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Profile

06 Sep 2019 / People Print

Profile: Life’s a gas for this energy industry legal leader

Joanne Ross’s late father John, who had a thriving solicitor’s practice in Dublin 4, was her inspiration to pursue a career in law. Originally from Co Wicklow, but schooled in Dublin and UCD, Joanne has headed the legal and regulatory function at Bord Gáis Energy since 2011.

It was her father’s passion for his work, she says, that made a lasting impression. “I’ve three brothers and a sister, and I’m the only one who ended up in the law,” she explains. “My father wasn’t pushy that way at all.”

Trainee

She began as a trainee at McCann FitzGerald in 1999, straight after her UCD law degree, doing a lot of mergers and acquisitions and private equity investments in the corporate department, during the exciting years of the tech boom.

After five years, Joanne moved in-house and has since had three varied and senior roles in different companies.

Lagan Technologies, at which she secured her first in-house role, sold customer relationship management software and expanded rapidly in different jurisdictions.

Rapid growth

“We had rapid growth and the sales guys were very ambitious. I learned so much about how to come up with solutions and not blockers, if at all possible,” she says, all the while understanding the risk appetite and avoiding unreasonable risks for the business.

On that job, Joanne learnt that a big part of the in-house counsel role is about making sure that the legal team understands what the business is trying to achieve and the challenges it faces, which can change on a weekly basis.

“General counsel must be enablers in any business,” she says.

The real thing

Joanne left that role to become general counsel with Coca Cola Hellenic, which is the bottling – as opposed to brand management – side of the business in Ireland. That was a north/south, all-Ireland role in a Greek-owned firm with a very international dynamic.

She feels strongly that in-house lawyers can get a lot closer to their business, have a leadership role in developing strategy, and engage more deeply in proactively identifying and managing key risks.

Early stage involvement

She observes that working in private practice on deals, one can be involved at an early stage in advising a client on a really interesting transaction or topic, but in the knowledge that one may not have any further involvement or have the opportunity to follow the deal through to its conclusion.

As the mother of a ten- and an 11-year-old, she says that working in-house can be a lot more family-friendly.

Joanne leads a team of 15 at Bord Gáis Energy, and is keen to highlight the work/life balance the organisation encourages, stating that it is rarely the kind of place to find oneself working at 9 o’clock at night.

Pinch points

There have been pinch points, such as the company’s restructuring and ultimate sale to Centrica PLC, which concluded in 2014. Joanne has found that the energy sector allows her to perform at a very senior level – she is a board member – without feeling like she is sacrificing too much in terms of family life.

“I think the big law firms need to do a lot more in terms of helping lawyers to achieve a healthy work/life balance. They are losing a lot of very good people. I’ve never had problems building really strong teams here at Bord Gáis Energy. They either stay or they go on to other in-house roles,” she observes.

Challenge

The challenge for an in-house lawyer in a smaller in-house team, despite its interesting, diverse work and better work/life balance, is that there may not be the same opportunities for career growth and promotion as with a big law firm.

That said, the 2014 buyout by English-based Centrica has provided international career opportunities for all Bord Gáis Energy employees. “They have over 200 people in their legal team,” says Ross. “Job traffic and department interaction is encouraged, back and forth, across the Irish Sea.”

A matter of trust

The regulatory function is very important in the energy sector, as is data governance, given the 750,000-strong Bord Gáis Energy customer base. Joanne’s legal department has five lawyers in the legal function, five in regulation (influencing policy and regulatory change), three in data governance, and two in compliance.

The sale to Centrica has also brought benefits to the customer, she believes. The parent company has invested heavily in smart home devices, which help customers manage their energy usage remotely on their mobile phones or tablets.

“We can provide more customer benefits by having more data, but our customers need to trust that we will safeguard and look after their data, and that we take this duty incredibly seriously.”

Climate Action Plan

On the Government’s Climate Action Plan, issued in June, and aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2050, Joanne wonders whether the public truly understands what’s involved with this ambitious goal. The aim is to reduce emissions by 2% every year between now and 2030, and by 7% annually up until 2050.

Coal and peat plants will be shut down, and onshore and offshore wind energy will see huge investment.

Demanding targets have been set for electricity generation from renewable sources, which it’s hoped will generate 70% of electricity by 2030, despite rocketing demand for power as the economy grows.

Power hungry

The wave of data centres now at the planning stage are power-hungry – Joanne believes these users should be incentivised to invest in self-generation to meet their energy needs.

The climate plan is highly aspirational, she feels, but a hugely positive step by the Government in demonstrating commitment to tackling climate change. In welcoming it, she highlights that it will be crucial to ensure transparency regarding the costs involved and the individual behavioural changes that will be needed to achieve the stated targets.

Retrofitting

The goal of retrofitting half a million homes with heat pumps will be costly. Joanne suggests that the Government will need to take action to ensure the requisite skilled labour is on hand to carry out this work, during a construction boom and an ongoing housing crisis.

Replacing oil and gas boilers is another long journey. “If we are really shooting for this, we need to make sure the financial-support package is there,” she points out.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie