William Tebbit (Class of 1983)

William Tebbit (Class of 1983) captained the cricket first XI at City and, after graduating in Geography from Exeter University, went on to a career in corporate finance, first in the City of London, then as an independent consultant. Since 2017, he has been co-owner of Green Biofuels, a green fuel company, that has recently welcomed BP as a 30 percent stakeholder.

You just sold a big stake in your eco fuel company. What do you do now - are you still involved?

My business partner and I bought Green Biofuels on 3 October 2017 – a date forever engrained in my mind. We had used some of the fuel in a project we were doing and thought it was amazing. It’s made of waste vegetable oil. It can replace regular diesel in any diesel engine and reduces carbon emissions by 90 percent. It’s a technology that originated in Scandinavia and we were gobsmacked that no-one in the UK had heard of it. So we decided to buy it and since then it’s grown hugely to the extent that in February BP offered to buy 30 percent stake in the business.

If this can replace all ‘bad’ diesel, why not do that sooner rather than later?

Fundamentally, there’s just not enough useable waste in the world. The UK uses a total of 34 billion litres of diesel a year and 16 billon litres of petrol. In the next five years or so, we will probably be able to get about a billion litres of our product into the UK. It’s targeted where it makes most difference. It saves carbon and improves air quality, so it as a double benefit. So we would target it for urban areas especially.

You could make HVO from virgin vegetable oil. People do. But making it from waste products means it has already emitted its carbon from its initial life. Making HVO from virgin vegetable oil would be a lot less eco-friendly. Plus it takes away from food production: the idea is that crops should be grown for their primary purpose – food – and then the waste gets used for something too.

Why has it not been more widely adopted, though?

Politicians want grand gestures. They want the silver bullet – and right now that’s seen as being electric vehicles or hydrogen. Which, of course, it isn’t. Electric vehicles work well as private vehicles in urban areas – but maybe not so well for HGVS or out in the country or tractors…

Ours is a transition technology: we can make an immediate difference with it, while we – and the world as a whole – works through other long-term solutions.

Is the will for net zero 2050 just kicking the can down the road?

I don’t think it could happen any sooner. A lot of politicians do think a target for 20 years’ time will mean they will be long retired and not accountable. There is a reluctance to address problems today with action today.

So that’s the challenge we are faced with. I don’t think we have a hope in hell of hitting carbon neutrality by 2050. The national grid is still basically all fossil fuel, which is five times as carbon intensive as a bio fuel.

Having become immersed in this sector so recently, is there something you now realise about it that you didn’t as a lay observer?

Yes. And this arcs back to City, which is why I’m so grateful to have gone there. We were always taught by the great James Boyce, who was a brilliant headmaster, that you have to take responsibility for your own actions.

The core of the whole problem is that, as humans, we consume too much and waste too much. Who is brave enough to tell the next generation they can’t have what we have had?

It’s too easy to say lots of hydrogen will make everything ok. It won’t. We’ve got to stop consuming. Just look at the clothing industry. But it’s all interconnected: the issue of consumption and being surrounded by nice things and being employed and having the money to buy things. We can’t uninvent things. I don’t know the answer. Maybe there isn’t an answer.

You made a mid-career move from working in the City to more entrepreneurial roles. Was that a big shift in culture for you?

I don’t think the contrast is as big as we make out. I was never very good in the City. When I joined the City all I wanted to do was to run something, so I wasn’t the greatest employee: I wanted to tell people why they weren’t doing things right!

I fell into the SME world and I loved talking to the people running small businesses and finding out about them. For me, it was this massive education in business and businesses. I was a lousy employee because I would advise businesses against doing things that maybe my employers would have preferred them to do!

When I left the City and went into consultancy, I was doing the same thing but getting an hourly rate instead of a salary. So the transition to entrepreneur wasn’t that big – but I do think I am more cautious than the people I am in business with, who are genuine entrepreneurs. I think that’s why we work well together.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to go into business or finance?

Really, I always wanted to be a professional cricketer… [70s England captain and legendary commentator] Tony Greig was my big hero. Cricket was my first love. I was captain of the City first XI. I was very lucky at school to fall among great teachers, including a cricket coach called Les Smith who identified some talent in me that I didn’t know I had.

I was picked to bowl in the nets with Middlesex at Lord’s and I was MCC Lord’s Taverners Young Cricketer of the Year when I was 17. I played a couple of games for Middlesex second XI and was pushed to commit more but I was also being pushed at home to go to University.

But I’ve played with a lot of very good cricketers and I know it’s not just about talent but about what’s between your ears, which is something I probably didn’t have at that age. At University, we played against [future England captain] Nasser Hussain and you could see it in him – and a guy called Mike Smith who played for us, who went on to play for Gloucestershire and England:  a fabulous cricketer. They just had that edge. I played a lot for the Lords and Commons team when I was younger. [Ex-England bowler] Phil Edmonds played for us a lot too: he had it too, this extraordinary desire.

So, for a long time, I didn’t think about my career at all. I just wanted to play cricket. I read geography at University because I liked it. And I played every sport going. Sport has been a massive part of my life and it still is. I just adore it. So, really, when I left University, I was very much like, ‘What am I going to do?!’

I played cricket with a guy who was a partner in a stockbroking firm and he said, ‘Do you want a job?’ and I got a summer job, which seemed quite fun and I thought, ‘I’ll carry on with this.’

It was literally as poorly thought-through as that!

