MELPOMENE HUA: Why did you decide to be profiled after years of being under the radar?
DAVID RUSSELL: When we started the business, we decided to keep a low profile because we wanted our relationships with governments to stabilise. We were also growing rapidly and did not want to give our competitors advance knowledge of what we were doing. Now, the pendulum has swung from us being very quiet about our growth, to people asking questions because we’re the largest renewable energy developer in Asia. The strategy of remaining quiet has worked well, but it’s now time to engage.
MELPOMENE: What gave you the foresight to begin investing in renewable energy in 2011?
DAVID: When we first set up Equis, foreign investors wanted to talk about China and India, and they weren’t focused on markets like Thailand and the Philippines. But there are a number of governments that came up with programmes to encourage investments in renewable energy. We started to participate because we saw an opportunity to make good money and invest in a growing sector. In Asia, power has always been the number one sector to invest in, not renewable energy. We were partly fortunate because the investor market had not focused on renewable energy the way it should have, and that gave us a 6-year head start.
MELPOMENE: Why did you decide to target Asian markets?
DAVID: I get people coming out of Europe and the U.S. saying that they’re worried about Asian re-regulation risk and governments taking away our assets, but that happens even in Southern Europe. People say that Asia is developing, but their frameworks are far more developed than those in Europe. These governments need to grow and they’re putting in place very stable regulatory regimes. They said that if you’re willing to build the facility, we’re willing to buy that power from you at a fixed price for 20 or 25 years, and that gave us a lot of confidence. In the Philippines, for example, the government budgets ahead so that they can afford power they need. In contrast, if you look at Spain, the government gave concessions to the developers but re-regulated when they realised they couldn’t afford to buy power.
MELPOMENE: You are headquartered in Singapore but your operations are in other parts of Asia?
DAVID: The plant operations, business development and growth are in other Asian countries such as the Philippines, Japan and India. Over there, our local guys are empowered to identify and drive growth from bottom up. Here in Singapore, we talk about how to implement their strategies as well as manage the risk consistently across the different geographies.
MELPOMENE: The project developers don’t have the discretion to make decisions locally?
DAVID: They are expected to chase and secure opportunities, and I review their decisions just to make sure that what we put in place for, say the Philippines, is consistent across our entire business. And you find that project developers tend to be more risk seeking, so it’s better to have someone who’s more risk averse to balance their decision-making.
MELPOMENE: Are you risk averse?
DAVID: It’s all relative. If you benchmark me against our local project developers, I’m risk-averse; but if you benchmark me against a credit guy from a central bank, you’ll probably view me as risk-seeking [laughs].
MELPOMENE: Are you worried that the South China Sea dispute will affect investor confidence in the region?
DAVID: Broadly speaking, it can affect investor confidence—for example, when the coups in Thailand hit the papers, people started calling us to ask about their investments. But the reality is that our investments have never been touched by any of these political instabilities and I think that’s a credit to the regulatory regimes. If there’s a physical tussle over the South China Sea, it’s not going to affect our facilities. Instabilities in the region may give others pause, but we seek opportunities amidst them to keep growing.
MELPOMENE: Does the intermittency of solar and wind energy coupled with the lack of storage capabilities mean there’s a limit to how much you can invest?
DAVID: The level at which you can supply renewable energy into the grid is actually quite high—for example, Germany is at around 50% now and they’re targeting 100%. There are already storage systems that are very profitable, and one of them is pump storage. In the battery sector, the prices are falling but their performance is improving. We think in 5 years, it will revolutionise utility-scale power and in 10 years, it may completely revolutionise power. But even if we were to assume no change in battery technology, over the next 4 or 5 years, we need another $1.1 trillion just for the renewable energy space in Asia. We’ve got more than enough to invest in that space, and storage is just going to multiply that demand for capital.
MELPOMENE: How do you envision the use of renewables in ten years’ time?
DAVID: Technology and mindsets are evolving rapidly. In 10 years, buildings can be fitted with solar panels and your phone could double as a storage device. You connect it to the building, charge it up, and take it home to generate electricity for your house. We may no longer need to build big cathedral type power facilities and expensive distribution systems. It could become micro power grid systems where power is generated and distributed locally.
MELPOMENE: Given that R&D in this sector is changing so quickly, are you concerned that your solar and wind facilities might become obsolete?
DAVID: That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t think solar and wind per se will be obsolete, they’ll always be utilised because they’re efficient and environment friendly. It’s a matter of how they’ll be utilised. In the Netherlands, they’ve started using solar panels on their bike paths, so in the future you might not need large scale solar panels. We think that the biggest renewable energy market is solar and we have to keep ahead of that technology curve.
