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Norman Crowley on uncovering the business opportunities in tackling climate change

As an Irish entrepreneur operating globally, Norman Crowley is used to flying the green flag. We hear how that phrase means something different to him today.

The Cool Planet Group CEO  has had a fascinating career to date, having started and sold three businesses for over three-quarters of a billion dollars before he was forty – including Inspired Gaming and The Cloud. But his current venture is more personal to him, and is he says born out of a motivation to create something that would make a positive impact on the world, rather than just make money. The group of businesses works across industries from agri-tech to motor to SaaS, with the shared goal of finding environmentally positive solutions that deliver on both purpose and profit.

In this episode of Inside Intercom  we hear from Norman about his own motivations, why he believe privates enterprise can play an integral role in positive change, and how his company Carbon Crowley (part of the Cool Planet Group) harnesses data to empower major corporations in making huge energy and cost savings.

If you’re short on time, here’s some quick takeaways:

  • Trillions  of dollars worth of fossil fuels are wasted every year. Crowley’s SaaS offering Clarity promises to use data to make major cost and energy savings to reverse this trend.
  • Crowley believes that economics will be a major driver in solving the issue of climate change and that this approach offers the opportunity for people to live maximally with minimum environmental impact.
  • Adapting to remote work and eschewing business travel has forced a change – the events of the last year has already fundamentally changed how and where we do business.
  • There’s opportunity in change, already this serial entrepreneur is looking at new business models born out of the current situation.
  • Guilt won’t encourage people to make better decisions for the climate. We need to find different motivators and appeal to those.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


Not the retiring type

Dee: Hi, Norman. So you are very welcome along to Inside Intercom today. We are delighted to chat with you about your work at Crowley Carbon and your wider vision for making global companies more sustainable. But before we get into all that, I’d love it if you could share a little bit of your background with our audience? It’s been quite the journey from training as a welder at 15 to becoming a serial entrepreneur?

Norman: I suppose every entrepreneurial journey is an interesting story, but I grew up in West Cork in the South of Ireland in the 70s and so money wasn’t that freely available. We were fairly poor. So I started to develop a hankering for making money at an early age. And then when I was about 12, my dad taught me how to weld. And then once you had a skill, then you could make money from that skill. So farmers would come to us and want us to fix things and build sheds. And by the time I was 16, I had 12 people working for me. And by the time I was 20, I had sold that business to a local builder.

I sold that company to a telecoms business and retired at the ripe old age of 28. I realized after three or four weeks that retirement was boring and then set up a gaming software company called Inspire Gaming Group”

And I always wanted to work in technology. I always loved software and developing software. So I set up a technology company and that grew over six or seven years to be 170 people in three or four cities around the world. And then in 1999, I sold that company to a telecoms business and retired at the ripe old age of 28. I realized after three or four weeks that retirement was boring and then set up a gaming software company called Inspire Gaming Group. And that went on to become a monster, I floated it on the London Stock Exchange in 2006, exited it in 2008 for about a half a billion bucks and that brings us up to the latest bunch of companies.

Dee: But you were still at Inspired Gaming when you came up with the idea for Crowley Carbon, I believe.

Norman: Yeah. Along the way too, we also set up a business called the Cloud. So in 2004, we got an idea to set up the largest WiFi operator in Europe and WiFi was new at the time. And that was the Cloud and that was set up before there was the thing called the Cloud. And we sold that to Rupert Murdoch in 2011 for about 80 million bucks. And we always have… Ideas aren’t the problem, so we always have ideas. We got the idea from about 2005, a friend of mine became obsessed with climate change. And he would invite us to events to do with climate change. And we started to realize the climate was just a huge existential threat to the world.

And so we got involved then, and then I suppose, as we were grinding to a halt with regard to the last business, with regards to Inspired Gaming Group, and we knew that we were going to sell it, we started thinking up the new business at that point. And even now we set up new companies, we set up a new startup in COVID actually, in lockdown, and we’ve taken that. That business was born in lockdown and now has a 30 million valuation, and it only started in March. Setting up new companies is, I guess, it’s not a problem for us. The only problem is that we probably have too many companies sometimes. So that’s the problem.

