Building the future of electric-vehicle charging infrastructure

Sustainable LeadershipTechnology and InnovationIndustry TrendsTransformation InnovationLeadershipIndustrialSustainability
Article Icon Article
November 22, 2022
5 min read
Sustainable LeadershipTechnology and InnovationIndustry TrendsTransformation InnovationLeadershipIndustrialSustainability
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Taking a business to market leader status and what the future holds for electric cars.
rra-asset-image-1190850752.jpg

 

An interview with Lex Hartman

As part of our Energy Matters series we speak to Lex Hartman, energy and power utilities expert and former CEO of ubitricity, about taking the company to market leader status and what the future holds for electric cars.

 

What prompted you to leave a successful corporate role at TenneT to join ubitricity, which was a scaleup company?

I held several roles in the Dutch-German transmission system operator TenneT, and served as a Managing Director there for 10 years before joining ubitricity. This could have been considered a strange career move at the time, going from leading a large corporate to a scaleup company with only 70 full time employees. There were two main reasons I did this: one personal and one professional. On the personal side, after having led a big, monopolist company for some time it felt right to help lead a smaller, younger company. This was valuable to them, to give them the benefit of my experience, but also hugely valuable to me – it got me out of my comfort zone and I learnt a great deal in a dynamic, competitive market.

On the business side, the trigger for me was that not many companies, politicians or stakeholders have an integrated view of what is happening with energy and mobility. We know now that electric cars are coming; in fact millions of them coming. This has been made possible by renewable energy. However, if we do not optimise the charging infrastructure, through organisation and investment, there will not be a successful integration between energy and mobility and the technology will not actually work. We need to ensure that renewable energy capacity can cope with the demand that electric cars will bring, which is something that can be achieved by the energy system working in conjunction with the mobility system. My understanding of how to build this infrastructure was a driver for me joining ubitricty.

How did you help ubitricity achieve market leading status in the UK, which led to its purchase by Shell?

There is a lot of buzz around the idea of ‘fast charging’ in the electric vehicle world, but the vast majority of charging events are through regular charging at home or work, or on the streets. ubitricity provides lamp post charging on the streets, particularly in cities where people are less likely to have a driveway or garage to be able to charge on. The lamp post charging points give users the opportunity to charge directly outside their homes. This was the niche that ubitricity built its success on.

To ensure electric vehicles are a success, this infrastructure in any given country needs to be expanded so there are more sockets than cars. We also need to ensure the whole process of charging is extremely simple for consumers. It needs to become more convenient and, of course, affordable. Then there is the development of fast charging, which will be crucial in the future, as customers become more demanding.

Becoming market leaders in the UK was the company’s first success, and in the last phase of my leadership the shareholders sold the company to Shell, which was tremendous. This was such a big strategic play, and as part of Shell the company will be able to achieve more, globally.

Is it a challenge to attract the required level of investment in this sector?

You need to have a long term vision with this market – you have to look to the next five to 10 years rather than looking at how things are at this very moment. We are talking about a future, in every country, with millions of sockets in homes, offices, supermarkets, airports and on streets, which requires the necessary infrastructure. This infrastructure is reliant on investment now, and it can be a challenge to attract this. It is about understanding that once this matures and the infrastructure is in place, there will be a fantastic base for recurring revenues, and this is the attractive part for investors.

How would you compare working within a large corporate in this sector to working in a smaller entrepreneurial scaleup?

When I first moved from my corporate role to ubitricity, I have to admit I found many of the differences very refreshing. The level of control and bureaucracy involved in a large corporate is extensive: the processes that you need to follow in terms of compliance, safety, human resources come to actually define the business, and they do eat up management time. A smaller company does not have this to the same degree and so is much more agile and able to make fast decisions, explore different directions and use the brains of its people to come up with new ideas. Despite this, after a few weeks I was starting to miss the controls of the bigger company. That is because all the processes and policies help a company to plan and implement its strategies effectively, to comply with their customers’ wants and needs, and to know what is happening and when.

I think the key to this is finding the right balance. A large corporate is like a tanker and needs to be secure and stable to maintain a steady speed, but we also need the smaller, agile ‘speedboat’ companies that can move quickly and keep up with market changes. If a company can combine both elements to remain nimble but bring on enough of the requisite processes and controls to ensure its stability and give it the power to move forward, that can be a fantastic recipe for success.

What advice would you give an entrepreneur looking to scale their business without introducing too much complexity so it remains fit for purpose?

I would say get the right people on board. As well as capital, any successful business needs the right mix of human beings. It is important to have innovators and entrepreneurs to drive the business, but if a company gets from start up to scale up it needs to grow very fast, and it will need to implement the processes and policies necessary to allow it to function at scale. Customers will require a certain level of professionality, and expect ISO certification. Internally, the business will require an effective HR function, to give but one example. To achieve these types of requirements, you need people on board with the right capabilities in management and at all levels of the business.

You mentioned that you are an investor in this space. Looking forward, what do you think are the most interesting investment themes across mobility and electrification?

Yes, I am combining advising companies with having skin in the game, which is a good mixture. I am not currently investing in charging infrastructure, not because that I do not believe in that but because I am doing different things now. My focus is on society’s biggest challenges, and I think one of these is the transition to a carbon free world. We need a carbon free energy source that can power the whole world, with energy needs that continue to rise as countries develop. We are in this transition phase, but we do not yet know where this transition phase leads. Hydrogen is not the answer, because it is a carrier rather than a source, and many countries want to avoid nuclear. I am involved in new technologies such as laser fusion and solar flexibilities. So, I am stepping back from proven, established investment returns and supporting the early stages of the next wave of technology change, which is so desperately needed.