MELPOMENE: Why did you decide to strike out on your own?
DAVID: I am always trying to take on more responsibility or have more control over what I’m doing. But obviously within large institutions like Macquarie, there are limits to how much an individual can influence the direction of the business. So while I was growing and being mentored, I had that slight frustration. After building the Korean private equity business, I felt that it was time to do it myself rather than rely on an institutional brand.
Once I became nobody, a lot of those people actually went silent—a number of them obviously felt that while our relationship was important, it was based on our work together.
MELPOMENE: You were well-connected and had the expertise, but was it still a risky move?
DAVID: Absolutely. When I left my previous employer, I didn’t realize how risky it actually was. I had been thinking about it for a number of years and with all my experience, I assumed it would be relatively easy. When I stepped out on my own, the thing that surprised me the most was that a lot of my relationships were premised on the basis that I was quite senior at Macquarie. Once I became nobody, a lot of those people actually went silent.
MELPOMENE: They went silent because you left Macquarie?
DAVID: Yeah, a number of them obviously felt that while our relationship was important, it was based on our work together, so they were more likely to do business with Macquarie than some guy who’s just starting out. It’s interesting how that has come full circle. We’ve surprised the market with our growth, which now outstrips our previous employer, and you start to see a lot of these old relationships coming back.
MELPOMENE: Is what you know or who you know more important?
DAVID: It’s definitely not who you know. If anything we are quite an introverted group, but we knew what we were talking about. We built this business in Asia from the ground up and none of our major investors were brought over from Macquarie. We definitely know a lot of people, but this business was not built on that.
MELPOMENE: Did your legal and finance background help you in this field?
DAVID: My legal background helped me because it gave me discipline and an eye for detail. And that’s very important because we now have 84 projects totaling close to 8 billion dollars. There’s a lot of information coming at you and you need to have the ability to identify the issue that’s embedded in that information. As for the finance background, well, you’ve got to know the numbers when it comes to running a business. Everything comes back to the numbers.
MELPOMENE: Was your background crucial to your success?
DAVID: If you’re intelligent, adaptable, and willing to work hard, you can be very successful without a legal or finance background. You can’t teach smarts, you either have a certain level of capability or you don’t, and you have to be adaptable in this business. But most importantly, if you want to be successful, you’ll have to work hard. There is no substitute for hard work. Those who want to work 9 to 5 will be successful in certain types of careers, but what we do here requires a lot of hard work.
MELPOMENE: Skadden has a terrific reputation, how was it like working there?
DAVID: It was awesome! In MinterEllison, you tend to work more with the general counsel but at Skadden, you’re working directly with the CEO and CFOs. You’re right at the table with them as a trusted advisor. When Skadden partners walk into a room they command that room, and it’s not because they are aggressive but because they are just so knowledgeable. You can only aspire to be like them.
MELPOMENE: Was the work culture intense?
DAVID: They worked hard. My mentor at that time made a habit of calling me for work even at 1 a.m. And they have a 24-hour turn over, so no matter how late your client meeting ends, you have to finish your work by the next day. That is unheard of in other places but that was the Skadden mindset—they were tough and uncompromising.
MELPOMENE: Do you ever watch popular films that depict the financial industry?
DAVID: I’ve watched a couple and I always cringe [laughs]. You see people in boardrooms using some of the terms that we do use in the industry, but the portrayal is largely inaccurate. Business isn’t as aggressive as it’s been dramatised to be. You’re always very careful when you speak to people and you disagree politely, rarely do people ever thump the table and storm out like they do in movies.
MELPOMENE: Do you find that there’s a biased perception against the financial industry, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis?
DAVID: People don’t understand the industry, it’s very complex and even I don’t understand some parts of it. It’s human to fear what you don’t understand. People hear about all these guys making so much money and they fear that it’s because they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. The newspapers report big losses and movies like Too Big to Fail contribute to that negative impression. People start thinking that these are the bad guys, but based on my experience, it’s not the case.
One of my early mentors said, “David, if there’s one thing I can teach you about doing business is that whatever you do, you must always act lawfully.”
MELPOMENE: Those who behave egregiously are a very small percentage of the industry.
DAVID: Yes, and they’ve gone down a certain path that they may not even be aware of… until they eventually just take it too far in trying to make money. Some of these people want to take a shortcut instead of working hard and they may cut corners, which is unlawful. These people deserve to be caught and punished, but they are certainly not the norm in the industry. One of my early mentors said, “David, if there’s one thing I can teach you about doing business is that whatever you do, you must always act lawfully.” And that has always stuck with me. But he also told me there’s no law stating that you can’t act unreasonably [laughs].
