Brent casts off after launching a phenomenal wind of change across the UK

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 21 Jul 2017

THERE’S been a change of the guard when it comes to the leading figure in a company helping forge Grimsby’s destiny.

This past month has seen Brent Cheshire retire from his role as country chairman of Dong Energy, with Matthew Wright taking the helm as managing director. David Laister met them both at the soon-to-be expanded Royal Dock base.

HAVING been employee number one in Britain for a then state-owned Danish oil and natural gas business, it is something of an understatement to say the past 13 years have seen quite a transformation under Brent Cheshire’s watch.

The UK has emerged as a world leader in offshore wind, and – thanks to a rare geographic blessing, marine knowledge, maritime infrastructure and a clear “can-do” attitude – Grimsby is at the fore.

Now home to 1GW of installed capacity thanks to the energising of the first 20 turbines at Dong Energy’s Race Bank this past month, work is also ongoing on the early stages of construction on Hornsea Project One, which will emerge over the next two years and become the world’s largest offshore wind farm.

Added to that, the “ong” of Dong will disappear within six years, making it a “pure play renewables business”. While “game-changing not name-changing” is the mantra, the intervening time has seen huge private buy-in and then a share issue, notably one of the biggest post recession.

But you sense the charismatic Derbyshire-born executive’s joy isn’t found in the city, despite a strong corporate career, that like Dong, began in oil. And there’s definitely a glint when Grimsby is mentioned.

“I am really fond of the area, I think there is a lot to be said for it,” Mr Cheshire said. “We have been welcomed with open arms as Dong Energy, and we have done what we said we would do, we have invested.” A staggering £6 billion is heading to the Humber, and while much will be the hardware shooting up through the North Sea, seismic changes have been seen on the quayside, filtering into the local supply chain too.

“I was lucky enough to make the announcement last year about Grimsby being the UK operations and maintenance hub HQ – it is going to be the biggest one in Europe by far,” he said. “We have had superb support in making things happen from the council, from Ray Oxby (leader) and Rob Walsh (chief executive), from Melanie Onn (Grimsby MP) as well, and very constructive support too. We have had our ears clipped occasionally, but we have done what we said.”

The clipping came from Cleethorpes, and Martin Vickers not holding back in the House of Commons after Dong Energy canned the Memorandum of Understanding to base assembly operations at Able Marine Energy Park, North Killingholme – the last remaining deep water estuary space, and also a sizeable chunk of his constituency.

Assembly went to Hull, beside Siemens’ blade factory, which will soon be supplying Race Bank as nacelles (the engine rooms atop the towers) are imported from Esjberg.

MORE: Dong Energy's new MD wants the Humber to lead on next stage of green dream

It is now understood that if Dong had gone further up river on the South Bank, the Grimsby facilities that are now being massively expanded would have been there too.

“The combination too, with having operations and maintenance here, and the construction base on the fish docks for Westermost Rough and Race Bank has been fantastic,” Mr Cheshire said. “The area has had all the benefits, and from what I have seen the whole thing is building nicely. There is real momentum and we are here to move the whole thing forward.

“We went through proper analysis and worked out that Grimsby made the biggest sense in terms of operations and maintenance hub for the east coast and most people are now focused on that.”

So a shift upriver may perhaps have meant less of what may still be to come, with huge community funds and close relationships with community stakeholders forged.

“As more and more regeneration is coming through, there are all sorts of incentives and lots of interesting talks taking place about how we regenerate and build on the investment and make it a catalyst to regenerate the town,” Mr Cheshire said. “That’s been really rewarding and gratifying for us. Dong can’t take all the credit, there are other operations and maintenance teams, it is not just us here.”

Adding he has never been to Grimsby when the sun hasn’t shined, only for it to briefly disappear as the camera came out, he continued: “I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

“I see everything that has happened and I’m really pleased with what we have done here, the total package. The community benefits, the fund, the TeachFirst, which I’m incredibly proud of, what we have done with apprentices and the university technical colleges as well.

