The Blend Podcast EP013 – Strategic Thinking and Sustainability

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Cambodia Charity - Healthcare center for children - no longer active


Brendan Cox  00:00

We thought we’d do something a bit different this episode, and chat to someone who operates at quite a high strategic level, his name’s Tahir Shah, and he’s a commercial and procurement specialist in the offshore renewable energy sector, which is quite a mouthful. But actually, it’s a really cool subject. And he’s going to tell us all about it. So, welcome to the podcast.

Tahir Shah  00:19

Hey Brendan. It’s good to be here.

Brendan Cox  00:22

So tell us a bit about what you do and your background and your role at the moment.

Tahir Shah  00:29

Yeah, I’ve had a couple of positions. Actually, when I started off my career, I started off in banking, working for Santander, doing their student accounts, offering student accounts with a large overdraft, working within a branch. I gradually worked my way up until I became a manager of a branch. Then I started running strategic branches in the west of London where there are really high value high net worth clients, and we started to shift the focus from getting everyday student accounts to people to how do we capture some of this value, and retain it in high interest savings accounts.

That’s where the bread and butter was, the way it works is they use the money that’s sitting in their accounts. They will lend that out at a rate that’s higher, hoping that when they get their returns, they’ll be able to pay back out into their savings accounts at the interest rates that they hoped for. So what I did in that role was calling up multimillionaires here and saying, look, there’s a potential for you to have some growth on your accounts.

We get involved in taking up their finances, and we really worked through it. I had a team of people working under me doing the same thing. So during the calls, I’ll have a team of people that actually work as independent financial advisors. And these are really mortgage brokers.

So these are really well educated people that have to go out seek qualifications in order to do what they have to do. And I basically ran these teams of up to about 15 people to do this kind of like high value network capture.

That was my first example of proper work after university. It allowed me to have that real feeling of what the middle-upper class kind of wealthy people; and how they spoke to each other, how to communicate with them, and it taught me some real good soft skills, in terms of how I communicated with different people from different walks of life. You have characters on both sides, right?

You have characters that have the money that you’re trying to help them achieve a better return. When you’ve got a high performing team, you have a lot of characters within their very strong personalities. But you know why they should be doing things the way they should be doing them.

They’re hitting their targets, there should be some flexibility in the way that they work in order for them to achieve those targets. So you have to be able to convince them to work in a certain way that pulls it together for the entire team.

Brendan Cox  03:01

Did you develop these skills on the fly, thrown in at the deep end on this, or were you taking courses and learning alongside to give you the management skills that you needed?

Tahir Shah  03:11

With banking, in that sector, there is a hell of a lot of training. It’s not like they pull you out for days, because you’ve got branches that you need to run, and people need to be able to access the bank in some way. But there’s certain mornings you would open later than normal.

It gave me an hour or two for you to do that, how to do a cross sale, how to upskill the way that you think, how to make what you do relevant to somebody else. They used to bring psychological tools for us to you, I can’t name them all off the top of my head, but I’m sure if you google them, they would come up and it will teach you how to communicate with people so that you are able to make them understand why this account or this loan or this savings is the right opportunity for them.

Brendan Cox  03:55

This is often in the form of workshops and things?

Tahir Shah  03:58

Yeah, absolutely. Face to face workshops would have someone with a whiteboard, or overhead projectors and, and bits of paper stuck on a wall. And you’d be putting them up around the wall, having those kind of interactive, soft psychological skills session.

Brendan Cox  04:13

And where did you move on from after being at Santander?

Tahir Shah  04:16

So from there, I left and I went to Cambodia, where I was basically helping a charity who specialised in anti-human trafficking. So rescuing men, women and children from being trafficked in Thailand and bringing them back home to Cambodia. And vice versa. If there were Thai that are trapped in Cambodia, they would then try to repatriate them back to their home nation. This charity basically did a slew of different things in order to be able to accomplish that so they wouldn’t just rescue you and send you back because there was a number of things that might have happened to you and you might have some behavioural issues.

You may be terrified you might have some psychological problems or some physical issues. So what they would do is it would feed you into o a network of various charities that can help you with the psychological ramifications of being trafficked and what your physical problems were. Also doing some going back to those people’s villages and doing counselling with the families who may have moved on from this person and being part of their family, or may have some trauma, as a result of them, maybe selling or participating in the sale, or have a child or person and help reintegrate into their own community, and teaching them a business skill.

So they become an important person within that community that brings money into the community, and can teach skills like basket weaving, scarf making; real skills that involve manual labour, and they can teach that to others. Hopefully, that skill passed on to that village therefore they don’t need to rely on the human trafficking trade in order for them to make ends meet.

