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).

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride