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CEO Interview: Dr John Henry Looney, Sustainable Direction

PUBLISHED: 14:18 27 February 2018

Dr John Henry Looney from Sustainable Direction (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

Dr John Henry Looney from Sustainable Direction (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

© Thousand Word Media

You don’t have to choose planet or profit when it comes to making a successful business. Lucy Parford meets one man changing the model, one piece of paper at a time

SAVING the world, one company at a time, is what motivates the passionate team at Sustainable Direction.

Founded just over 10 years ago by Dr John Henry Looney, the Gloucester-based sustainability consultancy delivers solutions to businesses to increase their profit and protect the environment at the same time.

Its clients have included Cotswold Distillery in Stourton, Westons Cider in Ledbury and Hook Norton Brewery, near Banbury, where they improved the efficiency of the production process, saving money by helping reduce waste and avoid spending on new equipment.

It has also worked with UCAS in Cheltenham, helping it to get an ISO 14001 Environmental Management certification. The organisation now uses 10 million fewer sheets of paper a year, the equivalent of about 1,000 trees.

“The Gloucestershire area is very beautiful,” John Henry says. “It’s got an amazing history, connected by trade to the Deep South of America where I originally came from.”

Sustainable Direction’s Managing Director grew up in the southern United States and studied for a degree in Biology and Environmental at the University of the South in Tennessee.

“Having a good environment to live in is important to people. I spent a lot of time doing environmental work in my youth, so it was always part of my life,” he explains, as he pours a coffee in the bright boardroom at Fig Offices overlooking Gloucester Docks. “I spent one summer doing forestry work and another working with Vanderbuilt University monitoring acid run-off from coal mines and the pollution they were causing.

“So, I was doing this from early in my career.”

John Henry first arrived on UK shores in 1979 to do a PhD in Physiological, Chemical and Statistical Plant Ecology, turning down offers from Cambridge and St Andrews to study at the University of Stirling in Scotland because it was the only university at the time involved in Environmental Physiology.

Dr John Henry Looney (c) Antony Thompson/TWMDr John Henry Looney (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“It turned out to be wonderful from two points of view,” he says in his distinct, southern American accent. “I got to work on the island of Rum which is one of the Inner Hebrides, a national nature reserve with a Roman foundation to the current castle, with deer grazing and eagles flying overhead and seals in the bay.

“I was working up in the mountains doing field research staying in a bothy built 100 years ago. It was amazing really. You get to understand sustainability when you’re on an island off the West coast of Scotland. It had a ferry only four days a week, maybe, and I was on the back side of the island a good two hours from the port. You can’t pop out to the store.

“The other thing which was really good is I met and married an English girl, whom I met when I was studying in Scotland.”

The couple moved to Canada where John Henry taught at McMaster University in Ontario for three years, wrote a book on environmental methodologies and did early research on acid rain and climate change, making him one of the world’s first climate change scientists.

He then came back to work at the Natural History Museum, in London, leading research on acid rain before leaving academia to go into consulting. Since then he’s worked on large projects including a geothermal power station in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya; nuclear power stations in the UK; run-of-river hydro schemes in Indonesia and a coal power station, near Mansfield.

“In 1989 I published a carbon footprint for a power station, which is probably the UK’s first carbon footprint, so I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he smiles.

Over the years John Henry has worked in 30 countries advising how to improve environmental projects. He set up an environmental impact group for a civil engineering firm in Swindon, working initially on power station projects, and then became a regional manager for American company Parsons, an oil and gas contractor, responsible for £80m design build projects in the Middle East and all over Europe.

Throughout his career the father-of-two turned down several offers to return to America, even the chance to become President of one firm, because of family life. His daughter, now aged 32, lives near Cambridge with his granddaughter and his 29-year-old son lives in Utah.

After many happy years in Gloucestershire, John Henry set up Millennium Science and Engineering (MSE) in Cheltenham and later Sustainable Direction in Gloucester, he now lives with his wife in Lincolnshire, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Dr John Henry Looney (c) Antony Thompson/TWMDr John Henry Looney (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“We lived in Gloucestershire 17 years, a long time,” he says. “Now, we live in an AONB, where you go outside and the only thing you hear are birds. There’s a Roman road through the village, an old pub, a Medieval drovers’ road next to the village, lots of owls and deer.

“It feels very familiar to me; it’s like being back in Tennessee.”

As you would expect, he drives a hybrid car and commutes to Sustainable Direction’s serviced offices in Southgate House on the train, when he needs to be there. The company moved in December, relocating from offices in Twigworth, to make it easier for staff to cycle to work and to have Gloucester Quays on the doorstep.