MELPOMENE: Is it important that the work you do creates value for society?
DAVID: Years ago, we were just moving paper around. We also bought businesses, made them better and sold them off. We felt that we deserved to be paid well because we were certainly working hard. But what were we adding back to society? When we set up Equis, we told ourselves that we’re actually building stuff for once, everything we’ve done—we’ve actually built ourselves and without us, it will all just be flat land. We’re a lot happier not only making money but also making a difference.
MELPOMENE: Large corporations are almost inevitably hierarchical. Did you feel restricted by that?
DAVID: As I became more senior in Macquarie, I thought that I was breaking through the politics and creating more autonomy for myself, when in fact I was just extending my network of relations within the organisation. For the guys underneath me, there were only so many senior positions available and it created frustration for those competing for it. That’s a real problem with succession planning because you might lose the person you really want to keep because they’re frustrated at the lack of opportunities to grow.
MELPOMENE: How has it been different at Equis?
DAVID: Even though I’m the CEO, the decision-making is a collective process. This is firstly because I’ve observed that as people become more autocratic, their decision-making becomes skewed and over time, they start to make costly mistakes, and very quickly they’re gone. Secondly, hierarchical environments create ceilings and politics. In Equis, all the senior people feel like they’re involved in the decision-making process and in terms of remuneration, it’s a meritocracy here. We have the saying: “You eat what you kill”. So by removing the glass ceiling, we don’t lose our senior people as we grow.
MELPOMENE: Warren Buffet said that a big problem in the boardroom is that nobody wants to criticise the CEO. Do you worry about that?
DAVID: I do, and sometimes you can’t avoid people feeling intimidated but you have to continually try to break that barrier down. At work, I am direct with people and I encourage them to be the same with me. Outside of work, it’s important to be approachable and to talk to people, grab a beer with them, and let them know that I shouldn’t be treated differently. It’s important to humble yourself.
My partners and I put everything into this business—financially and personally—and if it were to fail, we would sink with the ship.
MELPOMENE: Has ownership changed your motivation towards work?
DAVID: Definitely. I’ve always worked long hours and that hasn’t changed. But what has changed is the level of desperation applied to the business when it’s your own. My partners and I put everything into this business—financially and personally—and if it were to fail, we would sink with the ship. That makes you focus harder, question harder and dig deeper until you’re personally satisfied with solutions. That also affects performance and I think it’s partly why some investors prefer independent managers because the alignment of interest is stronger.
MELPOMENE: Do you think that giving people ownership is the way to motivate them?
DAVID: We have that in our business model by having compensation tied to the performance of the business through carried interest. I was hoping that it would be a motivator for everyone, but that’s me sitting here thinking about it as a 40-year-old. It works better for senior management, while the junior staff is more interested in salary and annual bonuses rather than something that could be paid out 5 or 10 years later.
MELPOMENE: Hasn’t that kind of short-term focus change with the increasing number of young people becoming entrepreneurs?
DAVID: I sound really old when I say this [laughs], but I feel there is a generational shift. When I started out of university, my peer group worked really hard and they were more dedicated. When I interview young people now, I hear more and more of them talk about work-life balance—something that we never talked about when I was younger. But maybe that’s a good thing, you see all these people whose primary focus has been work all their lives and sometimes when a death happens in the family, all of a sudden they stop and go: What am I doing?
While we’re driving for business success, we formally make a point to give back to the community. It’s not just gratuitous giving.
MELPOMENE: Have you ever been forced to rethink your life?
DAVID: I’ve been forced to rethink of my priorities and came to the realisation that family is always number one to me. I also have a responsibility to the company in this respect, and we’re trying to be more socially orientated now. While we’re driving for business success, we formally make a point to give back to the community. It’s not just gratuitous giving—we want to actually improve people’s lives, because we build our plants in a lot of rural areas. I think that helps people remain human in this business.
MELPOMENE: Steve Jobs said that you can only connect the dots looking backwards—is that true of your experiences?
DAVID: There’s an element of that. But to get to a certain point you have to think forward and consider all the paths and possibilities. I use a decision tree in that process and find that if you have the ability and willingness to think through the entire tree, you can map out where you’re heading with a fair degree of certainty. It’s not all hindsight.
MELPOMENE: Do you have a bucket list?
DAVID: I do. It’s interesting you asked because I’m moving house now and while packing I came across my bucket list that I wrote with one of my daughters. There’s a whole bunch of things on there that I really don’t want to do [laughs].
MELPOMENE: What’s one thing off the top of your head?
DAVID: Skydiving! I like to think that I don’t have a fear of heights, but the idea of jumping out of a plane and not knowing for sure if the parachute is going to work can be intimidating.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap