EEven for a leader in the eye of the storm that is the energy crisis, Chris O’Shea seems remarkably busy. Centrica’s managing director activates for our video call from his offices in Easington, County Durham, after battling traffic from a hydrogen project in the Humber. Then he heads to the coast to check on progress on the reopening of Rough’s huge underwater gas storage facility – a key part of ensuring the UK can keep the lights on as Russia limits gas supply.
He also found time to watch Liz Truss announce the bailout of her energy bills on TV. His plan is to rework power supply contracts, a move O’Shea, along with other industry leaders, has been calling for. Tomorrow brings an early morning trip to Brigg Power Station in North Lincolnshire, where the company is building a 50 megawatt battery storage plant.
However, he is not complaining. “Having to do two jobs to make ends meet is a real struggle,” O’Shea says, crunching on a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps as she hurries to lunch. “It’s a huge privilege to be in the position I’m in.”
Family Married with three children.
Education Accounting degree, University of Glasgow; MBA, Duke University, North Carolina.
Pay £850,000 last year (waived £1.1m bonus).
Last holidays Florida.
Best advice ever given “You have two eyes, two ears and a mouth: try to use them in proportion.”
Sentence he abuses “Do you have five minutes?” »
how he relaxes spending time with friends and family; functioning.
VSEntrica is the largest UK company supplying electricity to its home market, with 8 million domestic and retail customers. It owns British Gas, the former state monopoly, and is valued at over £5 billion. Its stock has risen by more than 70% in the past year, helped by soaring gas prices, and half-year profits hit £1.3billion. Its assets cover gas fields in the North and Irish seas, solar projects and a stake in UK nuclear power.
O’Shea is ignoring the public anger that has seen him vilified for a high salary (potentially £4.26million this year), for still working part of the time from home and for cutting jobs – he s even had faeces sent to his home near Reading: “It would be very self-indulgent to feel sorry for myself. I am in a very lucky position.
Later, he adds: “My brother committed suicide at the age of 25 – it was the most difficult challenge I have faced. A personal tragedy puts everything else in perspective.
O’Shea joined the owner of British Gas as chief financial officer in 2018, rising to the top job in April 2020. Since then he has navigated Covid, cut 5,000 jobs at the former state monopoly and taken over 800,000 customers from bankrupt suppliers. by soaring gasoline prices. Now he is in talks with the government on a voluntary profit cap and is considering a push for more nuclear power.
Centrica has a 20% stake in Britain’s aging nuclear facilities through a joint venture with EDF in France. After flirting with the sale of this stake, the British company abandoned this plan last year. Despite the withdrawal of the Hinkley Point C power station construction project in Somerset with EDF ten years ago, Centrica has been associated with the investment in its sister site in Suffolk, Sizewell C. O’Shea confirms this interest in the first time, saying he is seriously considering investing in the project.
In one of his last acts as prime minister, Boris Johnson said Britain was “investing up to £700million” in the project, which could cost £30billion to build. The government and EDF are expected to finalize a deal that would see each take a 50% stake in a new vehicle while outside investors are sought, fending off China’s CGN in the process.
“I’m very interested in understanding the terms of the agreement between EDF and the government,” says O’Shea. “If those terms are attractive I would love to be involved in Sizewell C, but I need to see the terms and have a conversation, obviously, with my colleagues on the board. But it’s perfectly aligned. with our strategy.
He says ‘some of our fears have materialized in terms of cost overruns and delays’ at Hinkley Point C, but backs EDF. “I myself have participated in major investment projects. Things go wrong. But in good companies, when they go bad, you learn from them.
O’Shea says he is “committed to delivering decarbonisation” by the government’s net zero target date of 2050 or earlier. He says: ‘The reality is that I believe in a carbon-free UK: it needs more wind power, more solar power, more nuclear power and decarbonized gas.’
He is even tempted by a project to build a fleet of mini-nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom. “I’m interested in learning a bit more about the small modular reactors that Rolls-Royce is developing, so that’s something we would consider as well.”
A push into expensive nuclear projects would be a bold new frontier for an avowed “disciplined” numbers man. Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, O’Shea studied accountancy in Glasgow, where he had moved after his parents’ business fell on hard times. He held a series of finance roles with big business beasts including Ernst & Young, Shell, BG Group and Smiths Group, and had stints in the United States and Nigeria, where his uncle was once a priest. .
The Scot’s varied wardrobe ranges from stripes to slogan hoodies. Today it’s a blue shirt and a black blazer with coral chinos. A few white strands run through his black beard. He is not too dejected after the defeat of Celtic FC, whose matches he still watches with his classmates, against Real Madrid. Not content to be a spectator, he is preparing to run the Berlin Marathon this month.
Despite Truss’ intervention, this winter remains uncertain for many. O’Shea urges customers to wait to receive their bills before flooding call centers. He says Downing Street should be ‘applauded’ for the support, adding: ‘This is a temporary two-year scheme, and it gives us time to address the underlying causes of the problem.
His solution is to voluntarily give the government a share of the outsized profits Centrica has made from its nuclear stake and gas operations in the North Sea, to pay lower bills. He is currently negotiating with officials on how to proceed.
Isn’t this simply a strategy to avoid being slapped by a more punitive windfall tax? “A windfall tax, by its nature, is unique,” he says. “It does not fix the structure of the market. We try to solve the same problem in a sustainable way.
In one of his first acts as prime minister, Truss reopened the door to fracking. O’Shea welcomes the new policy, which will allow companies to drill – if they get approval from local residents. “That’s absolutely true: you should look into it because, again, it contributes to energy security.”
But would he oppose fracking near his home? “If I were publicly in favor of hydraulic fracturing, I could not find the courage in my conscience to oppose it.”