March 5, 2019
When I meet George Rafferty at his Durham base, not even a puncture to his car – suffered after visiting a NOF member that morning – had dampened the spirit of the chief executive of the business development organisation for the UK energy sector.
He spends almost an hour talking to me about what led him to take on NOF and how he has transformed the organisation to better serve its member base (currently numbering 440).
George tells me that he grew up in the South Lanarkshire town of Hamilton, but moved south of the border in 1988 due to his career in the steel industry.
He spent more than quarter of a century working in the steel industry and it was while he was running a company in Teesside that he first encountered the Northern Offshore Federation, which at that time, operated as a trade association promoting the offshore sector in the North East of England.
George left the steel industry voluntarily in the mid-1990s and headed up Business Link Tees Valley until 2001.
He spent the next four years in a couple of roles looking for the right opportunity, which came in 2005 when he heard that the presiding chief executive of NOF was planning to retire.
George decided to apply for the role with a burning ambition to bring about major changes to the organisation.
“The organisation was having to adjust to a changing environment with an increasing focus on the need to reduce dependency on oil and gas, the organisation’s traditional sectors, and move to an economy where renewables played an increasing part in the energy mix,” George reveals. “But I felt that if I was allowed to change the organisation – broaden its appeal, move it into other energy sectors, make it national and refocus its services – I could address the challenges it faced.”
On his first day as chief executive in November 2005, he announced that NOF was to change from a trade organisation to a business development-focused one.
Mindful of the economic climate and declining pot of public funding, George also set about changing how NOF was financed.
“At the time, NOF was heavily reliant on public money and I wanted to change that,” he says.” People held the view that members would not pay for services that were previously free but I didn’t believe that.”
Despite the early doubters, George persisted with his seven-year strategy and the organisation became financially independent in 2012 – a full year earlier than its chief executive’s target.
“We’re now a commercial organisation that doesn’t rely on any public money and is financially sustainable in its own right,” George adds.
Over the past 14 years, George and his team have worked tirelessly to promote its members – which span all energy sectors across the UK and internationally.
As for the services the organisations provide, George explains these fall into three distinct categories.
The first service is around business development. NOF will work with its members to understand what they want to achieve and will then use a combination of industry intelligence and commercial skills, such as marketing or media activity, to help them achieve it.
The second service is built around networking, where NOF will introduce members to contacts in the areas they want to grow, while the third service is delivering a programme of workshops and conferences each year, around the UK, to encourage discussion and debate on issues impacting the energy sector.
Given the small NOF team, the organisation has set about developing key partnerships with other organisations to help it achieve its aims.
Examples of North of England partnerships are with Energi Coast and Subsea North East while nationally, NOF works with Renewable UK, Decom North Sea, Subsea UK, the Nuclear Industry Association and British Water, among others.
“We partner with whichever organisations can complement our work for the mutual benefit of NOF’s members,” says George, adding, “these partnerships are very much a two-way thing – sometimes organisations come to us and ask for help; other times, it’s us going to them.”
Despite the current uncertainty and volatility around the global economy – with Brexit, the economic slowdown in China and the sporadic outbursts of the US Commander in Chief to name a few challenges – George remains remarkably optimistic about the energy sector and the future opportunities for NOF’s members.
“There are many challenges with regards to how we produce energy, how we use energy and how we conserve energy,” says George, “and these are creating some hugely exciting opportunities for the sector – not just in the UK but worldwide.”
One controversial reason for this situation, George highlights, is a historic lack of energy planning.
“Many of these challenges are borne out of the fact that successive UK governments, irrespective of their colour, have failed to plan for something as strategic as energy. As a result, we have to move extremely quickly to ensure we can keep the lights on.
“Other countries have addressed the situation better [than the UK] but there’s still been a lack of effective long-term planning,” George adds.
Asked about specific international opportunities for NOF members, the chief executive focuses on two key energy sectors: oil and gas and offshore wind.
On oil and gas, George reflects: “Irrespective of what people say, oil and gas will be with us for decades to come and there are still opportunities the Americas – the Gulf of Mexico, for example – as well as in the Middle East and Africa.”
In offshore wind, George reports that the UK has built up world- leading expertise, which is presenting burgeoning international scope for North East and UK-based companies working in the sector.
Again, George stresses opportunities in the Americas – with a big appetite for wind power on the Eastern Seaboard while on the West Coast of America conditions are ripe for developing deep-water offshore wind capability.
The chief executive adds: “Last November, as part of our Offshore Wind North East Conference and Exhibition, we hosted a delegation from Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company, who were keen to speak to local energy companies about their offshore wind offerings.”
George highlights key territories in Asian, including Taiwan (NOF took
a delegation of 35 UK offshore wind companies to the fast-emerging country in 2017), Japan and China, while reporting that Europe remains a hotbed of opportunity, singling out Denmark and Poland as examples.
NOF’s chief executive explains that UK energy companies that are agile and can adapt quickly to changing energy trends will be better equipped to take advantage of the growing opportunities.
He also reflects that, due to the retraction of the oil and gas industry in 2014, many companies – Osbit, Tekmar and Modus, to name just a few in the North East – have been able to transfer their expertise in oil and gas to offshore wind renewables, bolstering their position in the coming years.
As for the plans for NOF – which recently launched its new rebrand – George and his team remain committed to ensuring its members are in the best position to take advance of future opportunities.
“As NOF, we must stay one step ahead of what is happening in the energy industry,” the chief executive says.
“Our job is – and will continue to be – to identify the opportunities in the energy sector, make sure that we find the most appropriate way of bringing them to the attention of our members, and deliver our services so that they can secure a share of these opportunities.”