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Jazz Shaper: Nick Boyle

Posted on 21 May 2022

Nick Boyle is the Group CEO and founder of Lightsource bp, overseeing all global operations and development of the company. 

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Nick Boyle, Founder and Group CEO of Lightsource BP, a global leader in the development and management of solar energy projects. After a career in the finance industry, including Co-founding his financial advisory business, Think Group, in 2003 and overseeing growth from 26 to 920 staff, Nick took a break to think on his next move. It was while driving around the Italian countryside looking to invest in wind farms that Nick spotted, as he says, “A field full of shiny things – my very first solar park.”  Drawn to the long-term, predictable returns of investing in solar, Nick launched Lightsource Renewable Energy, as it was then called, in 2010, with six employees and one laptop. They are now the largest solar developer in Europe, having re-branded in 2017 after forming a 50:50 joint venture with BP and they’ve set themselves a target for creating 25GW of solar developments by 2025 and just in case you didn’t know, that’s enough to power 8.4 million homes.

Nick Boyle is my Business Shaper and solar panels are his business. It wasn’t always thus though. It’s lovely to have you here. How does the person from the finance world convert himself into an evangelist for renewable energy?  How did that happen?

Nick Boyle

I’m not quite sure evangelist is the word, however, yeah I mean it’s a question that I get quite a bit and it’s a surprisingly simple the answer. You know, ultimately what solar produces is a very predictable, you know the sun comes up and the sun goes down, we all know that, if not we’ve got some problems but it does so in a very predictable way year-on-year and therefore the generation from a solar park is very predictable. We tend to sell the electricity ahead of times via part purchase agreements, we sell it to large corporates and therefore if you’ve got a predictable generation source and you’ve got a buyer that you know, we know the price of then that produces a sort of annuity type return, so it’s a very predictable investment and if you come from an investment background, particularly a retail investment background as I did, you know that predictable, long-dated income streams are very sellable so you know I got into renewables because solar produced annuity type returns, so if you like, solar was the means to the end, the end ultimately being very predictable, long-dated returns because pension funds will buy those every day of the week.

Elliot Moss

Of course that’s an honest answer Nick and other people would say, well Elliot, the thing is, I mean it’s fabulous to be able to save the planet and ensure that renewable energy is the future and it needs to be the future and that’s indeed why I got behind it. The fact that it does do good, does that make you feel good or is it genuinely not your thing?

Nick Boyle

No, clearly it makes me feel good. I think the mistake that some people make is that they get green business in the wrong order. It must be a business first. You know, if you are relying on the world owing you a living because you are green, I’m afraid you are not going to be in business a year later or five years later so, it must first of all be a business. Now, clearly it’s great to be in a business that makes a difference but it must be a solid foundation business in the first place. You know, we’ve got a significant number of people that work with us, you know, who are, they are not necessarily evangelists but you know they are certainly doing it because of the fact that they believe in making a difference but they’re first and foremost very well educated, hardworking individuals, you know and that sort of is the similar point so, we are a business that is green rather than a green business. Is it, you know, reassuring to know that we’re making a difference?  Absolutely, you know, at the end of the day, I’m not going to get on my high horse here but if we continue the way we are, we’re going to you know burn the planet and therefore we’ve got to do something different and what we represent is, what solar represents is actually the cheapest form of new electricity generation so, it’s not like someone’s having to pay extra for the privilege of making a difference, we’re actually, because of mass production you know and the prices being driven down by China etcetera, we’re now in a position where we can actually offer solar cheaper, which is, you’re pushing against an open door there.

Elliot Moss

I mentioned at the beginning the switch from the financial services world into solar panels and you just said that the financial view of it was annuity income, makes perfect sense, sun rises, sun sets and all that stuff. You worked with you dad many years ago and your Degree was in Quantity Surveying, I think, all sorts of stuff. When you were doing all of those things and then you set up your own, I think it was a… was it like a corporate finance house?

Nick Boyle

Mmm.

Elliot Moss

Yep. When you were doing those things, did you think this is it?  Did you think, I’m in the right place, I understand numbers, I understand how to leverage big amounts of capital to deliver more, was that the end point? 

