Jason Few: “Listen more than you talk”

You won’t be able to get it all done in one day, so set clear priorities. It’s important to have ambitious goals, but it’s just as important to understand the smaller steps that it will take to achieve those goals. Whenever I enter a new sector or company for the first time, I often find […]

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You won’t be able to get it all done in one day, so set clear priorities. It’s important to have ambitious goals, but it’s just as important to understand the smaller steps that it will take to achieve those goals. Whenever I enter a new sector or company for the first time, I often find myself envisioning what we might be able to achieve in the longer term. But it’s critical to never lose sight of the process or get too far ahead of yourself.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Few.

Jason Few is the President and Chief Executive Officer of FuelCell Energy, Inc. (NASDAQ:FCEL), a global leader in fuel cell technology and clean energy solutions. He has more than 30 years of experience leading Global Fortune 500 and privately held companies across the energy, technology and telecommunication sectors, and he has overseen transformational changes across these sectors. In addition to his work at FuelCell Energy, Mr. Few also serves on the Marathon Oil Board of Directors (NYSE:MRO), as a Senior Advisor to Verve Industrial, an industrial cybersecurity software company, and on the board of Memorial Hermann Hospital. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer systems in business from Ohio University, and an MBA from Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m originally from Ohio, and while I’ve moved around quite a bit over the years, the Midwestern values I grew up with very much shaped who I am. Both of my parents had an incredible work ethic, never quitting a task until it was done. Their tenacity made a big impression on me, and I always strive to approach everything I do with that same work ethic.

One of five children, I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from college. I’m proud of that, but I also know that I might not have been able to do it without the support of the important role models in my life. For that reason, I’ve always tried to set positive examples for my siblings and other people in my life, encouraging them to strive to be the best that they can be. In my professional career, I draw inspiration from those around me, while also pushing them to reach their full potential.

I value my faith, my family, my personal and professional connections, and the challenges I’ve faced that have helped to make me the person I am today.

Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been involved in the energy sector for some time. In 2018, I was recruited to join FuelCell Energy’s Board of Directors, at a time when the company knew it needed to pursue a new strategic direction, aimed at bringing FuelCell’s energy innovations to a broader set of customers. My previous experience across the technology and energy sectors gave me a different perspective on FuelCell’s business, and I was excited to work with my fellow board colleagues and the management team to reimagine the company’s vision and strategy for growth.

Several months later, after serving as an independent board director, I was asked to take on the role of President and CEO. This was not my original plan, but I was honored to be given the offer, because I understand just how genuinely transformational FuelCell Energy’s work is. We don’t just deliver cleaner power — we’re developing and delivering systems that have the potential to radically transform the global energy landscape while positively impacting the environment. So, after discussing the opportunity with my wife of course, I happily accepted.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most interesting aspects of my career is that it has given me several opportunities to be part of projects that would have a major transformative impact on the world.

The first one involved helping to launch the broadband business more than two decades ago. Last year, when the world had to very quickly shut down and adapt because of the global pandemic, the fundamental tool that allowed the seamless transition to remote work was our nearly global broadband internet network. Back in the 1990s, I was part of a team that launched broadband for what is now AT&T. Now, when I look back and think about how transformative access to broadband has been for the world, I get goosebumps knowing that I played a small role in making that happen.

More recently, my role in helping to advance a transformative clean energy platform has also been incredibly motivating — and I imagine that when I look back on this experience years from now, it will give me similar goosebumps. My current role at FuelCell Energy has given me the opportunity to be on the front end of the coming energy transition, contributing to a major world goal of mitigating climate change and addressing one of the greatest challenges that our planet has ever faced. Without a doubt, this energy transition is poised to be one of the most significant shifts in modern history, and FuelCell Energy is contributing in material ways. To me, that is really exciting, and I get up every morning fired up to be a part of a solution that will enable the world to live powered by clean energy.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

My faith in God has been a guiding principle for me throughout my personal and professional life. I also deeply value my family and everything that family means. Faith, the support of my wife, children, and family at large serve as my main fuel. These are all things that give meaning to life and inform my sense of morality.

With regard to my career, the most important principles for me have always been integrity and meeting my commitments exactly as I make them. I try to act with what I call a high “say/do” ratio, meaning when I say I will do something, I will. Every day at work, I’m very focused on delivering results for customers, my team, our stakeholders and our shareholders. I also believe in developing teams and building relationships inside the workplace. I think it is critical to invest in other people, bringing the best of you to work every day, getting to know people on a human level and engaging with them in their lives. I believe in direct and honest communication. Candid, constructive, and direct dialogue is very important, and it has helped to guide me in my career and my life.

Finally, I try to spend time with people outside of work who add to my life and whose lives I can add to. Warren Buffet has been quoted as saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I want my average to be amazing.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”? 
 I fundamentally believe that the right kind of fuel cell technology, deployed in the right way, can radically transform the energy landscape — delivering reliable baseload power to the world in a much cleaner way than it is currently being done in most places.

