You could argue Norman Crowley is Ireland’s answer to Elon Musk. But electric cars are only part of Crowley’s focus. The bigger picture is saving the planet.
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In this podcast ThinkBusiness editor John Kennedy talks to Norman Crowley, a successful businessman who started and sold three businesses for more than $750m before he was 40. Last year he revealed plans to create 150 new jobs as part of a €50m investment in his latest venture Electrifi, the first company to manufacture cars in Ireland since Ford closed its manufacturing plant in Cork 40 years ago.
The Cork-born entrepreneur sold his previous business Inspired Gaming Group for $500m in late 2008 to a private equity fund.
“Of the most existential crises in the world, one of the top three is climate change. And if we don’t do something about climate change it will kill billions of people ultimately”
Last year, ThinkBusiness reported how Crowley’s energy services business Cool Planet Group raised $31m in funding from French investment group Tikehau Capital, which has almost €24bn in assets under management.
In an interview with ThinkBusiness last year Crowley described his group, which includes Crowley Carbon, as an energy efficiency business that helps corporates such as Musgraves, an early client, figure out how they can save hundreds of millions, if not billions, on their energy by optimising use of solar and wind sources and installing new technologies for better efficiency. “We have a vision for Crowley Carbon to save $1bn a year in energy, which we are well on the way to,” he said at the time.
In this latest interview via podcast with ThinkBusiness, Crowley reflects on his first tech business Ebeon which he sold to Eir prior to the telco’s IPO in 1999 only to witness the business being wound down as the dot.com bubble burst in Ireland a few years later. He found himself being unfairly cast as a kind of scapegoat for tech’s collapse in 2001, even featuring on the Nine O’Clock News. “I used to joke with journalists that on my headstone it will be imprinted ‘It was profitable when I sold it.”
Make the world a better place
“In 2007 we almost sold the business for a billion bucks … selling for half a billion was okay by me”
If you ever spend any time with Crowley, the indelible impression he leaves is his energy and enthusiasm. Knock him down and he’ll get back up again, with even better results.
The second act after the Eir episode saw Crowley assemble his loyal team of lieutenants for another go at something new. For a while they mostly hung out and played video games like Doom and Duke Nukem until Crowley had his next eureka moment – he realised most of the gaming machines in pubs across the UK were antiques and it was time to connect them to the internet.
And so Inspired Gaming Group was born and over the course of five years from 2001 and 2006 it grew from eight people to 2,500 employees and revenues from zero to £400m. In 2008 the company floated on the London Stock Exchange.
“In 2007 we almost sold the business for a billion bucks. And the sale fell through because it was the time of the Lehman crash.” In fact, Crowley was within hours of selling the business for $1bn. Crowley and his team regrouped and eventually sold Inspired Gaming Group for $500m in late 2008 to a private equity fund. “Selling for half a billion was okay by me.”
Tackling an existential crisis
Crowley told ThinkBusiness that he doesn’t think retirement for him, he intends to be always working. He attributes his work ethic to his late father and his upbringing in rural Cork. “I grew up on a farm and there never really was much money around and so you just work from when you are six or seven.”
His next forte Crowley Carbon was set up even before he sold Inspired. “My wife always says I’m a chain smoker when it comes to start-ups. I’ve always got one lit and another in the ashtray.
“We decided we didn’t want to set up a business where you buy something for $1 and sell it for $2. We wanted to make an impact and of the most existential crises in the world, one of the top three is climate change. And if we don’t do something about climate change it will kill billions of people ultimately.”
The current Covid-19 crisis, Crowley believes, is an appetiser for how serious the climate change crisis could be and he sees the globalisation and movement of the human population as intrinsically linked to the rise of pandemics.
“And so we felt we needed to do something about climate change and because we are business people we would work on a business. If you take the top 20 energy companies in the world and the world is spending $4 trillion a year on these top 20 companies, that’s not even all of the money we are spending on energy. That’s just the money we are spending with the top 20 and we waste 80pc of that. So we spend $4 trillion and we waste $3 trillion. That’s appalling.”
As Crowley sees it, energy in its various forms is the number one cause of climate change. “And so we as a human race, we have the audacity to dig this stuff up out of the ground, it damages the planet and then we waste 80pc of it just like that. So we set up Crowley Carbon to stop wasting energy.”
Crowley Carbon works with corporations to help them reduce their carbon footprint. “We work with five of the top food companies, seven out of the top eight pharmaceutical companies and we are now starting to deal with the hydrocarbon companies and oil companies.
“We have a very simple proposition, which is we will help you stop wasting that energy. And if you can’t afford our services, we will we will split the savings with you. So, we will save money with you. And we will split those savings with you. And then if you don’t believe us, then we’ll ensure the risk with the biggest insurance company in the world. You want to stop wasting money, you want to lower your carbon footprint, and therefore we will do that with you. And we will split it with you if you don’t want to pay us to do it. And so, we’ve grown that business from 2009 and now we operate 23 countries around the world.”
Driving the future
Crowley’s focus on carbon reduction and saving the planet works hand-in-hand with his other personal obsession: cars. As kids, Crowley’s dad had him and his siblings raise money for the silver Model T Ford memorial to Henry Ford that adorns the roadside in his native town of Ballinascarthy, which also happens to be Ford’s ancestral home.
It emerged last year that Crowley plans to create 150 new jobs as part of a €50m investment in his latest venture Electrifi, the first company to manufacture cars in Ireland since Ford closed its manufacturing plant in Cork 40 years ago. At first the company will focus on converting classic cars like Ferraris, Fords and Jaguars from petrol-guzzlers into clean energy electric vehicles. Then it will build its own-brand cars.
One of his current passions is working with the original designers of classic cars like the Corvette Stingray to build them anew with electric rather than petrol engines. “Today we’ve signed up five of the top 10 car designers in the world and we’re building everything from Ferraris to Corvettes.”
When it comes to competing in the global car market, Crowley is a realist. “You can’t compete with Tesla and I’m a happy shareholder in Tesla. But what we can do in Ireland is we are very creative and we’re really good at software. And 50pc of the value of cars today is in software, where we have a lot of expertise. The battery boxes and the battery management system we use come from an Irish company, the carbon fibre we use comes from a company in Dublin. So about 80pc of the cars we build come built in Ireland, actually, and only 20pc comes from abroad.”
Looking at the wider car industry and reflecting on how Tesla’s valuation has overtaken stalwarts like Toyota and Volkswagen, Crowley pointed out. “Tesla is seven years ahead of the rest of the car industry and that’s reflected in their share price. Everybody bet against them and everybody lost.”
He would say the same will also prove true for climate change. “There are a lot of people who bet against it and a lot of people who bet against green energy.”
This, he says, reminds him of the quote often wrongly attributed to Gandhi but is thought to have emerged from Nicholas Klein in 1918: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
In conclusion he believes it is paramount to encourage entrepreneurs to focus on solving problems. “We only invest in start-ups that solve existential threats. I think if you’re an entrepreneur you never believe you are successful. But if you are successful then you have a moral requirement to do good. You could donate to charity but the bigger value you have as an entrepreneur is to solve problems. So I try to encourage entrepreneurs to do that. Do I succeed? About 50pc of the time. We all have to be careful about moralising, it’s a dangerous game.”
Written by John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 24 July, 2020