Until early this year Alison Rowe was global executive director of sustainability for the giant Japanese global tech company Fujitsu. During her nine years with the company, Rowe developed a new way of building the value case for sustainability, integrating it into the business and making it a profit centre. It was a “revenue and savings model”, as she puts it, that shook up the way the massive tech giant viewed its opportunities with sustainability, and was replicated across the company’s global presence.

Today she’s moved to the next phase of her career, taking the reins at the Moreland Energy Foundation, as chief executive, in a role some might think is the polar opposite of Fujitsu. MEFL, for those who haven’t yet come across its growing reputation, is a Melbourne-based organisation with a unique pedigree in community solar and social impact activity.

Its founder was the remarkable and much-loved Mike Hill who passed away in July who, with his partner Lorna Pitt, started the WestWyck ecovillage, one of Australia’s earliest sustainable community centres developments.

As we wrote several years ago – before the Nightingale model, before alternative housing models started jumping to centre stage – ecovillages supplemented private kitchens with big communal social and dining space, shared bike sheds and post boxes, all arranged in ways to promote the “bump” factor between residents. Agents said it financially outperformed comparable units.

Rowe says MEFL was created in the late ’90s when premier Jeff Kennett decided to privatise the electricity industry. The Brunswick and Coburg councils, blended by Kennett’s amalgamations agenda into Moreland City Council, happened to own electricity grids. Forced to sell those assets, Hill, who was founding mayor, decided on a different tack, Rowe says.

“Mike Hill said, ‘Let’s use the money we get from that asset and start a new asset to tackle climate change through renewable energy, and igniting the community to act.’

“It was quite visionary then. That money was put aside for us and we draw some core funding each year to support the core part of organisation.”

The organisation also has a social enterprises, Positive Change and a fee for service unit.

Positive Change works on a diverse range of activities including working outside the region and helping other councils to come up with their own solutions.

“There are 17 other councils scaling up solutions with local communities, through Positive Change” Rowe says. Works also include a range of social housing and health programs, and consulting on climate impact and urban planning.

“We’re also a delivery arm of Moreland Council on its own strategy, which is a zero carbon evolution strategy.

“My vision, our vision, is to be zero emissions across all sectors by 2030.”

There are 25 staff in the organisation and among them are Rowe’s recent recruits Rachel Maddocks, previously also at Fujitsu, who is now director of engagement; and Manny Pasqualini who is with Community Solar but will come on board on a part-time basis to help with the development of a business model for community solar.

Environmental Upgrade Agreements to be explored for community solar

One of the areas Pasqualini will deal with is how to get environmental upgrade agreements to work for the sector.

Another opportunity is to look at a program that can slash the energy consumed by commercial machines, such as coffee timers. Apparently we waste a huge amount of energy keeping these on overnight. A simple timer to turn on machines in time for café opening hours would save a lot of energy. With 40,000 of them throughout Melbourne, that’s clearly an easy win, Rowe says, with the program potentially extended to car wash outlets and pubs.

There is clearly a great deal of momentum to expand the reach of the organisation beyond its borders and Rowe is excited by the prospects. Yet the new job must seem like a big contrast to the global reach and constant travel of her former position.

What led to such a dramatic career switch?

As Rowe puts it, the shift was not unprecedented, a claim borne out with a look at the boards she’s been working on for the past few years. She’s chairwoman of the Future Business Council, a director of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia, BioRegional Australia Climate Alliance and the Public Utility Challenge. At Fujitsu she sat on the advisory board of Fujitsu’s future business council.

“You’ve got to be honest with yourself. I needed to move to a purpose built organisation and have the ability to rapidly upscale solutions and technologies,” Rowe says.

At MEFL there is “huge potential to do that with what’s coming down the line with battery storage markets opening up around community business models”.

Before Fujitsu Rowe had a long span with Transurban, which manages toll roads in Australia and the US. While there she put up a business case to recycle etags for their lithium batteries and she also developed a carbon offset product for motorists.

Rowe also has a MBA and is a fellow of the Williamson Community Leadership Program, which identifies future leaders in the private, not-for-profit and government sectors.

Putting sustainability in language business understands

Interestingly, though Rowe has now made the jump to the not-for-profit sector, she’s not abandoned the strategies she developed at Fujitsu.

“My vision is around the transformation we need to do in an economic way,” she says of her objectives.

In business today she says there’s more acceptance that it’s “no longer a straight trade off between the environment and the economy; that you have multiple outcomes from actions we take.

“Ten years ago, it was more simplistic – you do this activity and you get these benefits. Now we talk about outcomes. So we’re taking a bigger view of environmental health and connection to social outcomes.

“Now in community and in the business community we understand there are multiple outcomes. People are thinking more longer term.”

When Rowe was at Fujitsu she put together a profit and loss profile for sustainability and would talk about it in business language.

“I tried to stop having a separate process for that and was conscious that the team I was leading was generating revenue and driving sustainability projects that delivered multiple benefits back to the business, so it was a revenue and savings model.

“The important part of this is to not look at one business case in isolation,” she says. Instead she brought sustainability to the main business table. Rolling out and commercialising the model on a fee for service basis was another key element in the strategy. This meant new markets and new technologies.

The strategy was “really well received”, she says. “It’s a business case I put up in Japan and successfully got that through in terms of delivering that to all parts of Fujitsu across the world.

“The internal business helped to align goals to local markets because sustainability can mean different things in different countries.”

For instance the Nordic countries had done lots of great work on sustainability so in those countries what might be more appropriate was “a conversation around the CSR of sustainability.”

Rowe’s team consisted of eight people.

“Our idea was not to build a big unit, it was to enable.

“At the start of the evolution you definitely need to have a core team to have the right types of action and strategy. What we did at Fujitsu in the local market before going global was to put together the right governance model so that the functions were set around KPIs and action plans then the sustainability team plays more of a governance role.”

After this the next evolution was to get KPIs embedded with people with operational responsibility. This means the heads of departments own the action plan and the sustainability team moves into a governance role, so it can then shrink back to an enabling and measurement role.

Key, she said, was to measure performance in the sustainability unit in the same business language and metrics as the rest of the business. Adding significant clout, though, was that the chief executive of Fujitsu was chair of the sustainability committee, adding no doubt to the success of Rowe’s agenda. Another measure is that Fujitsu is still committed to this strategy, she says.

The potential of solar and off-grid solutions

Today, she says, community is on a similar trajectory to understand the multiple benefits and outcomes of sustainability. It’s also getting better at scaling a solution for what’s required. A big game changer will be around solar and off grid, she says.

“That’s where we get energy independence and that’s the way of the future where people have a choice. Some of the energy may come from the street and some may be shared power. This is about where we need to move to transition.”

For MEFL Rowe was clearly a good catch. Not only does she bring corporate insight into making sustainability crucial to a business but she brings a readymade grasp of the community and not-for-profit environment MEFL operates in.

And that’s precisely the profile an organisation such as MEFL was looking for as it scales up its ambitions.

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  1. Nice to see Alison transition into a really important community orientated business space. She was generous with her time & advice while at Fujitsu some years ago.