Do you want to spend the next 20 years just setting up another business, buying something for a buck, selling it for two bucks?”

Dee: I read an interview with you where you said that with The Cool Planet Group, that there was a personal motivation where you wanted your next business venture to be something that made more than money, that did some good. Was that personal motivation, really, really a key part of it for you?

Norman: Yeah. When you look back, at that point we had done like five exits. And so you take stock at that point and you say “do you want to spend the next 20 years just setting up another business, buying something for a buck, selling it for two bucks?”.  So impact became a big thing. But impact was a thing before that. We had been working in orphanage charities in the late nineties. In Inspired, we incubated an eyecare charity in Africa called Right-to-Sight. So each one has had some form of meaning and that’s really important to us and a big motivator.

But I guess when we set up Crowley Carbon, climate change was the big mission and that mission has broadened out now, but it’s still very much there. So it’s an important thing, and it’s not if people are listening going “oh, there’s another do-gooder.” Actually doing stuff that has meaning and purpose can be quite a selfish act because it gives you just huge joy all the time. And so, our teams it’s a huge motivator for them. And so we don’t really have any interest in setting up businesses anymore, unless they can have a positive impact.

Harnessing data to fight climate change

Dee: Crowley Carbon has been described as a SaaS company with a mission is to cool down the planet and create more sustainable business opportunities for corporations. Can you tell us a little bit how this works on an operational level and kind of what sort of industries you’ve had success working with?

Norman: So Crowley Carbon is part of a wider group called Cool Planet Group. And Crowley Carbon is the energy division of that. And the mission behind the wider group is, there are three things that cause climate change. The use of the burning of fossil fuels for energy, the use of fossil fuels for transport, then animals basically. And if you solve those three problems, energy, transport, animals, and the use of animals for food, then you’ve solved climate change, ostensibly. And that’s what we work on. So Crowley Carbon is the energy arm of that. And what’s shocking in terms of energy is that every year we take about $4 trillion worth of fossil fuels out of the ground. So oil, gas, coal, and we waste three quarters of that basically. And so we waste three of the $4 trillion. So, Crowley Carbon’s missionis to stop wasting three of the $4 trillion that you would spend on energy first.

What’s shocking in terms of energy is that every year we take about $4 trillion worth of fossil fuels out of the ground…  And we waste three of the $4 trillion”

We operate in 23 countries around the world. And we don’t tackle houses and or domestic houses. We actually, we look at who are the biggest energy consumers in the world. And the biggest energy consumers are large food companies, steel companies, concrete companies. And we work with them to dramatically reduce their energy consumption. And we have a bunch of technologies. Like you said, SaaS, we have a SaaS software platform called Clarity. And then we have a bunch of technologies as well. And for our biggest client, we’re saving them about a hundred million dollars annually in energy. And we work with three of the top four food companies in the world, seven of the top eight pharmaceutical companies in the world. And that business has grown from start-up to currently in 23 countries around the world.

Dee: I’d love to dive in a little deeper on that Clarity system that you mentioned. I think it’s going to be a real area of interest for our audience because essentially what you’re doing there is you’re harnessing the power of data to drive that efficiency. So are you happy to tell us how that works and get a bit more into the weeds on it?

Norman: Yeah, definitely. Information is power, we all know that, right? But the things that consume most energy in the world are complex. So if you’re a steel plant, there are things happening in the steel plant All the time, things are changing all the time. The weather is getting hotter outside. You’ll have a bigger amount of scrap in your furnace. If you’re creating food, if you’re in a meat factory, then you’ve got one type of cow one day in a different type of cow another day, and the weather is hot, the weather is cold. And so the variables are massive. And so what our software does, at its most basic, is we deploy sensors everywhere around the factory or everywhere around the building. And then we give the operators or the engineers real-time information about where waste is happening.

So you are wasting way more than you should in your boiler right now. And this is how much you’re wasting. This is why you’re wasting it. And this is what you can do to fix it. When we built that platform, and it’s taken seven or eight years to build, the first thing that happened was people saved energy, but now what’s happened as well as if your equipment is not performing properly and you’re wasting energy, You’re also your throughput of widgets is not as high as it should be either. And so now it’s become not just an energy optimization, but a quality optimization, a throughput optimization.

“Clarity becomes an ally of the engineer and the production manager. It partners with them to give them more insights to then to empower them to make changes”

And it’s one of the leading players in this thing that people talk about called the “internet of things”, where you have lots of tiny sensors reporting back, and then you have this huge brain in the middle that’s figuring out that information and why that information is important. And it’s become an ally of the engineer and the production manager. So it partners with them to give them more insights to then to empower them to make changes. And that’s been a complete game changer over the last couple of years.

Dee: Your website boasts some serious logos, you’ve got General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, and that’s just to name but a few. What sort of results are you seeing for enterprise companies at that scale?

Norman: Savings wise, we average about a 30% reduction in energy, which is pretty phenomenal. And then in terms of throughput, we just finished the factory in the Czech Republic where we increased manufacturing throughput by about 22%. So these are some pretty powerful numbers. But really it’s only in the last year that we figured out how to sell it, because up until then, what we would do is we would go to the CEO and say, “Hey, we can save you money and we can lower your carbon footprint.” and they would go, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” And then they would send us to the guy who runs the factory. And what we learned, and sadly it took us a long time to learn this, is that actually the guys who run factories are completely overwhelmed. And they’ve got everything from ISO 50,001 standardization, they got a new IT coming in, they’re downsizing, upsizing, rightsizing, left right sizing. And they’re just overwhelmed.

And then they don’t have as many engineers as they had last year because of cost cuts. And so what we learned was that in order to get the system to work for them, and you had to become their ally, you had to understand what were the real things that they needed because the plant manager doesn’t need cost reduction because that’s not the thing that gets him or her the win. They need to get home on a Friday evening, they need to know that they’re not going to get called out on the Saturday night because they’ve had a big breakdown. And so we really learned that the messaging and the product had to do a different thing for every person in the organization. And it was only when we cracked that, that we really saw an explosion in take up for the technology.

Can private companies drive the change?

Dee: I want to pick your brain on one aspect of working with these bigger companies. I mean, you’ve said before Norman, that a failure in sustainability hasn’t been a failure of government, that it’s actually been a failure of invention or innovation. Do you believe that with the right technology, that private enterprise can actually be a change for the better, and almost more crucially, will they?

Norman: Well, our view is that 90% of the work of solving climate change will be done by technology economics. And also, this is the controversial view we have, we believe that climate change will be largely solved by 2030.

Dee: Wow.

Norman: The three main problems, 85/90% of all global warming is caused not by plastic bags, which is what some people believe, but actually by energy, transport, food, right? Meat’s a big problem. And then transport’s a big problem. Energy is a big problem. So if you take them one by one energy, solar, wind, battery will solve almost all our energy requirements over the next 10 years. And we don’t need a whole lot of government subsidies or anything because the price of this stuff is absolutely cratering. And it just makes no sense to do anything but use renewable energy, not in five years time, but right now. So you can tick the box on that one.

Then transport is going to go largely electric with a little of hydrogen. And again, without any government subsidies If you take the full ownership, the full life cycle of a car, it’s cheaper right now, without any government subsidies to have an electric car. And then some people, because they need to drive longer journeys it doesn’t suit them right now, but with a thousand kilometer battery, which we’re pretty much there on now, that solves that. And then the last one is meat.

And the big upheaval in meat is going to be what’s called cellag, cellular agriculture. And now is the first year that we’re really going to see cellag products in the supermarkets. And by 2025, probably 50/60% of all meat products will be cellag. And cellag is, you take a cell from meat and you put it into a bioreactor. And then you basically photocopy it. You grow a burger. I’m vastly oversimplifying it. But the economics around cellag is that it’s 90% less carbon intensive. In fact, in most cases 99%, less carbon intensive. 70%, less water, but most shockingly, 20 times cheaper to create a burger. And there is a wall of money being pumped into cellag. Like it’s gone from a hundred million of investment in 2018 to nearly seven billion in investment this year ins cellular agriculture. And so when you decarbonize food, transport and energy, you solve climate change.

