Since taking over the role of head of sustainable business for AIB in 2015, he has set about establishing the bank’s sustainability practice and making it a leading player in this area in Ireland.
The social and environmental impact of an organization can be enhanced by focusing on a small number of big-impact themes and by getting the different areas of the business rowing in behind the themes. For example, Ray has been involved in developing AIB’s roof-top solar plant which will be one of the largest in Ireland.
“The solar panels will be a source of clean energy for AIB’s headquarters and hedges our energy prices. It’s also going to be a key demonstration plant for this emerging Irish industry, providing lots of learning for AIB and the industry at large. AIB hopes to be a leading finance provider for solar plants in Ireland so it’s important we learn by doing. It makes perfect sense to join those dots,”
says O’Neill, who is also an advisory board member of the UCD Energy Institute.
O’Neill’s job is to engage, energise and connect internal and external groups to deliver real social and environmental impact. For a utility company this might mean reducing its carbon footprint and increasing the safety of staff while generating and distributing energy. For a bank it’s very different but equally important.
“This agenda is much broader than the business of environmental best practice. Macro trends — such as geo-political instability, disruptive innovation and an ageing population — and their impact on Ireland are also topics of interest. For example, a bank that understands how the population is ageing will appreciate the need to lend to businesses that serve that market, such as nursing homes and healthcare providers. Looking at what is good for our staff, our customers, and society at large is ultimately good for us as a bank. It’s common sense really.”
Partnerships will be key to delivering AIB’s long term impact.
“It can also be about making life simpler for borrowers. For example, last year, AIB signed a Cooperation Agreement with ENERCON, a leading wind turbine manufacturer, which will help small wind farm developers, typically farmers, streamline the process of getting finance and greatly reduce their costs. We’re moving into the enablement game and our core product happens to be money.”
O’Neill was also gratified to find that an awareness course to educate AIB staff about climate change and energy efficiency – at home and at work – has proved popular with 7,000 staff completing it. Now, the plan is to share that knowledge with other companies. In partnership with Sustainable Nation Ireland, the plan is to share the specially-designed course with 20,000 people in businesses nationwide.
O’Neill is chair of a new ‘40 under 40 Irish Sustainability Leaders Think Tank’ set up to enable young leaders within Irish businesses to drive their own sustainability practices. The initiative was launched by Sustainable Nation Ireland and aims to create a group where leaders can share best practice and build skills in support of their leadership development.
“It will be like a mini-MBA. We plan to have global industry giants challenge the groups with live case studies, guest speakers from diverse industries talking about their experiences as practitioners and design-thinking sessions with top notch facilitators. It will be fun, challenging and unique and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into it.”
In November, Ireland hosts the 2016 Sustainability Gathering, a major event which aims to further push this essential agenda. O’Neill adds:
“There is a great opportunity here for Ireland to reinvent itself and we have really good fundamentals to build off. The key is communication and showing how it affects all Irish people.”