Brendan Cox  05:51

It’s not just rescuing the people, it’s actually giving them the tools to change their life and not have to fall back on ever again.

Tahir Shah  05:59

Right. Because it could be it could be that it’s the parents sitting there, they’ve got four kids, they can feed three. So let’s try to sell one, depending on where that child goes, they could go on to sex work, they could go on to a different types of works, that considered immoral.

Therefore the family may not want to have that child come back into the fold. So we have to do a lot of counselling work with both the victim and with the families that they’re able to just become a family once again.

Brendan Cox  06:29

Wow. Something like that, I imagine is such a shock to the system, that you have to develop a next level ability to be able to actively try and help someone who’s done something at the root of it is terrible, but was pushed into that through their situation? Did it really change how you look at helping people in solving problems?

Tahir Shah  06:49

Yeah, it made me realise not everyone is terrible. But they are capable of doing terrible things, maybe we shouldn’t judge them for the one action. Because there might be other things that come into play, where you have to offer them some support to stop both things from happening. And without a black market. Without that underbelly, we wouldn’t have these problems to start with.

So you really need to look at the root of it. There was a demand for something in particular, one way of ensuring that you keep that demand is to impoverish large groups of people, and they can’t fight their way out of it. There needs to be a way in which you can stop them from being impoverished and relying on someone to say, give me $10,000. And I can change your life, but something constructive themselves, they own a business, do some work hard labour, and teach them some skills in order for them to do that.

Brendan Cox  07:45

It’s that thing of treating the actual cause, not just the symptom, isn’t it. We’ve been doing some collaboration with a company called Learnappeal in the UK, their mission is to give everybody access to the learning and the education they need.

One of the key things that everyone forgets is actually, there’s a huge percentage of the world population that don’t actually have the infrastructure to use elearning. Even places in the UK, I understand, the middle of the Kalahari is not going to have a great connection. But there’s massive chunks of the UK that don’t have the connectivity to even download basic Internet.

Tahir Shah  08:25

What you end up doing is you start putting a premium on information, and only those that are able to afford it can be taught. You then create this underbelly, this underclass of people who don’t have access to libraries who don’t have access to online information, and they’re unable to educate themselves. And therefore can’t work their way up out of that class.

We know that in the UK, that’s a big problem, you know, being able to move from class to class. That’s one way in which people are stopped from doing that and you’ll only end up with two classes – those that can afford to be educated and can get jobs versus those that can’t afford to be educated and maybe you have to go into menial manual labouring jobs.

Brendan Cox  09:11

They get stuck in a feedback loop where they don’t have the chance of lifting themselves up out of it. So did you find after you did your time in Cambodia, did it change your motivations into coming when you came back?

Tahir Shah  09:23

It was really interesting because I went over to Cambodia, I took a job where I was helping the organisation become a better streamlined organisation. When I went over there, I said, ‘Look, don’t put me in a school, because I don’t know how to teach people you know, ABC, things like that, you know, don’t put a hammer in my hand and tell me to build a school or whatever, because I’m not a carpenter. But what I do have is some soft skills, right? I’ve got some skills where I can teach you how to manage your books, how to run a meeting, how to do HR things with your staff, I can help you organise events.’

That’s essentially what I did there. Then I realised that from my time working in the bank, and my time working in Cambodia, I could probably do something else that involves strategic type thinking. Right? So not being in that kind of customer service focusing role, and not being in that pointed end of the third sector, which is the charity sector. But somewhere in the middle, when I looked around Cambodia, I just thought, My God, people put up with almost absolutely no access to decent infrastructure.

When I came back to the UK, what I looked at was how do I get involved in the infrastructure system of the country? Because I feel that that is a good middle ground, how do I help the most people without it being charity.

So I took a job working for the office of the gas electricity market in the UK regulator of gas and electricity. It was in the middle of the recession so there was no jobs really going back there. I took the hit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get into a senior role straightaway, I was changing my career.

I took a filing job and I worked that filing job for six months until I got recognised. Someone said to me, what are you doing? Why are we wasting your talents? You know, you’re obviously got some intelligence about you. And you obviously care about what it is that you’re looking at? Why don’t we start getting you involved in some meetings?

So I have this great grace period to help pick me up during the middle of recession, and get me into senior positions. It was a really interesting role. That role was working for our regulator, we hate the word monopoly, right? You don’t play Monopoly at a regulators house, okay. What we hate is something called a vertically integrated monopoly, where you own the entire supply chain, behind the production of a product and the same product.