Our view on the de-carbonization of the world is supported by economics, not supported by emotions and feelings”

And people say to us then, “Hey, I don’t want to have a burger that’s grown in a lab.” And that’s the same way that people talk about any change that’s happening in the world. They fear it and therefore they don’t accept it. But actually if you’re perfectly happy with a burger, and then I photocopied that burger at a cellular level and it was identical, then why do you have a problem with it? And secondly, you won’t even know. It’s a bit like genetically modified seeds. You won’t know where that burger came from. And so you won’t get a say as to whether it’s cellag burger or not. And so our view on the de-carbonization of the world is supported by economics, not supported by emotions and feelings. It’s like, this is happening. You don’t get a say. Because if something is cheaper, you’re just going to use it. So that’s our riff.

And if you look back 40 years ago, when we discovered global warming, when I say we, I wasn’t there. When global warming was discovered, what happened was we did realize that we needed to create things differently, but we just didn’t have the technology to do that yet. And so the only way we could stop global warming back then was to tell people, you must live without, you must live minimally. You can’t live maximally.

And guess what? Throughout history, humans have wanted to live maximally. We want better life for our children, bigger cars, bigger houses, all that stuff. And you cannot, if you try and get people to change by saying, you must live minimally, people won’t, it’s against our human nature. A certain percentage will, but it’s a tiny percentage. Our human nature is that we live maximally. And so if we, instead of doing what we’ve been doing for 40 years, if we turn around and say, you can have a beautiful car, anybody can have it. Even the poorest of the poor. It can drive itself. You can have meat, even in the poorest parts of the world. Then you will solve climate change because you are giving people what they want, not what you think they should want.

COVID 19 and climate impact

Dee: To kind of stay on the individual then, one thing that I’ve certainly observed over the last 12 months, as people globally have been dealing with COVID. Is that people who, individuals say, who two years ago would have avoided using single use plastics, like a bottle of water. And they’re now almost daily using perhaps surgical gloves or masks etc. regularly. Do you think with everything that’s happened in the last 12 months, there is a danger as a society that we’ve kind of taken our eye off the ball in terms of sustainability because of that more immediate danger?

Norman: No. If you asked me in March last year, I would’ve said yes, but actually the data shows us that there’s never been as much money available for investing in green technologies. And people are more eager than ever to do it. And so certain aspects of the media have focused on things like the amount of plastic waste in PPE and around COVID, but the amount of increased plastic usage during COVID is nominal as regards to the world, and climate change. It’s an interesting story when you see a whole lump of plastic outside the hospital, it’s upsetting, but actually in the grand scheme of global warming, it’s a non-event. And plastics is one of those things that people get annoyed about and they should, but the whole reusable plastic bottle thing is a great example of wrong thinking.

“That’s how we solve global warming. We don’t force people to do things that either they don’t want to do or that are impractical. We out tech it. We invent our way out of it, like we’ve done and in the whole history of humanity”

So I got a beautiful present last year of a lovely reusable water bottle. It was my favorite. And I left it in a public toilet in a hotel, a couple of days later. And I really missed it, but it’s typical of the example, right? Is that’s a failure of imagination. The way to do a water bottle is to get plastic that dissolves in water, so it’s biological plastic. And then you drink your bottle of water and then you fire it into the river and 35 seconds later, it’s dissolved back into biology. Now that is the kind of invention that we need in 2021, not forgetting your reusable bottle somewhere. And by the way that technology exists. There’s a Dutch company that has it, and it’s growing like crazy. And so that’s how we solve global warming. We don’t force people to do things that either they don’t want to do or that are impractical. We out tech it. We invent our way out of it, like we’ve done and in the whole history of humanity.

Dee: Staying then on the events of the last 12 months, how has your business been impacted by that?

Norman: Some parts of it have been wonderfully affected, and other parts have been irrevocably damaged. So we do projects as well, right? So we don’t just tell industrial customers what to do. We actually help them do it. So we might install a new boiler system or install solar and all of that. And that’s a big revenue generator for our group and that’s been completely decimated. Because the last thing a food company wants is you installing something in their factory, in the middle of a global pandemic. So that business has been heavily damaged. We’ve had to lay off 70 or 80 people. It’s been very sad. And then on the positive side, our software business increased five fold in size last year. And that’s been huge and we’ve been hiring more software developers and more people.

