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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Owen Michaelson

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As we move forward from the pandemic and look to the future, what business opportunity most excites you?

The main driver now is the global realisation that the journey to net zero is ‘real’ and societies acceptance that we all need to start living in a more sustainable way. 

From within the investment community, we now hear an almost evangelical obsession with ESG and this makes me smile because the more enlightened companies, who have been supporting the circular economy for many years have all understood the principals of sustainability for a long time. The core aspects of ESG were already embedded in the DNA of these companies and you cannot work in energy recovery, regeneration, or recycling without understanding the underlying principles of ESG. 

Our next challenge is to ensure that society and policy makers understand that the road to net zero will take time: to change consumer habits and to upgrade our infrastructure in order to reduce our carbon impact. This transition has to be supported on a global basis without allowing our carbon footprint to just be exported to developing economies at the expense of local jobs. 

How has your business changed in the approach to equality, diversity & inclusion and how will you build upon this going forward?

Covanta hasn’t changed its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. There has always been a clear mandate from the board that roles are open to all and awarded on merit and that is supported by the continuous awareness training of all our 4,000 employees.  

After 15 years sitting on both public, private, and listed boards, I have been a part of many conversations that has driven a levelling up of the gender balance. I am however disappointed to note that whilst these efforts have succeeded in getting women on boards, they have still missed the underlying principles of diversity.  

If we are serious about ESG and the need to embrace all aspects of diversity in our companies, we need board members with a non-financial background to widen and enhance the quality of board discussions. As most of the leading investment houses will be monitoring ESG performance alongside financial performance this change at the top is essential to maintain the long term financial and social health of the business. It will also help to break down the glass ceilings which still exist for many junior employees entering the modern workforce. 

I am saying this as a white male who at face-value had an open door to the c-suite. If anyone takes any time to dig down to the next layer you will find a state-educated, dyslexic Northerner who just about managed to scrape into an old-style Polytechnic. It is about time we ‘got real’ about breaking down the barriers of the past and opening opportunities for anyone with talent. We also need to recognise that talent and diversity has many forms.

With sustainability and ESG being more prevalent on the Board agenda, what is your business doing to meet net zero carbon emission targets by 2050, if not earlier?

Within Covanta Europe we are promoting the 4C’s: Condense, Catalyse, Create and Capture. This is building on the 4R’s (which is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover) which has guided waste management for the last 25 years. 

Within our sector there is big talk about technology changes such as CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) This technology is still unproven at a large-scale and the network of pipelines to capture it, all from existing industrial emitters and power plants will take many years to be permitted and delivered. The road to carbon capture is like trying to get people to the moon. We will get there but it will take time. Whilst it is essential that we continue to support the long-term game changing technologies it is vital that we continue to focus on the incremental changes that can significantly reduce our short term carbon impact. Net Zero is a road we must travel and we cannot get there by teleport.

Given the important part that technology has played in all sectors during the pandemic, how do you envisage technology developing in your organisation going forward?

It takes a crisis to accelerate change. That has been evident in the last 18 months and the healthcare and medical sectors have swiftly risen to this challenge.  In all workplaces we must be ready to accept positive change even when it challenges established custom and practice. 

Within the waste and construction sectors, we have quietly got on with our job during the pandemic. It is impossible to collect waste and to build or operate an energy-from-waste plant remotely. We talk about essential workers and in my mind all workers are essential workers if they contribute to the fabric of society.

As business leaders we need to be ready to learn from this experience and ensure we are not allowed to hide behind the convenience of technology and neglect the essential contribution we all make as face-to-face mentors of the next generation of business leaders.

Christmas and New Year last year was a challenge for many families and friends. What are you planning for this year? And with the supply chain issues, how’s the Christmas prep proceeding?

Very simple – spending quality time with my family after they all finally managed to get back to full time education rather than being with me at home every day!

Christmas is always a busy time in the waste sector, and we would encourage everyone to be diligent with packaging so that it can be effectively recycled or better still re-used. We all need to pay our part to reduce, re-use or to recycle.

Who or what has inspired you recently? (They don’t need to be famous)

My son – for running the Manchester Marathon in under four hours. Total admiration – not something I could do! He ran it in 3 hours 45 minutes and with virtually no prep as he’d had flu until 2 days before.  

Which book have you read recently and why would you recommend it?

Can I choose two please.

Firstly “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson:  A true story of one man’s determination to bring education to remote areas, against the backdrop of seemingly insurmountable cultural challenges and geographical constraints. The local indigenous population had a theory that until you’d sat down with them three times you couldn’t be trusted and be thought of as a friend. In order for him to build trust with these people you had to sit down and talk to them and that’s always a phrase I’ve spoken about as well. It demonstrates there was a massive cultural gap from where he’d come from and he built trust just by sitting down and engaging with people.

Then secondly “The Last Grain Race” by Eric Newby. The story of a privileged young man’s dream of seeing the world but then understanding first-hand the realities of the hard and highly hazardous lifestyle crewing sailing cargo ships in the 1930’s, which was not the first choice of his fellow crew members. This story and the realities of an imbalanced society has parallels today for any idealistic young person trying to “find themselves” during a gap year against those who had to be there for economic need. The sad reality of these sailing ships was that in the 1930’s the annual attrition rate from accident or disease was 5% across the fleet and so do the maths for those crew members forced into this lifestyle for 10 years by economic need. This highlights the difference between those who are privileged and choosing to rough it and those who have no choice.

What are you most looking forward to doing in 2022?

Exploring new markets and opportunities to invest in new technologies which support the circular economy. 

I have been encouraged by my early conversations with our new owners at EQT and their commitment to using our existing platform to explore new markets which increase the sustainability and social purpose of our wider offering.

It is also recognising that energy-from-waste can act as a catalyst for innovation in the circular economy whilst continuing to provide an essential public health function for the safe treatment of non-recyclable waste.

Any words of wisdom?

Never let an opportunity pass you by. In my experience they don’t come twice.