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‘Keeping it Clean’ with Sam Clarke, CVEO of GRIDSERVE

Sam Clarke, Chief Vehicle Electrification Office for GRIDSERVE is an entrepreneur, investor, EV evangelist, industry advisor on all things EV as well as a commuter by electric vehicle for over 15 years.

Sam is a Great British Entrepreneurs Awards winner, a Fellow (FIoC) and sector chair for the National Institute of Couriers. In 2020, he was voted #36 in the GreenFleet top 100 most influential people in Low Carbon Fleets.

Sam is is the pioneer behind Gnewt, the green logistics specialist he founded in 2009. Gnewt won national and global awards during its decade long journey of last-mile logistics using only electric vehicles. By the time Sam exited in 2019, he had built up the country’s first and largest fully EV commercial fleet, created the largest privately-owned smart charging infrastructure network and installed the largest V2G network in the UK. Not bad hey!

Sam, where to start! Why don’t you give me a bit of insight into the you outside of work?

Sure, I’m a married man with 2 young children, living in the Cotswolds, I used to live in London for 15 years. I used to play a lot of rugby, but have retired now… I still do as much sport as possible, but not as much as I’d like with 2 small children to keep me busy!

A lot of my time is dominated by work; I’ve been running businesses my whole life. Having started 3 or 4 businesses over my 20 years career, I’m now working for GRIDSERVE, which is the first time I’ve ever had a full time job working for someone else. I’ve only ever worked for myself. I’ve known Toddington Harper (CEO of GRIDSERVE) for nearly 18 years having started in the sustainability sector at around the same time. Our paths crossed again a few years ago and I began doing some advisory for them, and now I’ve joined the team full time.

Starting a new job in the middle of a pandemic lockdown has certainly been a challenge, but it’s going well! Luckily we have the ability to communicate with lots of different people in offices all over the world and are getting an awful lot of meetings done in a succinct fashion, due the technology now available.

Who or what inspired you to enter the world of EV?

Funnily enough, it was a youngish, Chinese chap, I’ve never met and will never see again; he almost ran me over on a trip to China in the early 2000s!

I was the idiot tourist who looked the wrong way whilst crossing the road and he nearly ran me over with an electric motorbike. I thought wow, that was stupid because I looked the wrong way, but then I realised I also hadn’t heard him coming!

I started noticing from that moment on, that electric vehicles and motorbikes were everywhere, thousands of them in major conurbations all over China. I realised that this is a main source of transportation for the masses, and it just happened to be sustainable and have low running costs, and that’s what inspired me to get into electric vehicles.

Ironically, I was in China looking for business opportunities searching through thousands of products at trade fairs and exhibitions, and it was the a person outside who nearly ran me over who inspired me!

Who, a man and what, his bike!

How did it go in the early days?

My failing was trying to develop an EV that was of sufficient quality and technology in the import and sell in UK in the early 2000s — it simply didn’t work. The technology was too basic and the cost base of each asset was too high and we were rolling into one of the largest global recessions ever. On one hand It was a mistake as my timing was wrong, but on the other I was correct in recognising there was an EV revolution coming! I just saw it pretty early… too early in fact!

It was only when we decided to change tact a bit, and rather than import, develop, design and sell electric scooters and motorbikes, and put our learnings of EVs into an environment where we could create a service company instead, that it worked. There were sufficient people in 2009 recognising the requirement for sustainability and their corporate social responsibility, and wanted to try logistics that were non-polluting. We provided a solution which worked well and it grew from there…

You’ve had some pretty impressive accolades.. what’ve been your career highlights?

i) Establishing the largest 100% electric commercial electric fleet in the country was fairly remarkable — doing something from standing start that’s sustainable, electric, at a reasonable scale and that people were actually interested in was pretty satisfying! We raised angel money at the start and learnt very quickly. Setting up a logistics company with a fully electric fleet when there weren’t really any available, and then 10 years later knowing we’d delivered 10 million parcels is pretty good going for a small start-up.

We were able to produce something from nothing that means something to somebody (ponder that one)…

ii) Selling a business a couple of times has been very satisfying!

iii) Recognition has been great too! (in the background on the wall of Sam’s garden office is a Great British Entrepreneurs award) It was really nice to get a personal recognition for my achievements.

We’ve just mentioned one statistic, but I read some other fairly impressive ones about what you achieved at Gnewt: 10 million parcels, over 800,000 miles, all whilst saving more than 500 tonnes of carbon. Did you ever dream it would end up on that scale?

No I didn’t, and I think any founder who says that their start-up ended up doing exactly what they thought it would, is probably lying. Your aspirations and expectations are always changing, especially as your business grows in terms of assets and staff.

When I first started Gnewt it was a was a cargo cycle company and we had one token van, and everything else was electric bikes! Within a year that mix had switched the other way completely, so we were all vans and then within 5 years we had over a hundred vans delivering in Central London which I could’ve never foreseen on day one.

I know by some standards having 100 EVs in your fleet isn’t huge, there are big logistics companies out there with a lot more EVs, but we were very proud that we were 100% electric — the gravitas of the number is in the fleet being 100% electric.

So, you’d say adaptability is key to the success of any startup?

I can think of other companies that started at a similar time to mine in different parts of the country doing a similar thing, many of which never got passed a couple of years. There are others that are still there but didn’t adapt and therefore couldn’t scale, and that I see as a missed opportunity. If you don’t continuously evolve, you won’t grow.

