Vincent de Rivaz: Maybe it's because he's a Londoner that this Frenchman loves British power

EDF Energy's boss may be the capital's most unlikely native son since Dick Van Dyke - but he's proud to light up the city, he tells Tim Webb

Vincent de Rivaz likes to talk big. "Passion", "customers" and "energy" are words that crop up frequently in conversation, usually accompanied by a clenched fist or sweeping hand gesture to illustrate the point. "Customers, customers, customers," is another favourite saying from the chief executive of EDF Energy, the UK arm of Electricité de France.

Vincent de Rivaz likes to talk big. "Passion", "customers" and "energy" are words that crop up frequently in conversation, usually accompanied by a clenched fist or sweeping hand gesture to illustrate the point. "Customers, customers, customers," is another favourite saying from the chief executive of EDF Energy, the UK arm of Electricité de France.

Sceptics might wonder whether de Rivaz actually believes all the management speak. But who else would take his gleaming white EDF hard hat - which has pride of place on a cabinet behind his desk - and try it on, unprompted, during an interview? And what kind of a man has a foot-long section of copper electricity wires encased in concrete on his office table, which he excitedly grabs to show off to visitors?

De Rivaz is clearly in his element. Later, he was so enthused about having his photograph taken that he couldn't resist showing the photographer some photos of his own, marking the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings in France, which he had taken earlier this year for the company magazine. Apparently, they were quite good.

An engineer by training, de Rivaz joined EDF in 1977 to build dams in Latin America and Africa. He has stayed at the company ever since, becoming head of UK operations in 2002. "My job then was to transform things, to identify sites, then design and build large dams. It's the same to build people. I have led a full transformation of the company," he says of what is one of the largest energy groups in the UK.

EDF Energy generates almost a tenth of the country's electricity, sending power down wires to 20 million people and selling gas and electricity to five million customers. (These customers have seen double-digit price increases this year because of higher fuel costs. "Each time we have to increase our tariffs it's a painful decision," de Rivaz says dolefully.)

The French government-backed buying spree that created EDF Energy was not popular. Privatised UK companies resented its state-owned parent, EDF, buying up every energy company in sight, starting with London Electricity in 1998. They were unable to compete with EDF's top credit rating, guaranteed by the French state, which enabled it to make acquisitions more cheaply than they could. What's more, EDF's home market was safe from competitors because - unlike the market in the UK - it was not liberalised.

De Rivaz does not accept the criticism: "When EDF bought London Electricity from the US company [Entergy] as a stand alone it had no future. This is the most important thing - not to get into polemics."

He is keen to explain the new identity for the group of companies that make up EDF Energy, which include London Electricity, Seeboard and SWEB Energy. The group, previously known as London Electricity Group, changed its name to EDF Energy about two years ago. To illustrate the ethos of the newly branded company, de Rivaz points to a framed picture of the letter "e" hung on the wall of his office, which overlooks Buckingham Palace. "It's about different words," he says. "Like 'enable', 'energise', 'environment'."

By unfortunate coincidence, the offices of EDF Energy used to belong to the European arm of Enron, the disgraced energy trader, before it collapsed three years ago. Enron's company logo was also the letter "E" (in this case, a capital), but positioned at an angle, which wags later dubbed "the crooked E". Safe to say, the "e" in EDF Energy is straight as a die. De Rivaz is reluctant to dwell on the office's previous tenants. "We are writing a different chapter," he says.

Although it is owned by the French government and the top executive jobs belong to Frenchmen, EDF Energy is a UK company, he insists. It is one of the official sponsors of the London bid for the 2012 Olympics, even though, across the Channel, its parent company, EDF, is backing a rival bidder - Paris. De Rivaz, who lives with his family in Chelsea, says he considers himself a Londoner, despite his heavy French accent.

"My French culture is something which is part of myself," he says. "I do not think the fact that I am French is the most important. I do not ask myself at all every day: 'What is it to be French?' I ask myself: 'What it is to be a global manager?'"

His passion for "our country" sometimes gets him in a twist. On the question of whether the UK should opt for renewable forms of energy such as wind power or build more nuclear power stations, he says: "It's a no brainer that if you put all our eggs in one solution we are raising the risks. There is no one-size-fits-all answer." What about France, where around 90 per cent of energy comes from EDF's nuclear reactors? "France is happy with its choice," he says quickly.

Today will not be the most relaxing of Sundays. He will spend most of it wading through a 200-odd page report from the regulator, setting out how much EDF Energy - along with the rest of the industry - can invest in the ageing grid network. The aim is to prevent the kind of blackouts that hit the big cities on the East Coast of the United States last year.

It's an issue close to his heart. "My networks connect 20 million inhabitants. That's powering 40 per cent of GDP of the country. It's a huge responsibility. London is the capital of Europe. I am in charge of powering the capital of Europe."

Utility companies, including EDF Energy, objected to the draft proposals outlined two months ago on the grounds that they did not allow them to invest enough in the grid. "There is the idea that we can sweat the assets," he says. "But behind these assets are people. How can we benefit long term on this basis? How can you motivate people to get out of their beds to go and see to a problem on the line?"

You get the impression that de Rivaz has never lacked the motivation to get out of bed to go to work for EDF (not like one of the group's French employees, who recently wrote a bestseller giving tips on how to shirk at work, entitled Bonjour Paresse, or "Hello Laziness"). And in case the regulator is reading this, de Rivaz becomes deadly serious at the end of the interview, when he states: "You have not heard me say negative things about the regulator." Not yet, at least.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 4 October 1953.

Education: graduated as an engineer from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Hydraulique de Grenoble in 1976.

Career

1977 Joined EDF. Later built dams in Africa, Guyana and New Caledonia.

1985-91: managed the group's Far East division, focusing on China and on the development of nuclear, thermal and hydro-electric generation and transmission projects.

1991-94: managing director of EDF's hydro power department.

1995-98: deputy head of EDF's international division.

1999: deputy chief financial officer.

2000: head of strategy and finance.

2002 to date: chief executive of London Electricity Group (since renamed EDF Energy).

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