Guy Esnouf - The power broker

E.ON's UK comms chief tells John Owens about his efforts to make the energy sector more palatable to both consumers and Government.

Power struggle: No collusion in the energy sector
Power struggle: No collusion in the energy sector

Protestors scaling chimneys, angry headlines screaming about rising bills and fears of future blackouts.

The energy sector does not have the best of images, and it is about to be shaken up in a profound way by the upcoming Energy Bill.

In the middle of this maelstrom is E.ON's UK comms chief Guy Esnouf, and it is safe to say he does not shy away from the industry's reputation.

'Energy companies come towards the bottom of trust surveys,' he acknowledges, 'and we've been working to address this.'

Unafraid to pause for a moment of thought while attempting to verbalise an idea, Esnouf has an academic air about him but without the stuffiness.

It is fitting that Esnouf, a fan of breaking problems down into threes, frames the issues facing the sector into a series of questions he calls 'the trilemma'. This breaks down thus - do we have enough energy? What is the environmental impact of it? What impact does it have on customers?

And, according to the 53-year-old, since his arrival from Microsoft the dynamic has changed dramatically.

'When I joined, most discussions seemed to be about environmental issues but now they are around customers' issues. We've not taken our eye off the ball when it comes to the environment. It's just harder to get a hearing. What's also changed is what the word environmental means to people. Increasingly the word is focused on the visual impact.'

Think residents up in arms about wind farms towering over their village. Esnouf attributes this change to the recession.

A few may take issue with the idea of the energy company trying to preach about ecology to an uncaring world. EDF is currently pushing a £5m lawsuit against 21 activists who occupied a power station chimney, while it recently emerged E.ON lobbied for tough sentences for those who disrupted its operations at Kingsnorth in 2007.

But on this issue, his language becomes firmer: 'When someone breaks into our property we've a right to be defended. We expect that at home, and in business. In a democracy there's always a balance of rights - we were exercising ours.'

Despite this, Esnouf is keen to emphasise that the 'global warming argument being won' means 'the direction' of movement of environmental groups and energy companies is the same, even if 'there are people who want to go further and faster than us'.

It seems the Government agrees too. The Energy Bill aims to refocus financial reward towards renewable power.

Esnouf maintains that the company is 'broadly' behind the proposals but adds a balance must be struck on this journey between efforts to go green and the practicalities of providing reliable power.

He will not, however, be drawn too deeply on a seemingly off-the-cuff policy call by David Cameron last year that appeared to take even the Department for Energy and Climate Change by surprise.

If the Prime Minister's call for lower tariffs for customers reflected anything, it was the growing power of consumer pressure, again bringing to mind Esnouf's 'trilemma'.

This is not just a throwaway term. A veteran of working with Margaret Thatcher and Bill Gates - the latter, he reveals, would email at 12.30am with a question and then call three hours later asking why he had not received an answer - Esnouf has had a key hand in shaping E.ON in recent years.

He has been involved both on an international level and a localised one in breaking down a sector whose product has fundamentally remained the same, giving Esnouf a chance to 'frame the debate.'

The Reset Programme, launched in 2011, was his answer. It involved bringing down the number of pages bills were published on, as well as lowering the number of tariffs available. It also led to the creation of a high-powered focus group that included Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts, and opening up about the company's earnings.

Simplifying the message and getting closer to customers were key to the programme, and extended to summarising the company's strategy on one piece of paper.

Esnouf may have an air of ivory towers about him, but the satisfaction he shows when discussing these changes indicates a man who enjoys getting stuck in.

As well as calling him a person 'of huge drive and energy', comms director for Energy UK Christine McGourty see Esnouf's efforts as central to the energy sector's positioning: 'He has been at the helm of a company that's been doing a lot of innovative work on the trust issue. E.ON's initiatives have been striking and have had a real impact, and Guy has been instrumental.'

Esnouf is also not without a competitive streak, and by the sounds of it this is just as well. 'I've never worked in an industry in which the rivalry was so bitter,' he says. 'People talk about the "big six" as if there was some collusion. The answer is there's not.'

The amateur chef may have found his way into PR through the Tory high command, but a tale from his early teens hints that his campaigning spirit stretched much further back. As a 14-year-old, he was involved in a successful campaign against a plan to build a road through his village.

'I got actively involved in getting rid of the parish council over the issue, and we got an election called. It seemed there was such an obvious answer, and that was to build the road around the village.'

Impassioned, but logical and effective. In short, a good summation of the career that was to come.

CV

2008 Head of corporate and internal comms, E.ON UK

2006 Senior PR director, Microsoft

2000 VP, corporate media relations, Unisys

1994 Director of public affairs rising to head of internal comms for Aventis SA, Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Pharmaceuticals

1992 Head of unit for John Major, PM's Correspondence Unit

1988 London industry affairs manager, UK, rising to external affairs manager, Africa and Middle East, Glaxo Pharmaceuticals

1987 Parliamentary lobbyist, defence and pharma, Market Access International

1986 Private secretary to Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit, and political correspondence secretary to PM Margaret Thatcher

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being asked to move to the US - I planned to be there for a couple of years. I was there for over a dozen.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My mentors have come from all walks of life, but especially from the CEOs I've worked for. If we think our jobs are hard and our lives busy, then just look at theirs.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Understand what you like, what you enjoy - and what gives you energy. The more you can focus your career on the things you enjoy, the more value you can bring to your organisation.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Inquisitiveness. Comms is always changing and nothing should be taken at face value. Inquisitive people who always ask 'why?', 'how?', and 'how can I do it better?' make the best comms people of all.

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