“When we first started here there was a real North Bank / South Bank division too, and that has got a lot better, and this concept of the Energy Estuary, working together, has been really good to see.

“There is a very good platform, but I think with Matthew, Dong has someone who will definitely continue that ethos, and what we have been trying to do, and I’m really pleased about that. For me, having spent 13 years living it, it is great to hand over to someone who will do that. I know he will work differently, but in value and ethos, and what we are about, he is very similar, and I am really, really very pleased about that.

The Dong 'footprint' out of the Humber and in the community

MORE: £1.5m skills fund launched by Dong Energy in the region

Mr Cheshire leaves with 901 employees having followed him onto the payroll, with more than 100 now in Grimsby – and a HR manager permanently in the Humber as it readies itself to ramp up to 500 in the next few years.

“I am proud to have been associated with an organisation that has fantastic people, that has been desperate to do the right thing and do it properly,” Mr Cheshire said. “There are really good people who go about their business and have a real enthusiasm about what they do.”

The company has also invested £12 billion in that tenure. While it was by no means the pioneer on the Humber, it is certainly bringing the critical mass. Westermost Rough was opened in 2013, 35 then world-leading 6MW turbines bringing 210MW to the National Grid. Consultations are now being held for Hornsea Project Three, and that could be more than 10 times the size of Dong’s first foray from Grimsby, and there are two gigantic phases before that may emerge, as well as the part-built Race Bank too.

And such growth, innovation and dynamism was a major carrot to lure Mr Wright in.

“That was the attraction,” he said, visualising what is still to come. “I have worked in utilities for 30 years, largely in markets more stable and established, where a big part of the job has been about defending vested interests and the old paradigm. What I find really exciting about Dong Energy, is it is part of a new paradigm of energy, and more so than any other company in the sector. We are going to be coal free by 2023, we are in the process of selling our oil and gas businesses, and will be a pure-play renewable business on a scale that leads the world in offshore wind, with enormous potential for further growth.”

MORE: Dong Energy launches Grimsby offshore wind apprenticeship scheme

Attending the recent industry conference in London, he said: “There was one estimate where the North Sea can supply up to 180 per cent of Europe’s energy needs if we develop everything. With the costs falling precipitously the potential is enormous.

“I think the way the industry has been perceived to this point is as a nascent, fledgling industry, which needs heavy subsidy to survive. It has now become the defacto choice, the obvious choice in growth in energy. Not only is it cost competitive and cheaper than most, it is sustainable, renewable and carbon free. It is the obvious choice, providing we can integrate it in to the grid and work with that.”

And here lies an interesting challenge, making a variable a constant, as much as possible.

“It is such an exciting time,” the former Southern Water chief executive enthused. “We announced a couple of weeks ago the first application of storage technology, battery technology, at Burbo Bank. It is 2MW, a modest level, but we are starting to integrate that.

“There is a tremendous platform here on the doorstep. Globally it is the place, we have the place right, now we need to make use of this technology and not lose out. Hopefully we can use this as a stepping stone to even better things.”

In his first two months with Dong, working alongside Mr Cheshire, he has spent the vast majority of my time meeting people inside and outside of the company, starting to visit the sites and meet as many stakeholders as possible. “Some have been distracted by the General Election,” he jokes of those in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy perhaps. “Overall, the sense I get is of a company growing quickly, one that is innovative well respected, and has incredibly high standards, has the utmost integrity and does things right.”

Looking around the Westermost Rough base, he said: “We are in an O&M facility and the quality is evident. Great working conditions, it is quite something. People at the coal face matter just as much as those in the corporate office in London. It is not the preserve of senior management, quality is everywhere. People in every role are important and must be treated equally.

“It speaks about the long term relationship with the region. If any of this was temporary we wouldn't go to this effort. These assets we are placing offshore will last a minimum of 25 years, and we want to fully support them for at least that period. They may even re-power and carry on. It is investment for the very long term, the assets are for the long term.”

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