So it could be using offshore wind. That electricity that’s powered through the turbines, comes through a cable, so that were turbines, that’s all a generation asset, right. And then as that electricity moves through the cables on the ground, and goes into the substation, that’s called the transmission asset. And then from that substation, when it goes to people’s homes, that’s called a distribution asset. Right. And so some companies used to own all three of those things, so they can corner the market, in terms of the price you are paying for energy. I’m hoping this makes sense.

Brendan Cox  12:53

Makes sense. It’s things like BT, that owned all of the cables?

Tahir Shah  12:56

Yeah, BT. And that’s a fixed charge. There’s no competition there, right? So you end up paying 50 quid a month and they don’t have to make their product work, or have to bring in the efficiencies in their game. Whereas if you had a little bit of competition in there, they would be like, okay, cool, this guy’s come 10 pounds under, we really need to think about where we can generate some efficiencies and reduce that waste.

That’s the benefit of having competition in the market. It drives growth and innovation. So what we did there was we called it a generation, I call it transmission and distribution, what we did was, we said to the person that builds it, you have to sell your transmission assets to somebody else. So when I used to run those transactions and they were anywhere from about 150 million up to about 800 million GBP, to sell those assets.

So what we would do is we would do a cost assessment first. Did they build these assets value for money? Is the taxpayer is the consumer paying value for money for these assets? Have they built it in a way that was inefficient?

So what we would do is we would dock them the cost of that inefficiency. So already, the consumer is seeing the saving, because they’re only paying for what they should be paying for. And then on the second hand, you’ve got the companies that are buying these assets, now then likely to be funds of some sort. So it’s likely to be a management company that runs a fund that multiple pension funds pay into.

Is this financing option that they’re taking to buy this asset value for money for the consumer over a period of 20 years? Yeah. So it’s taking my knowledge from banking and applying it there. Then I was taking my knowledge from Cambodia and all that, applying it to the cost assessments and really considering what’s value for money for the consumer.

From there, I stayed there for a number of years. Before I got head hunted, I moved to somewhere called the crown estate, which is about property assets. This is really interesting because the money that we made in this company actually goes back to the taxpayer.

What I had to look at was the seabed around the UK, so that the monarchy owns 12 nautical miles from where the beach ends, to where the seabed is, what we did was, we would rent that seabed out to somebody. So if you want to put an oil pipeline in there, a gas pipeline, telecoms, you want to build a wind farm, you want to move your boat there permanently, you want to draw off coal, or whatever, then you would come to my team.

And we would do the commercial analysis behind getting that lease arrangement in place and then we would sign a lease agreement with you, where you pay us an annual fee.

Brendan Cox  16:10

So obviously, something like that, you’ve got to build up a quote on something complicated. Did you have to handle and manage and interview a lot of subject matter experts?

Tahir Shah  16:25

Every evening, we will have tidal water coming in and out and can effectively act as baseload power, if you put a turbine in the water, waiting for that energy to come in and out, right. However, the environmental implications that it could have on the river could be huge. And those that use the river for their livelihood, could be impacted as well, because what you’re doing.

You’re building things that could change the flow of the river could change the way that aquatic life lived in the river. It could change the way in which someone might use that river for their livelihood permanently. You would have to bring in people that could do the studies for us and tell us, okay, if we put one in this is, the only way it’s going to make money if you put multiple in. If you only put one in, there’s no point.

This is the impact it’s going to have on aquatic life and all that kind of stuff. Then we have to take a decision as to whether we want to proceed with someone doing this in the natural resources that we have. In the end, we had to decline and not take it forward because we thought that the environmental impact that it could have, versus the benefit of the energy that it could produce was too massive.

Brendan Cox  17:58

How many of these cases do you go through? What kind of frequency were they? And how long did you spend on each one?

Tahir Shah  18:05

I was on it for about six months. I left while it was still kind of ongoing, but I got the news not too recently that it’s still on its feet. The other things that we would look at is how do we turn waste into a revenue stream. So for every cubic tonne of sediment that is dredged off the seabed in the 12 nautical miles at the Queen owns – when they sell that she gets a quid.

So what they do is they’ve got these big boats with Hoover’s on the back of them that go around dredging up the seabed, and then they float it down the barges down the Thames to where it needs to be. If you look along the Thames, In the the last 10 years along the Thames, it’s quite an industrial place to be. And what they’ve got is loads of aggregates.

You can crush them down into smaller stones, and that way you have gradings of sediment that you sell for different things. So some could be for road construction, some could be for building construction. It could be built for bridges and things like that and so on. That there is generally quite a lot of waste. People have to dump some of the stuff that they dredge because it’s not quite up to the fineness that it needs to be.