Nick Boyle

I mean I’m not sure, well it depends, I can only speak for myself clearly but I’m not sure I’ve ever thought I’m at the end point. It was always just about sort of trying to do the best in the world that I was in at that point so I wasn’t looking at step 5, step 10, I was looking to be the best at whatever step I was at, at that point but I think safe in the knowledge that when I got good at that then there would be a natural progression to something else. You know I, as you say, I worked with my Dad, I mean the funny… the reason why I worked with my Dad is I did Quantity Surveying as you say and would rather go to the dentist every day than become a quantity surveyor, you know, sat in a sort of darkened room with a sort of a ruler looking at drawings was the most boring thing ever and I suppose that the rationale for joining my Dad was not this is going to be where I am going to end up or this is the industry that I’m going to end up, it was can I work for a while and get enough money to go round the world because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’m still trying to get round the world. I’ve done a number of countries, clearly, but not quite been there yet because I enjoyed it, I tend to be the sort of individual that looks at the sort of positive and tries to sort of you know focus on that and expand on that. I then went out on my own, sort of left my Dad and went out on my own and then became, I got sort of headhunted, to become a member of a larger organisation and again, they then spotted me and said you should go into management. So, on a Friday I was a member of a fifteen man team and on a Monday I was the manager of a fourteen man team, it was literally that sort of quick. And I think again it’s, you know I became like a junior manager, then a manager, then a senior manager and so on and every year, you know, got promoted through but again, it was like focussing on doing the best that I could in the role that I had rather than, which your question insinuates you know, was I on a journey that I’d set you know a map to get to?  No. I’m always amazed by people who say you know I always knew I was going to get here. No you didn’t.

Elliot Moss

But that nuance, the nuance under my question is really, you may not have wanted to do something else, and I understand that you wanted to do it really well but you may have felt the frisson of excitement of I’m doing this now but I’ve kind of got a sense it’s going to lead to something else. Looking at where your life has gone workwise, it feels like you are open always to the possibility that this isn’t the final chapter.

Nick Boyle

Yeah. Somebody asked me once, you know, this is the first time I’ve been CEO and the reason why it’s the first time I’ve been CEO is not because I never had the opportunity to be CEO, I could have started something on my own but for me, I think CEO, I sort of make the point a number of times is that CEO is a veneer of understanding of everything and a deep understanding of nothing and you know I think in order to have that understanding, that breadth of knowledge but not that deep knowledge, you have to, I think, have sort of been in there in each individual’s, at least to some degree, shoes. So, the reason why I had never been a CEO or chose never to be a CEO before is because there were things that I needed to do first, you know, I think there’s an awful lot of people rushing to being CEO because they think it’s the top of the house but actually, if you haven’t done all of the different elements that are required for you to understand in order to do that then I would sort of stop short of that. So you know I was Head of Sales, I was Commercial, I was Managing Director, I was all these different things and then it was the point that I sort of said well do you know, now I think I’m rounded enough to be CEO but did I sit down and think, oh I’m going tick off the ten things that I need to understand to be?  No, it happened just as a natural progression rather than necessarily this grand plan that I sat down at 21 and sort of sketched on the back of a fag packet.

Elliot Moss

If you’re sketching a plan now, throw it in the bin, no need to do that. Nick Boyle is my Business Shaper, he’ll be with me back again in a couple of minutes and we’ll be talking about Lightsource BP and probably a little bit more as well. Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Innovation Series, a new podcast on all the major podcast platforms. Natasha Knight invites business founders to share their industry insights and practical advice for those of you thinking about getting into an industry and starting your very own thing, as Nick has done. In this clip we hear from Andrew Bloch, Co-Founder of multi award-winning PR agency, Frank.

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again with Nick, if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker just ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will be greeted with a taster of our recent shows. But back to today, it’s Nick Boyle, Founder of Lightsource BP, a global leader in the development and management of solar energy projects. So, you grew the Think business and then it went up to almost a thousand people. You then come in, you set this business up, 2010. Growth has been pretty rapid. Doesn’t look like that phases you?