And then our automotive business was born out of the pandemic, really, our easy business. So it’s been brilliant. But for me personally, too. My life before COVID was get up on a Monday morning in Dublin spend one week in the office and then spend another week short haul and then another week long haul. So long haul, Brazil, Sydney, and visiting our teams down there. And so I haven’t been on a plane since last March and that’s completely changed my life actually. I’ve been on a plane for nearly 30 years, and that’s been fantastic and it allows you to think much deeper, about everything and think a lot more strategically and all of that.

Dee: And what has it been like going remote when you’ve got over 250 employees?

Norman: It’s been perfect. We find there are different challenges though. If you do 12 hours of Zoom calls, which is what we do every day at the moment, there’s a couple of things, you have to watch the team’s mental health, not in some kind of half-baked way like we used to do it, but really seriously. So we’ve put a whole load of structures in place around people’s mental health. And then likewise on physical exercise and stuff like that because you can’t do 12 hours of Zoom calls without seriously damaging your brain. It’s not what we were designed for. So the only way to do that is to look after people’s mental health, whether that’s meditation, any of the tools that are out there. And we would pay lip service to that before whereas now we’re quite rigorous about it, and deploying more and more tools all the time to make that work because COVID will end, hopefully quite soon, and we don’t want to go back to the way we were.

Seeing the opportunity in changing times

Norman: Spending millions every month on travel, most trips wasted actually, as it turns out. We want to instead have people at home or in the office, but in a kind of structured and enjoyable way. I was even thinking last week, if you do 12 hours worth of Zoom calls, that’s 12 hours of work. And now you’re exhausted. But if you think about let’s say even London. So we would go to London and the most you would do in a day is four meetings. Now how many meetings of those four meetings did you really need to be there in person? And the answer from our analysis about one meeting in every three days. So just the sheer waste of time that we were doing before COVID is huge, staggering.

Dee: And then obviously if you’re traveling by plane as well, there’s a knock on carbon footprint for that. I’m curious though, with this sort of work from home revolution, even though quite a cliche way to describe it. Do you think that there’s any sort of false positives that companies might see in terms of energy savings? Because actually in fact, the cost and the consumption is just taking place in employee’s homes now.

Norman: There’s a bit of that, but workers in an office are a minuscule amounts of energy consumption and moving that to their home is equally as tiny. Energy consumption around the world is all centred around big factories, big buildings and then transport. And so moving it from an office to home is nominal, it really isn’t that much. We have a home solar division and they have grown phenomenally during this time because… I had been talking to people about solar and that they should have solar, but I’d never had solar in my own house. And so at the beginning of this pandemic, we decided to put solar into our house and then it caused an explosion because of business, because we realize that this really, really worked, and it really, really was a no-brainer.

“We’ve noticed that just perfecting that space and helping our teams to perfect that space is fantastic for them. And it’s the kind of thing a year ago we would have thought was madness”

And so more and more we’ll see people going, not off grid, but certainly more and more people would put solar into their house as the prices drop. For us here and taking our house off grid was a 25% return on our money. It cost the equivalent of getting a 25% return in the bank. And that was without any government subsidies. 

Dee: Well I was going to ask you what sort of solutions to the work from home on-site mix that we might see in the future for tech companies? Straightaway, that’s one that I think would appeal to a lot of people.

Norman: Definitely. And we’re working on an offering, actually, it’s going to take us another while to put together, we’ll have it together in the next six months, which is an offering for companies, which is a combination of an EV car, solar, and a better working environment at home. And we’ve already had an interest from one company that has 800 staff and they want to do it. And that’s a combination of the technology, leveraging tax breaks, leveraging productivity breaks, all of that in one bundle basically. But I think for people themselves the thing we’re learning ourselves is that over time you need to create your own space. And for some people, if you have two kids and you’re living in a two bed apartment, it’s very difficult to create space.