We’re trying to find out ways in which we can turn that waste stream, because we only charge 50 quid for someone to go and dump it somewhere. But then how do we get a charge something that’s realistic for that done? And how do we take that and turn it into something that’s useful?

Brendan Cox  20:28

When you’re trying to work out the long term impact of something how far forward are you looking? So obviously, dredging the seabed…I imagine it’s pretty difficult to work out what that will do in 20 years-time.

Tahir Shah  20:42

Oh, yeah. I mean, judging the sea, depending on where you are, you have to do it. The Thames, for example, is dredged every few years to allow vessels to come up and down it.

Brendan Cox  20:53

Okay, because it reverts back to its natural shape a bit like us during COVID

Tahir Shah  20:57


Tahir Shah  21:01

The sand and sediment basically builds up again, and then you’ve got to judge it. There’s certain areas where you’re not allowed to dredge because they’ve already done the surveys. So before they open up a new area, they’ve already done the survey to see if there’s any aquatic life that would be disturbed.

It’s all very forward thinking. Is there any life there at the moment? Is it going to be disturbed? If there is, and it’s going to be disturbed and you’re not allowed to stretch there, do you have these special zones that have been locked out over the last 50 years that people are allowed to dredge in because they know that there’s no coral, or aquatic life that will be affected?

Next, I went to go and work for Scottish power when I was telling you about the GMOs doing the transmission asset selling.

So I went to work for one of those guys that builds those assets. I was running a transaction on their behalf to make sure that we got all of the money back that we spent on those assets, because offshore really did do a good job and take a big slice off. So my job was to defend that money. I ended up working there for about two years.

Now I work for a company called RW and I am their lead procurement manager for about four different projects. I lead a team of people on the north, the New England Aqua Ventus project. Up in the northeast, we’re looking at building foundations that float. You can put turbine on top of this floating foundation.

Rather than piling these foundations into the seabed, we will just get a floating foundation and anchor it to the seabed. I’m also looking at how we can set ourselves up for the next New York lease auction that’s happening. So we taught the port how to do a seabed leasing auction. W’ve got loads of wind farms in the UK. When I was working at a crown estate, one of my jobs was to help lease the seabed out to people who wanted to build wind farms.

Now work for a developer of those wind farms that was secured from one of those leases. I’ve got a team of people reporting to me, on a project in Taiwan and Taipei, called the truform offshore wind farm. It’s no secret anymore. Everybody knows that we’re out there. We’re doing some work. There’s an auction, maybe at the end of this year, beginning of next. I’ve got to put in a procurement strategy in place to say this is how we will get price certainty behind how much it’s going to cost to build this thing.

These are the people that are going to deliver the services on our behalf. So that’s twofold. And then finally, I’m doing the same thing. There is a project in Denmark called the thought project. Again, I’m developing a procurement strategy on how do we strategically engage the market to give us enough confidence in pricing that when we go to auction, we can say we can deliver this wind farm and it’s only going to cost the consumer this much per megawatt hour.

Our role is basically to contract people that can deliver the wind turbines, the foundations for transmission assets, the grids, so the value of these wind farms is we’re talking about two and a half to 3 billion euro capital expenditure. So real, real big projects.

Brendan Cox  25:00

So how do you approach managing multiple projects of that scale? Is it just practice? Have you built your own methodology?

Tahir Shah  25:12

That’s how I get my tasks done.I guess the best way to prioritise is to see which project is the realest, which projects is the closest to a route to market. So I work in the development function or procurement, right, I’m not building these things I’m developing and procuring the assets. Now, would you put your money at risk to buy loads of goods and services if you don’t have a route to market?

What I mean by routes market is that the government of the country that you’re building your wind farm in has to give you a contract to say that they will buy energy from you at a certain dollar or pound or euro per megawatt hour. Right? That that’s what the router market is. That’s what these auctions that we’re going into are going to do, we’re basically going to go in, and we’re going to give a price.

They’ll say, yes, you can build your wind farm in this country and we will give you this much per megawatt hour to do it. The lowest competitor wins. So there’s multiple sites, multiple developers all competing for that. So what you need to do is you need to go. The project in Denmark, we just pre qualified for it this year. Now we’re heading towards an auction at the end of this year. That’s probably the one that needs the most attention right now.

Brendan Cox  26:51

And so when you say competitors, how many you talking?

Tahir Shah  26:53

It depends on the model. So on the one in Denmark, we’ve got six companies bidding for the exact same project, whereas the one in Taiwan, we have a project, but our site is probably competing with about eight or 10 other developers who’ve got their own sites that they’ve been developing up, and they think they’re better value proposition than the one that we’ve got.