Nick Boyle

It’s funny, I remember after Think, it was a definite, I mean you know and even you know I said this to people, anyone who listens, I’m never doing that again, I’m never building a business that’s more than 30 people and then when Lightsource got to 30, I meant 50, and then we got to 50, I meant 70 and…

Elliot Moss

How many now?

Nick Boyle

I think we’re about 800. I mean I think we’re projecting 11…, I think 1140 is the official projection to the end of the year.

Elliot Moss

And across how many different countries now?

Nick Boyle

We’re currently in 18 countries. We’ve just added New Zealand literally two weeks ago. We’re looking at Germany, which would go to 19 but you know I think, look I think one of the reasons why we’re in so many countries and there are many, many other countries that we will, I would imagine, look to go into over the coming years is that, as I said earlier, solar is the cheapest form of electricity generation, even in countries without the big shiny thing in the sky – like the UK for example – it’s still viable because it’s about whether or not we can produce electricity cheaper than the incumbent and you know, so it’s not just about price, it’s about how that compares to the other forms of generation. So I think you know for us it’s about making sure that we choose the right markets and in the right order, I mean there’s some markets are significantly bigger than others, some markets we would be a holder of the assets and other markets we would be a seller of the assets once we’ve developed and built them and again, it’s from a business perspective, we will build stuff to sell in order that we eat and other stuff we will hold for the longer term.

Elliot Moss

But a lot of moving pieces, Nick. Big business, BP now as a joint venture partner since 2017, how do you disassociate yourself from the stress that inevitably is caused by a business of this, this scale?

Nick Boyle

I mean, it’s a weird one because the stress question comes out a lot, up a lot. I don’t tend to bring it home with me. It’s not like I have some magic formula for that, I just don’t. When I’m thinking about work, I’m thinking about work and it’s you know it’s absolutely my complete focus.

Elliot Moss

But you say it’s not a magic formula, tell me the magic formula because that’s, I mean seriously because if you don’t do that, that’s fantastic.

Nick Boyle

I have no idea. I just don’t. And again, it sounds like a, you know, too good to be true but I don’t. When I’m thinking about it, clearly I’m thinking about it but I don’t let it kill me. I mean, at the end of the day, there’s far too many individuals get far too, you know, into what’s going on and they end up clutching their chest at 50 years of age. From my perspective I don’t do it for that reason necessarily thinking about that but I’m not one to get stressed about stuff when I close the door, the business door, and so far that’s worked well.

Elliot Moss

I imagine that as you built this business and you now have the… almost a thousand people in it, you have hired well because you can’t run a business properly and go home and relax unless there are people manning the ship. Is that right and if so, how have you managed to find those people?

Nick Boyle

I mean it sounds a bit God Bless America but you know, any business is the sum of its people and certainly from my perspective, I think that the senior team that I have that I work with are fantastic and you know, I’ve made this point before about you know surrounding yourself with people that are better than you, is so important and I don’t mean that in a, “Hey, they’re better than me,” I mean they’re better at the topic that they are given to control. I mean, my job is to orchestrate or choreograph you know how those different skilled individuals come together as a unit but they’re the experts and I suppose maybe that’s why I’m sort of can sleep easy, safe in the knowledge that the individuals that are relevant for that particular decision, have been given the decision and that reassures me to know that it’s been done, not necessarily right perfectly all the time but as well as we could do with the skillset and the information that we have.

Elliot Moss

In terms of the interaction with BP, big company, huge, been around for a long time, there’s a power imbalance there, I imagine, from the get-go but I assume in a 50:50 JV, it’s 50:50. How have you managed that and has it changed along the way as progress has happened?