I think I gravitated towards the City because it felt like a big club. It was full of exciting people. It was an exciting time. We were well paid for what we were doing, really. And the more I did it the more I started to love it. But I did start to struggle with asking whether we were doing any good. And I think that was why I eventually fell out of love with the City: because I didn’t see it was actually benefitting others.

That’s quite a big thing to say...

Honestly, some of the money people were earning for what they were doing was obscene. If you take a personal risk and you put your own money in and you’re entrepreneurial, then you deserve that success. If you’re not taking any personal risk, you’re just gambling other people’s money. And I think there were some great people in the City but there were an awful lot of people who were very lucky to be paid what they were for what they did.

I always thought the bonuses were daft: the City was about taking a bonus when you made a deal – so if you leant a company £100m over ten years, the logical thing would be to deem that a success in ten years’ time… and take the bonus then. But in the City, the person who arranged the loan would take their bonus in Year One. And that’s the premise of so many bonuses in the City.

I’m not someone who would say wages should be capped. That’s daft. But I did lots of little deals where we’d raise £3-4m and we might get a bonus of £30k. But someone who does a deal worth £200m , they might get multiples of our bonuses. But those deals were not more difficult. The bonus was not rewarding people’s skills. Who pays for it all? Ultimately it’s the shareholders of the business or the taxpayer.

How did you come to be at City in the first place?

My brother had been at City and enjoyed it; he left the year I joined, so we were never there together. Our family lived at the Barbican, so it was a local school for us. I don’t really remember the selection process, although I do remember I failed the exam the first time round, when I took it to go in in J1. Then I had another go the next year and got in.

First impressions/first day?     

I remember, before I started, going to Harrods to get my blazer and some of the uniform. The purple and white reversible sports shirt.

Then, on my first day, I remember walking to school, through the old Smithfield Market.

My first school had been at Highbury and Islington and I would go here on the tube on my own. I was very independent for a primary school kid. [In fact, I was standing one platform on the morning of the Moorgate tube disaster. The only thing I remember was walking back up the escalators and dust everywhere – I thought it was smoke – and going home and hearing what had happened on the radio.]

What lessons did you enjoy apart from geography?

History. Biology. Even now I talk to mates of mine from school and we talk about teachers. Mr Edwards the music teacher said to me you may forget what you learned at school but you’ll never forget how to learn. That was the thing: you respected the teachers; you admired them; you listened to them. You laughed with some of them. Andrew Murray, the head of junior school when I was there, was a very inspiring character. The whole atmosphere was very friendly , very family-oriented.

I found it very supportive, and I think was down to the diversity of people we had in the school. It was a broad church, a melting pot of people of different backgrounds. And it was fun.

Who was the funniest teacher?

Jon Keates was very good. Jasper Hurst was hilarious. Aiden Tolhurst in Biology. Richard England. I still remember their names.

Apart from cricket, which other extracurricular activities did you enjoy?

I played basketball, did a bit of swimming, played water polo. I was in the RAF section of the cadet force. And again I loved that – getting in an aeroplane at the age of 15 and flying it. The air modelling club I was in for a while. I didn’t do an awful lot, but I was there a lot, hanging around before school and after school. I loved it!

What was your first experience of work?

I worked in a chemist’s in the Barbican, working for a locally legendary woman called Phyllis. Australian, Jewish, single lady. It was during the Christmas holidays. I had guys coming in wanting to buy last-minute presents for their secretaries and I had to wrap them! Nice soaps and perfumes. I really enjoyed it there. I remember my mum saying to me, ‘You never know people until you’ve served them from behind the counter.’

Children of high achievers don’t always find it easy to find a clear purpose to their lives; did you have to consciously find your own niche?

Very much so. Absolutely. I did struggle with my identity. I was a very angry young man for a while, getting into every fight going. But you need to carve out your own identity, I was very conscious of that. That’s why sport was important to me – no-one else in the family really played sport. And then business: I probably wanted to prove that I could do it… I think for children of successful people it can be very hard and very easy all at once – it’s not easy to make your own way in life; you have to work out who you are.

You have to work out how you define success? Is it just about making money and the trappings of success? You’re always poorer than someone else, financially. You need to make your own definition of success and, for me, it’s about personal happiness and unfortunately a lot of people discover that too late in life.

Would you enjoy becoming more of an advocate/lobbyist in the green sector?

Yes, absolutely. That’s what I’d love to do - to step away from the business in the next year or so and do more of that. But it’s difficult to do while you are still working within a business. You need to be able to speak from that experience while also being independent of it.

Looking back, how do you think your time at City helped shape you?

That whole ability to be disciplined and to put the work in is so important. We were all lucky to go to a great school and get a great start, because our parents wanted us to have a great start. If it hadn’t been for our parents we wouldn’t have gone to that school. And when you see people struggling in life, it’s often because they never had that push and guidance from their parents and that’s why all of us at CLS were so lucky. Later in life I have become more moderate politically, I think from recognising how lucky we have been. A more inclusive, more human touch as come into my thinking, really as an appreciation of how lucky I – we – have been.

My mum was an incredibly kind person and I hope that’s rubbed off on me too. As you get older and realise how lucky you are and how fast you are going through life, you see how respect and kindness matter. We were taught respect at school. ‘Don’t do to anyone what you wouldn’t want done to you’. Life has become so complicated – but really if you treat people with respect and work hard and are nice to people, life is a lot easier.

 

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