What drives you?

Literally driving! I love driving, I love vehicles, love electric vehicles, and have always enjoyed them ever since I got on the first one in 2001 and thought this is great fun. The fact that it married itself so well to sustainability, and efficiencies, and innovation, and gadgets and all of those variables, all tick the boxes of things that interest me.

To wrap all of those things into a business environment was great, I just had to try and make it work. So the sustainability element, the air quality and pollution, those things weren’t as relevant to me in the early days as they are now. Now I’m a dad, and I see the pollution and the air quality which is horrific, I know we need to fix it. Electric vehicles are one major way to to do that, it’s become far more important to me than when I was a bit younger, just trying to make a profitable company, using clever innovation and cool tech. Now the environmental element of what we are trying to achieve is equally if not more important.

Between running companies, public speaking, writing academic papers, educating the world on EVs and pushing the green agenda, how to you switch off? Or perhaps I should ask, do you switch off?

I don’t… I’d love to say I did, but I don’t and I can’t — it’s probably part of entrepreneurialism — it consumes you!

Let’s talk GRIDSERVE! You’ve been there as their Chief Vehicle Electrification Officer for a couple of months now….

Yes, it’s great. I have a huge amount of autonomy in my role. As I mentioned earlier I’ve never had a full-time job with a third-party organisation before, but simply because of this, I’m relishing the opportunity.

What’s most important to me is the company and the type of people I’m working with. I was lucky because I was an advisory board member before I joined the company I got to understand how they tick, and the heartbeat of the place, which starts with the CEO and going down. Their ethos is incredibly important; it’s a growing company with a family type feeling, and the people there are truly great! The way a business is run and the values it upholds are incredibly important. Those values are as strong in GRIDSERVE as I’d like to think they were in the companies I used to run.

It is also a great place to be at a time of such an enormous change and transformation in EVs — it’s going to be a really fun journey! We’ve got a lot to do, only 2% or so of the population are driving EVs at the moment, and in 15 years time everyone will be driving them, so there is an awful lot of market to go after.

So, a zero-emission future — what will it take to make this happen?

I think it will be in many ways legislatively driven in the sense that we already have some rules in there. The banning of petrol and diesel by 2035 will change the way in which we mobilise ourselves.

We must do it to change the air quality and reduce reliance on coal, and that has to change both in the UK and globally. We are killing our planet and we need to reverse that, and we don't have very long to do it. A zero-emission future is a necessity.

If there is a positive to come out of the current crisis, it’s certainly the cleaner air, reduced emissions, quieter skies, louder birdsong… all of these things that we’d forgotten what they are like! This is starting to show us some of the benefits of what a zero-emission future could look like. Although the vehicles will come back, if they all came back electric, it would still be a quieter place to be, with better air quality, we’d save a lot more money and we wouldn’t be burning dead dinosaurs!

Education for the general public is also really important… What is an EV? How do you use it? How do you charge it? A lot of this is needed, so that people are prepared to make the transition which really must happen.

I think you’re fairly well placed to explain the current state of play, not just for EVs but sustainable transport generally. The train has left the station, but just how fast can it go?

The main ticket is EVs, the other types of propulsion for zero-emission vehicles have their place but electric vehicles are the main source of movement in the transport sector generally.

The train has definitely left the station; the electric vehicles are here! There are now about 85 models available or nearly available in the car market, all OEM provided — a decade ago there were barely any!

How fast can it go? There is no limit, it’s just a question of how quickly can it get there?

EVs have been around for a long time, but there’s always been the ‘It’s going to be next year’ … We thought it this was going to be the year, but 2020 is a bit of a right off. I hope that later this year and early next the acceleration picks back up.

Whether or not it’s telling that the registration of vehicles in UK dropped 97% in April but only 9% drop for EVs might be an indication that people are more committed to EVs than internal combustion engines but it is a big might because we are in unprecedented times, but early signs suggest the EV market has not been hit as hard as the ICE market.

There is so much news out there about the improvement of air quality during lockdown, and I hope that the net result of those elements is an increased uptake in EVs moving forward.

I would imagine, your passion for sustainability extends beyond transport?

Yes, general sustainability is something we need to do better at. I have agile tariffs for my electricity, am considering solar and battery for the house, I have two electric cars, always recycle, and try to be as sustainable as possible. It’s important invest in these things for the future! The transport element is my greatest interest, but for me all aspects are definitely linked.

What can we do as a collective to have a compelling impact on sustainable transport and to create a more sustainable future?

The stats you mentioned at the beginning from Gnewt, with the 10 million parcels and the 500 tonnes of carbon, they’re great numbers and the carbon element is derived from how much carbon would’ve accumulated if our fleet had been diesel.

The first element of improving sustainability, is demonstrating how much we have saved in carbon emissions as a result of having an electric fleet, so going from a diesel to an EV is going to be a significant environmental impact. If we all do that we will make a huge difference! Statistically this is a giant saving on carbon, emissions, particulates and the nasty carcinogenic stuff which gets stuck in your lungs and takes lives prematurely.

It’s doable now, the vehicles are affordable, there are finance packages available, there is plenty of choice for charging infrastructure both at home and elsewhere. The main thing for me is to get everyone out of these diesel and petrol cars and convert them to electric, and we can really make some huge environmental changes as a result.

Thanks Sam, what great insights! Also, I’m very glad the motorbike managed to swerve! 🏍

Posted by: Brightsmith Recruitment