Nick Boyle

I mean that’s a really good question and actually, we are a 50:50 JV but we weren’t a 50:50 JV when we did the deal and for exactly that reason. You have a massive supertanker, if you excuse the pun, of an organisation that works with layers of decision-making etcetera and certainly our fear was when doing any deal with a large corporate oil and gas, hundred year plus you know company, was that would… solar requires to be fleet of foot, you need to make decisions in real time, there’s no chance to muck about because if you muck about, somebody else comes in and you know and steals and therefore our fear was exactly that. So, actually, in 2017 we didn’t do a 50:50 JV, we sold them 43% of the company so we were the controlling stake and we made it absolutely clear to them that we wouldn’t sell them any more until such times as we were reassured that they would allow us to run our business. You know, we have an investment committee every week that they sit on, we have a board that they sit on but, you know, that’s pretty much it. There are reserve matters etc if it’s over a certain spend etcetera, that will go up into the house but they have been amazing in that they have allowed us to continue to run our business because they believe, they’ve been convinced, and remain, believe us that actually they will, their decision-making, their methodology, would kill this business. It’s different from an oil and, you know, an oil and gas project will take 10 years, 20 years, whatever, you know our projects from soup to nuts, as the Americans would say, take 24 months so, you know you have to be able to make decisions quickly and to their credit, everything they said they would do, they did do, which is why 18 months after we did the initial deal for 43%, it then became a JV 50:50.

Elliot Moss

Are you really critical in this though, Nick, without blowing your own trumpet?  Because the bridge between those two businesses, the belief in the founder of the business, the fact that you are running it, I imagine if I, if took you out the equation, as they said in the film, Sully, “If we take you out Sully, then it doesn’t work.”  Is it true of you, or is that just me getting romantic about things?

Nick Boyle

It’s probably an element of romance but there’s nothing wrong with romance. Look, I think that taking the individual that acts as the bridge out, today might be me but that doesn’t mean that somebody else couldn’t be the bridge. I that that… I think that Lightsource BP needs to continue to be an entity in its own right, you know, even if, even if things change in the future, even if BP was to buy all of it, whatever, I think the industry is different enough from oil and gas that it needs to basically be, you know, separate and distinct in the way that at it works. You know, today I am probably the bridge but there are other individuals too but probably the bridge between the two but you know I’m not going to be there forever, clearly, that’s not the way the world works and therefore someone will step into that role. So I think the role is important, not necessarily the individual.

Elliot Moss

Final chat coming up with my guest today, it’s Nick Boyle and we’ve got some brilliant music from Nigerian pioneer, Fela Kuti. That’s all coming up in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Nick Boyle is my Business Shaper just for a little bit longer. You said you’re not going to be there forever, obviously. None of us are there forever. At what point will you go, enough?  At what point, you said, you know, also early on in our conversation, if anyone maps it out and says that they’ve got there, what a load of rubbish, I mean basically don’t be so silly, it doesn’t work like that. When will you say I’m ready and I can move on?

Nick Boyle

Probably at the point at which there’s somebody better to do the job. I’ve been successful in growing businesses. As soon as the business becomes more of a business as usual and not a, you know, classic, exponential growth business then there’s probably someone better to do that then me. You know, I love that, I enjoy the cut and the thrust of the growth and opening these markets etcetera, so probably at the point at which it’s you know delivering, not the same every year because we’ll still grow but more the same than new, then that’s probably the right point but I think there’s also an age point, I mean you know, at the end of the day none of us are getting any younger. I always said that I would retire at 50. I didn’t manage that and you know I’m probably getting near to the point where I’m sort of thinking you know, that will do. Now, having said that, if you said to any of my friends that I was going to retire, they would laugh, I mean retire doesn’t mean retire and stop doing stuff, it means I don’t think there’s another CEO in me but I definitely would want to be on, you know, non-exec positions etcetera and keep my sort of oar in as it were. So, yeah, retire from Lightsource at some point definitely. Is it in the next five years?  Probably. Would I then do nothing else?  No, I would definitely continue to do some things but I think in a non-exec rather than exec role because my problem is, if I see something that needs done, I’ll want to go and do it and I need to get to the point where I let somebody else go and do it.

Elliot Moss

I imagine also retirement will be full of other things that you love doing. You have lots of horses, you have been a commentator in the world of eventing and cross-country. Are those things you would make time to do or is that just, they’re hobbies and if they happen, they happen or would you be more strategic about it, I guess?