In case you’re not familiar with fuel cells, they’re a technology that allows us to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity from a fuel (like hydrogen, natural gas or biogas) without burning that fuel. Importantly, fuel cells are able to produce what the energy industry calls “baseload” power — meaning they can be relied upon to continuously power our lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — which is something that wind and solar, as intermittent technologies, unfortunately can’t achieve.

Within the context of our energy landscape, where we’ve typically been forced to choose between “clean” and “baseload,” fuel cells are something of a paradigm shift: Fuel cells mean we can deliver reliable baseload power without burning any fuel. We can reliably power a city or a factory, while outputting virtually zero NOx or SOx emissions. We can finally have it both ways, or as some might say, “have our cake and eat it, too.”

That’s pretty amazing in and of itself, but FuelCell Energy’s approach goes even further. Our carbon separation capabilities decrease CO2 emissions by about 70%, and we’re able to capture CO2 that’s pure enough to be used for carbonated beverages. The same fuel cell that generates electricity can also directly convert electricity (and water) into clean hydrogen, for immediate use or long-term energy storage. Our fuel cells can be configured to run on hydrogen, which is a zero-carbon energy source, generating only electricity, heat and water. And our “tri-generation” system — delivering electricity, hydrogen, water, and thermal energy, all from a single platform, is game changing. We have the platform technology to lead our customers and prospective customers on the path to decarbonization.

There are other advantages as well. Our entire system is extremely compact and power-dense, delivering 10 megawatts per acre (compared to an intermittent solar system that would require approximately 395 acres of land to produce the same amount of power), so our fuel cells can be situated close to where power is needed. And our systems are designed for the circular economy — we recycle 93% of the materials in our platforms and products and put them back into productive use. I could go on and on!

But what does this mean for the world? The bottom line is that we don’t need to choose between radically decreasing emissions and delivering reliable baseload power — we can do both, today. We don’t have to accept that decarbonization means deindustrialization or that developing nations have to miss out on their own industrial revolution to be “good” global citizens. We don’t have to redo our infrastructure to enable distributed hydrogen, since we can efficiently and effectively capture carbon, and we can leverage zero-carbon hydrogen as a fuel to help us achieve our climate ambitions.

How do you think this will change the world?

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of what we’re talking about here. We can deliver clean, reliable baseload power, virtually anywhere in the world. We can radically decrease emissions and decrease our impact on climate change without compromising on energy reliability or availability. That’s pretty amazing.

In developing nations, there are some particular advantages. Our platform’s fuel flexibility means we can leverage whatever energy source is most readily available, whether that’s biogas, natural gas, propane, LNG, or something else. If there’s no readily available fuel source, anaerobic digesters can be deployed anywhere in the world to convert food and wastewater into clean biofuels. There is food and water waste everywhere around the world, and our platform can use that fuel to create and generate baseload power.

The other advantage, which I alluded to previously, is that our fuel cells don’t just generate baseload power — they also generate hydrogen, industrial-grade CO2, water and thermal energy such as steam. That hydrogen can be used to generate additional power, or it can be stored for future use. That carbon can be used in products such as cement, concrete, PH water balancing, beverages, dry ice and more. And that thermal energy can be used for indoor climate regulation, district heating and cooling or other industrial processes. This is an all-in-one system that can address virtually every energy need, all from whichever fuel source happens to be most readily available. That significantly cuts down on the infrastructure that would typically be needed to support those kinds of applications.

Having spent time in the telecommunications industry, in both the landline and cellular business, I think there are some significant parallels to be drawn between energy and telecommunications. Today, in a market like India, telecommunication providers are not spending time building out poles and wires for landline service; instead, they’re deploying cell towers and 5G networks to enable wireless communication. I think about distributed generation the same way: We don’t need to build big, centralized power generation plants or expensive, high-risk, high-voltage transmission lines, with poles and wires, and we can significantly reduce above-ground risks associated with natural disasters. With fuel cells, we can put the power exactly where it’s needed — even in urban areas or on remote islands, and even in parts of the world that lack power infrastructure today.

Virtually anywhere in the world, we can deliver clean, reliable energy — without sacrificing one for the other.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

At a higher level, we should think more deeply about the energy transition. I think it’s critical for all of us to realize that there’s not a single one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we should decarbonize our energy infrastructure.

I don’t think the right answer is to simply say, “we need to do it all with renewable resources like wind and solar,” because that’s not reality. There are industries that simply do not lend themselves to electrification, such as cement, steelmaking, chemical processing, and glass, just to name a few. We can’t just stop making steel — and moreover, it would be incredibly unfair to tell a developing nation that they’re not allowed to make or use steel, when steel is needed to provide housing in highly populated communities, for example.

There is a potential for many unintended consequences given the rhetoric around energy and the way people are approaching the energy transition. It’s incumbent upon both industry and political leaders to take a very thoughtful approach to the energy transition; we need an approach that doesn’t lead with headlines but addresses the matter in a constructive way, without requiring deindustrialization or drastically changing the way we live.

Take a look at cars today that have rubber tires, a hydrocarbon; are we going to use wooden tires instead? Even an electric vehicle has rubber tires on it. So, the unintended consequence is that, in order to engage society in a conversation and to make progress, we must have open dialogue with all, including those that believe the answer is very binary.