Brendan Cox  27:19

How much flexibility do you have when it comes to competing against someone else? And working out what their range might be?

Tahir Shah  27:33

That’s half the work that we have to do. We have to second guess, where they think they’re going to be? Then we need to be able to then go back to our suppliers and say, ‘Hey, Mr. turbine supplier, we need to come in under this value, can you bring your prices down?’ And my job is to negotiate those prices down into our target operating price.

Brendan Cox  27:56

Is there a lot of back and forth between you and the other competitors?

Tahir Shah  28:08

IYou’ve got suppliers that are probably going to pick their winners, right? Because every developer is speaking to the same suppliers and trying to build relationships with them, then say, can you prioritise my project over somebody else’s, you know, we’re going to give you this as a result, so there’s lots of soft skills and relationship building that you need to do your supply chain, and you need to go back and you need to say, look, I really want you to help us win this, we’ve got six, seven more projects in the pipeline.

Brendan Cox  28:50

So it involves quite a bit of negotiation. How do you see the industry in terms of infrastructure? Are you seeing all sectors of infrastructure growing at the same pace?

Tahir Shah  29:03

No, offshore wind is the future. You might want to Google Boris Johnson’s announcement. But he’s basically said, offshore wind as the one the crown estate have been asked to get 75 gigawatts of renewable energy on the line by 2050. We want to be 100% carbon neutral by 2030. The renewable sector is just expanding at a rate that we’re not seeing elsewhere, apart from, let’s say, telecoms, and things involving the internet.

Brendan Cox  29:33

And you’re keeping your finger firmly on the pulse for that side of it as well. You have interest in the telecommunications. So obviously, what you’re doing since the Cambodia thing is you’ve got a much more altruistic approach to solving problems on a bigger scale for everybody.

Tahir Shah  29:47

I was looking at that when I was at the crown estate, looking at telecoms line, pipelines, we were even looking at how we could rent out part of the seabed to allow Microsoft to build a data centre that they can put in the water, so that they could use the water to call the datacenter rather than having really expensive fans and exhaust fumes, and whether they can do that.

Now what you’re gonna see all up and down the UK coast, is there are now data centres that are going in on water. And they’re being tested right now. I mean, how interesting is that stuff?

Brendan Cox  30:20

That’s crazy. And they’re going to be having giant paper clips giving advice to people when you go past on a boat. Have you got any resources or favourite books or places you go that you’ve learned something from?

Tahir Shah  30:50

Reading is really important. I tried to keep my knowledge of the sector as big as possible. I read a lot of industry magazines because they have a lot of insights. They have a lot of papers, they have a lot of analysis that they can share with you. And that helps you just keep your overall knowledge of the sector. Doing that is better than reading any other book on how to be strategic. Although saying that, before he became Trump’s lawyer, I did actually have a copy of Rudy Giuliani’s book on leadership. I gave that a good read. And there’s some really good tips in there.

Brendan Cox  31:35

Yeah, I think even people that you don’t like, you can learn a lot from them. So coming away from this conversation, then sitting back a little bit, is there anything that you’d like someone listening to this to take away with them?

Tahir Shah  31:48

Try to find something that you’re passionate about, it’s quite hard to do that. Not everything infuses someone to wake up in the morning and really go to work on it. I find if you’re passionate about something, then you will take that extra mile, to read the books, to read the industry magazines, to attend meetings to take those notes, and really sharpen your skills. Because if you don’t have that motivation, then you end up languishing – anoccurring journeyman, I think they call them in Japan,

Brendan Cox  32:18

Like the Ikigai principle of finding your purpose through a combination of the things that you’re good at, the things that someone will pay you to do, the thing that the world actually needs, and things that you love. It’s like this little Venn diagram, and we’ll do an episode on this in the future.

But you find if you draw that out, and you write down everything that you can possibly remember, as moments throughout your life, they’ll all hovered around those circles and some further outside like a job you didn’t like.

Some things will be further to the centre, because they’ll actually overlap. For example, someone will happily pay you to do what you’re interested in, and the world needs it. And then you get a sense of purpose that only someone in Japan who completely totally loves their job would have come up with as a principal. But the idea is, is that the more you combine those things, the more you get, you want to get up in the morning and you want to go do that thing.

It’s interesting to actually map out all of your previous experiences. And I think just this conversation here, you could literally draw a little infographic to show what you’re doing is nicely in the centre. It was lovely to talk to you. Thanks for sharing your journey so far. It’s really interesting