Nick Boyle

Well look, I mean I think we’ve all got, there’s a finite amount of time, we’ve just got to be careful what we choose to do. I mean, the horses, that was born out of my daughters riding and one of them actually is a professional rider. In fact, funnily enough, Lightsource BP is sponsoring Badminton Horse Trials in the UK, which is, you know, which is great, that’s the you know, the ultimate global event. So that’s important to me. I like the whole social side of that, I like the social side of a lot of things so that would be something that I’d continue to be you know doing. I mean, the commentating I did for a long time and now I’m not doing it, just because it’s far too, I’m far too busy, I have sort of my weekends and it took up the whole sort of day on a Saturday so I dropped that. Whether I will go back into it again, I don’t know but certainly there are lots of things that you know you have to naturally put off whenever you’re in business and it sort of takes up so much of your time that I want to do, travelling, sounds a bit sort of naff but travelling is definitely one of those and you know, there’s a lot of countries in my quest, remember when I was 21 saying I wanted to go round the world, I want to fill in all of the gaps that I haven’t done yet. I look forward to doing that.

Elliot Moss

It’s been great chatting to you Nick, thank you. I’m going to ask you to commentate us out as you introduce your song choice and tell me why you’ve chosen it as well. Let’s hear Nick Boyle the commentator.

Nick Boyle

Thank you very much.

Elliot Moss

Give it a go.

Nick Boyle

Okay. I’ve got to put on my Jazz FM voice. Look, the reason why it’s a classic, it’s Aretha Franklin, it’s Think but the reason why I chose it because you know it’s hard to come up with one tune you know from the many, many, many to sort of choose from but the reason why this song has always been, I mean it’s a classic clearly, but the first time I ever heard it was actually when I was watching The Blues Brothers and The Blues Brothers I mean again, it’s a brilliant soundtrack to that movie but actually that was the first, it was a coming of age movie for me for a number or reasons, the main reason being that it was the first time I ever had been to the cinema without my parents so it was um… and it was interesting, you know, The Blues Brothers, never heard of it, myself and a friend decided to go in just on the off chance and never realised it was the absolute classic movie that it was. Now I’ve made some particularly bad movie choices since but I like to think that I at least started it well with The Blues Brothers. So, without any further ado, Aretha Franklin ad Think.

Elliot Moss

Aretha Franklin there with Think, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Nick Boyle. He talked about a business first attitude and a business first approach. Of course it’s great to affect the environment positively but it’s got to make business sense. He talked about the breadth of experience that you need to have before you become a CEO and how you have to have walked in people’s shoes right across the organisation before you can do it yourself and he talked about really enjoying the cut and thrust of a growing business, critical if you are going to be a successful entrepreneur. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

Since being founded in 2010, the company’s remarkable growth trajectory has seen it grow from a six-person start up to a global leader in the development and management of solar energy projects with more than 700 employees worldwide.  

In 2017, Nick spearheaded an innovative partnership with energy giant bp, resulting in a 50:50 joint venture between the companies and a new name: Lightsource bp. His dynamic leadership and vision continues to drive the company’s remarkable growth and international reach, including a recent $1.8bil investment from international lenders. 

Nick previously sat at Board and Senior Director level in several leading retail financial service companies. Throughout his career, Nick has always been recognised for his entrepreneurial skill and success in pairing retail financial products with low-risk, predictable investments. 

Highlights

I think the mistake that some people make is that they get green business in the wrong order. It must be a business first.  

Clearly, it’s great to be in a business that makes a difference, but it must be a solid foundation business in the first place.   

I’ve never been looking ahead at step 5, step 10, I’ve always tried to do the best I could at whatever step I was at. 

My career has happened as a natural progression rather than necessarily as a result of this grand plan that I sat down at 21 and sort of sketched out. 

Is it reassuring to know that we’re making a difference? Absolutely. 

Any business is the sum of its people and certainly it is from my perspective - I think that the senior teamt hat I work with is fantastic 

Surrounding yourself with people that are better than you is so important. 

As soon as the business becomes more of a “business as usual” and not an exponential growth business, then there’s probably someone better to do that job than me. 

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