I encourage you to take a picture of your favorite room in your house, print that picture, get a red Sharpie and draw an X through every item that is in full or part made using a hydrocarbon. You will be amazed at what is left if anything. The point is not that we shouldn’t, or that we can’t do things differently — the point is that real innovation, and real progress in transitioning away from hydrocarbons, is a complex task that will require a thoughtful, integrated approach.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I was always interested in the potential of fuel cells, but I really became convinced when I joined FuelCell Energy. I began to think much more deeply about the right way to drive an energy transition, and the role our company could play in enabling that transition.

It’s been interesting to me that different members of our team seem to have different opinions about which aspects or advantages of the fuel cell system they find most impressive or world-changing. For some, it’s the fact that we can create hydrogen. For others, it’s simply that we can deliver baseload power without burning any fuel.

For me, I think the fact that we can deliver fuel cells virtually anywhere in the world, even in places without much existing energy infrastructure, is most transformative. This same platform can help developing nations to industrialize while at the same time allowing them to be part of the global push toward clean energy. For me, that realization was the “ah ha” moment.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The good news is that the world is increasingly committed to finding a way to take on climate change, and there is of course a desire to do so while maintaining abundant power. So from that perspective, there is already a huge appetite for a cleaner baseload power source.

There’s also already a strong desire for long-duration energy storage solutions, which again is another advantage of our fuel cells, given their ability to output hydrogen. That kind of storable energy is critical to support intermittent renewable resources. So on several fronts, the demand for exactly these solutions is already there. In many ways, the biggest catalyst that we need is educating the public about the opportunities that fuel cell systems offer. Ultimately, what we need is for business leaders, political leaders, and general consumers alike to think of fuel cells when they think of cleaner power and renewable energy.

Again, there’s already some good news here, in that many major business leaders have already recognized the importance of fuel cells. Just looking at FuelCell Energy in particular, some of our clients include Pfizer, which currently relies on our fuel cells for enhanced grid reliability and for steam in their manufacturing operations as they continue to work on the Covid-19 vaccine; ExxonMobil, who we’re working with to continue to push the limits of decarbonization; and global utilities who are working to decarbonize the electricity grid. So, the fuel cell movement is certainly gaining traction — but I’d love to see it accelerate even faster.

Finally, we need smart and clear policies so that companies like FuelCell Energy and others in the energy sector know exactly what the rules of the road are. In any business, the thing we need most is clarity. What are the rules? Once we know how we want to move forward, we will figure out how to be successful within that framework.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

You won’t be able to get it all done in one day, so set clear priorities. It’s important to have ambitious goals, but it’s just as important to understand the smaller steps that it will take to achieve those goals. Whenever I enter a new sector or company for the first time, I often find myself envisioning what we might be able to achieve in the longer term. But it’s critical to never lose sight of the process or get too far ahead of yourself.

Change always takes longer than you expect, but stay focused on the goal. Many years ago, when I first learned about fuel cells, I thought, “This is amazing! If we can just get the word out, virtually everyone will want to transition to fuel cell-based power.” The reality is that, while we’ve made significant progress in helping to get our customers realize the advantages of fuel cells, we still have some work to do in reshaping the energy landscape.

Listen more than you talk. I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by some very impressive colleagues throughout my career, but I’ve also been struck again and again at the fact that a critical insight or revelation can come from virtually anywhere. Always be ready to listen.

Know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. In my professional journey, I’ve had several excellent mentors who offered me sound advice that has helped to shape my success. But my career has also been greatly shaped by my “sponsors” — those individuals who used their position not only to advise or mentor me but also to help me grow my career, to recommend me for the next opportunity, and to speak up for me when it mattered. I’ve benefited from both mentors and sponsors, and I’ve played both roles myself, so I thoroughly understand the value that each role brings. But it’s critical to know the difference and cultivate both.

Dysfunction is corrosive; make decisions quickly. As a leader, it’s critical to keep your teams moving. In many cases, indecision can be just as problematic as making a bad decision. Don’t be rash or jump to an answer without thinking it through, but trust your instincts and act decisively.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Meet your commitments; focus on outcomes and results; and build great teams that empower you to be a great teammate.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

We’re not actively pitching VCs, since we’re already publicly traded, but I’ll take any opportunity I’m given to hammer home the opportunity for fuel cells.

Fuel cells are the most important energy source that almost no one is talking about — and FuelCell Energy’s portfolio of dynamic, scalable energy solutions delivers the options that the world needs to effectively build a path toward decarbonization.

The FuelCell platform delivers clean, dependable, megawatt-scale baseload power for markets across the globe. Our fuel cells are fuel-flexible — running on hydrogen, natural gas or biogas — without burning/combusting the fuel, thereby releasing virtually zero NOx or SOx emissions. And our tri-generation system delivers electricity, hydrogen and thermal energy — all from the same single platform, using the same fuel source.

FuelCell Energy delivers more than just cleaner power — we deliver platforms that can transform the global energy landscape.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/jasonbfew. You can also find FuelCell Energy on Twitter at @FuelCell_Energy, and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/company/fuelcell-energy/

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