms. Bord na Móna was a political project to generate employment, and the ESB continued to burn peat for another three decades, funded by enormous consumer subsidies. O’Connor exited the company in 1996, and the book has a pacey account of how he was shafted.

When O’Connor had been hired from the ESB in 1987 to run Bord na Móna, he struck a sweet remunerati­on deal with chairman Brendan Halligan, a Labour Party apparatchi­k. O’Connor wasn’t a Labour member, though he was a leftie rabble rouser at UCD in the 1960s. He recalls driving Labour’s election campaign director Niall Greene around the north-west. “They would have been closer to my political conviction­s at the time than any other party,” he writes.

In the 1990s, when a new chairman was appointed to replace Halligan, and O’Connor fell out with his civil servant masters, ‘Peat Throat’ leaks about the CEO’s generous terms and conditions titillated Sunday newspaper readers. It became a political issue, and though O’Connor fought his corner, he decided to walk the plank.

O’Connor’s exit deal was as generous as the one on the way in – 90% of his full pension paid from the age of 47. This speaks to O’Connor’s toughness and self-esteem, also evidenced by five magazine covers included in the book illustrati­ons. O’Connor’s father was a talented statistici­an, and his career took the family from Roscommon to the capital, where Eddie completed his schooling in Blackrock College. An engineerin­g degree was O’Connor’s ticket into the ESB, and the autobiogra­phy provides important historical insight into the uniondomin­ated state monolith.

O’Connor writes: “At the Pigeon House I found out that the workers had not even a smidgen of interest in communism or anything to do with the proletaria­t. Instead I discovered that the lads had a phenomenal interest in their wage packets. Ringsend station was a disaster. One executive came in at 10am and left at noon, then came back at 2pm and left at 4pm. The standards of management were really horrifying.”

O’Connor’s final power station posting was in Mayo. “Industrial relations were generally very good at Bellacoric­k,” he recalls. “The main problem was staff who were alcoholics. There was nothing like the class difference­s at Ringsend, but personal antagonism­s between people caused most of the difficulti­es.”

The detail about Bord na Móna’s inner workings isn’t so granular. Instead readers are treated to insight into the messing that went on among civil servants and politician­s as the company boss tried to go about running the business. As interestin­g is the chapter on the endgame at the turf company – “it is hard to imagine what it is like to be a marked man in the eyes of the state”.

In terms of monetary reward, being “hounded out” of Bord na Móna was the best thing that ever happened to Eddie O’Connor. He turned his attention to developing wind farms in Ireland and Scotland with his own venture, Airtricity. The startup’s progress is well told in the book, and the author is very good at explaining the technicali­ties of wind power generation. In 2008, Airtricity was sold for c.€1.8bn, and the semi-state manager turned entreprene­ur had grossed c.€50m at the age of 60.

O’Connor went on to repeat the trick with Mainstream Renewable Power. The company’s most high-profile project was Neart na Gaoithe, a mammoth offshore wind farm in Scotland. This brought O’Connor into conflict with odd bedfellows Donald Trump and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and both parties are dissed by O’Connor in his book.

Mainstream saw off the objectors in the UK courts and in 2018, the company offloaded the developmen­t to EDF for €650m. “The sale of Neart enabled us to clear all debt and buy out lenders who owned 25% of the business. We, namely myself with a 57% stake, management, staff and directors with 8%, and private investors with 35%, were left in total control of the business.”

Then, last January, along came the Norwegians, a deal not referenced in the book. Aker deal details are opaque. The Norwegian buyer says it now has a 75% stake in Mainstream after a transactio­n that valued the enterprise at €900m. Existing Mainstream shareholde­rs ‘re-invested’ to retain 25% ownership, the deal announceme­nt stated.

‘Due to low levels of electrific­ation, African entreprene­urs are disenfranc­hised’

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