And so for that type of person, they need some kind of local shared space, not something in the city, but something that’s local to them. And so we’re developing something in the village near our office as a tester to be able to do a shared working space. And then for people who are lucky enough to have a bit more space, we’ve noticed that just perfecting that space and helping our teams to perfect that space is fantastic for them. And it’s the kind of thing a year ago we would have thought was madness. Having the right lighting, having a candle burning. As I talked to you, and I’m not a candle person, there is a candle on my desk burning. And if you’d told me that a year ago, I would’ve said you were on drugs. And so there are, all of these things that we’re learning make a difference.

Dee: Before I let you go, what other long-term impacts in terms of sustainability, do you think will come out of this last year?

Norman: I think business travel is permanently gone and, but bear in mind business travel is probably half of 1% of global warming, probably less than that. I think, you know the question you asked earlier about, are we panicking about COVID and turning our back on global warming? I deeply believe, and the data is supporting this, that this has woken us up to our humanity and what’s important, all of that kind of thing. And I think that will be the longer effect. And despite the pandemic global warming green initiatives have become a higher priority for politicians after it.

Maximal living with minimal impact

Dee: Lastly then Norman, I would love to hear a little bit about Electrifi. I know you alluded to it earlier in our chat, it’s such an interesting thing that you do. Can you share firstly, what the company do and then maybe what your most interesting commission has been to date?

Norman: So what we do is we electrify specialist vehicles, that’s the elevator pitch. And what does that mean? There are millions of vehicles in the world from beautiful classic cars to mining support vehicles that, it’s too expensive to buy a new electric one. So what we do is we convert them to electric and then the sexy end of that business is that we take some of the most beautiful cars in the world. We work with some of the most famous car designers in the world to convert those to high-performance electric. And then I guess the most interesting bit of that is that we do, that inevitably when you create something that beautiful, you end up with a lot of celebrities looking for them. And so ones we can talk about, we did Ellie Goulding’s wedding car, which was a VW van, and we did Dev Patel’s Fiat 500, and we have a bunch of other celebrities that we’ve done very beautiful cars for that we’re not allowed to talk about. 

At the moment in the workshops here, there was like a 64 Corvette Stingray. And a Ferrari 308 which Magnum PI used to drive on the famous TV show. So there’s quite a lot of glamor, but then there’s also two Toyota land cruisers that are going to go down a mine over the next couple of weeks. So it’s a mixture of everything. And that business, we started that because we felt that while there were going to be lots of new electric vehicles, there were millions of others that needed to be converted. So there was a climate change requirement, but also I’ve always loved cars. And I can’t, because of climate change, I don’t want to be driving a big muscle car from the States. I want to drive something that has the lowest carbon footprint possible. And also with cars as Peter Brock the famous designer said in one of our videos, he said, “modern cars are just like bars of soap driving down the road. And so isn’t it much better to drive something kind of truly unique and beautiful.”

Get rid of the guilt, guilt doesn’t work. Guilt has never been a motivator for anybody”

Dee: And you’re reusing something that existed before, rather than building something new.

Norman: Exactly, and when I was saying earlier about messaging around climate change, the things we’ve tried over the years and making people feel guilty telling them they have to live minimally, none of that stuff works and Electrifi is a great example of the opposite. You can have your cake and eat it.

Dee: Well, it sounds like it’s offering people the opportunity to live maximally, but with minimum effect.

Norman: And get rid of the guilt, guilt doesn’t work. Guilt has never been a motivator for anybody. And what we’ve done with our younger generation is terrible. We’ve basically, all they want to do is travel around the world and have a bit of craic. And we say, “no, no, no, you can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t do the other.” And it doesn’t work. That’s not what people want.

Dee: Norman, it has been an absolute pleasure chatting to you today. Where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Norman: Over the last six months, we’ve become really good at social media. So if they go to coolerplanetgroup.ie that’s our website. Or if they type in Ava, which is the name of our high-end car brand, and they can find us on social media pretty much anywhere. Google five minutes, you’ll find us.

Dee: And we’ll do the groundwork by linking out to everything in our show notes. Thank you so much, Norman.

Norman: No problem at all.

Inside Intercom Podcast – 2019 updated images