“I set up Sustainable Direction in 2007 using experience of working with projects all over the world - energy projects, environmental projects, and different types of engineering projects, always with a financial theme, to help companies move in a sustainable direction,” John Henry says.

“One of the key messages is, this needs to be personal,” he explains. “If you and I don’t change our own personal behaviour, then how can we expect everyone else to do it?

“That’s a key part of what we help people to see. We do a lot of work with companies where we are effectively getting them to change their behaviour. The way they do things makes a big difference, it’s not just about the technologies and the equipment they have.”

Alongside Sustainable Direction, John Henry maintains a strong academic connection. For many years he taught at Master’s level at the University of Bath.

“One of my colleagues was previously one of my students,” he reveals. “The reason I maintain the university links is because it keeps us current, with current thinking, and occasionally you can find really good students to hire.”

He now teaches at the University of Bristol, where he is a Visiting Fellow, teaching Master’s courses on Environmental Management and Engineering. The University of Nottingham, where he has been teaching for more than 15 years, has also made him an Honorary Professor.

Dr John Henry Looney with his colleagues Kris Atkins and Freya Ashmore (c) Antony Thompson/TWMDr John Henry Looney with his colleagues Kris Atkins and Freya Ashmore (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

Sustainable Direction has four employees, among them Kris Atkins who was previously Environmental Compliance Lead for Hinkley Point C - looking after environmental, construction and pre-construction work, before joining the company.

The team is currently working on a research project for Innovate UK, along with another consultancy and two universities, called Deconstruction: Recovery Information Modelling (DRIM). It is producing a software tool to enable people to deconstruct buildings and reuse the materials, rather than just knocking them down.

“It’s moving from demolition, to deconstruction, and then returning more value to society,” John Henry explains. “If you’re going to build a new building somewhere, you should build it to deconstruct in 50 or 100 years, so that future generations can benefit from the reuse of materials. It is sort of like planting trees that you will never see, which all of us should do.

“We are bringing our expertise from working on construction sites to the software development process. We’re looking at the full spectrum of building types and finding out what can be recovered for reuse, cause less pollution and require less energy. Ultimately, this will create a better, more sustainable world.”

Since the Eighties, John Henry, 61, has seen a shift in attitude and says it’s becoming more normal for companies to seek out advice about sustainability issues.

The furore around the catastrophic impact on marine life caused by disposal plastics, as shown on BBC’s Blue Planet 2, is another example of how the tide is turning.

“This is not new, but the public now gets it, particularly children,” he says. “Plastic isn’t the enemy in itself, it’s the irresponsibility of people not dealing with it properly in their disposal and reuse.”

Despite the scale of what needs to be done, Sustainable Direction is not trying to compete with big companies, being happy in the middle space, having fun and making a difference.

This year it is spearheading a project to completely replace the electrical generation system on the island of Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which will benefit the entire community.

The Sustainable Direction office (c) Antony Thompson/TWMThe Sustainable Direction office (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“The new state-of-the-art engines are very clean,” John Henry says. “They can run on a biodiesel and produce both heat and electricity for the island. We’re going to use a district heating scheme, so that heat that would normally go to waste can be used by the hospital, the school, the leisure centre and about 10 other buildings.

“We’ll also be able to add solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and heat storage, so it’s pretty much a state-of-the-art energy project for an isolated community of about 2,000 people.

“We are working closely with Alderney Electricty Ltd and the Government, the States of Alderney, to deliver their goal of cheaper electricity to their consumers.

“How many companies do you know that would actually set out to reduce the price of their energy? There are no subsidies on Alderney, so this project has to make proper business sense on its own.

“It’s a really good example of what could be done for other communities,” he adds. “It’s a really good case study for what we do.”

Sustainable Direction thrives on working with people to help them figure out how to make their business better. It is part of the Circle2Success network and is also working with The Growth Hub, running seminars and sessions on understanding and increasing productivity in businesses.

“There’s just so much amazing stuff going on in the UK that no one ever hears about. The country’s productivity has increased in the last quarter, manufacturing output has increased, services are up, exports are up,” John Henry says.

“I have fun sharing with people that being sustainable is not about being green, it’s about also being green. You can be as green as you like, but if you don’t make a profit, you’re out of business.

“We’ve changed the model here. Instead of having ‘people, planet, profit’ as the bottom line, if you manage your people - employees, clients and suppliers - and the environment correctly, then the outcome of those three things is more profit.

“That’s what sustainable business is all about.”

Visit the Sustainable Direction website here.

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