Isabelle Kocher, ENGIE CEOIsabelle Kocher interviewed for Le Figaro by Bertille Bayart and Domitille Arrivet

LE FIGARO - Last Thursday, you announced a major divestment: the sale of your upstream LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) business to Total for at least €1.5 billion. Does this deal mark the end of your disposals program ?

Isabelle KOCHER - Yes, the pruning phase is nearly over, and we’ve just a few outstanding disposals to finalize over the coming months. We’ve reprofiled ENGIE to focus its resources on areas of business where the Group has a competitive edge; those that have a future in a world of energy defined by carbon reduction, decentralization and digitalization. We’re now engaged in an acquisition strategy to expand our core businesses of energy supply, especially green electricity, energy infrastructures, by which I mean power transmission and supply grids and energy storage, and services in the form of integrated solutions delivered to our local authority, business and domestic customers. The Group is already growing strongly in these three business sectors: at more than 5% in power generation, 2% in infrastructures and 9% in services. So our goal now is to amplify that growth and boost our profitability. I’m very happy and confident about the growth prospects of the Group going forward. ENGIE is well on the way to a successful transformation !

All the same, it is quite a surprise to see ENGIE selling off first its exploration and production activities, and now LNG as well. But gas has always been part of the group’s DNA, or at least that of Gaz de France…

We are still a major force in the gas market in terms of storage, transmission and distribution, because it is the best partner for renewables. But we don’t need to produce it, especially since it is more abundant than ever. Gas isn’t a business sector, but rather a complete value chain. As an industrial company, we’re focusing our attention on those segments where we can make a real difference. Segments like gas infrastructures, where ENGIE leads the world! That wasn’t the case on the upstream side of the industry, where we didn’t have the necessary scale, and struggled to break even. It's a good sector for Total to be in as a gas producer. But not for us.

Your plan set out €15 billion worth of disposals and €15 billion worth of investment. We’ve seen the first, but where is the second ?

Our acquisition strategy is already delivering, and will now accelerate further. We’re reinvesting in the sectors of the future - in innovation - and doing more to support the delivery of energy right through to its final uses in buildings, mobility and industry… We have, for example, signed a €1 billion 50-year contract with Ohio State University to manage the energy needs of the entire campus, including heating, cooling and ventilation… It's that kind of contract that really points towards our future successes. Let me give you another example: Our acquisition of Tabreed, a company that specializes in district cooling networks in the Middle East; that acquisition makes ENGIE the world leader in that market! In Middle Eastern countries, cooling accounts for more than half of all energy consumption...

The power and gas supply industries are, of course, also growing. We’ve developed two hydropower plants in southern Brazil, as well as a 300+ MW wind farm. We’re also investing in the home power supply market. Our green electricity offering has already attracted 1 million customers in France, and we expect that number to double by the end of next year. So every time, we are targeting the same goal of consolidating the leadership of ENGIE, accelerating its growth and establishing new market positions. We haven’t yet completed our reinvestment program, but I’m very pleased that we have completed our program of disposals without succumbing to a dip in our dynamic performance, as the market predicted. We owe this achievement to our people. The move to decentralization that I coordinated has also delivered efficiency gains and cost savings.

So we can no longer expect to see ENGIE making the large-scale mergers and acquisitions typical of its past ?

Acquisitions in isolation do not make a strategy ! But they can be part of a strategy and accelerate that strategy. Bear in mind that we have acquired around 20 companies over the past two years. My feeling is that ENGIE is becoming increasingly attractive to companies of all sizes, to the point that they are approaching us. We’re also seeking out innovations that will be game changers; technologies that we can roll out on the grand scale.

What is your take on the government’s energy policy ?

I’m delighted that the government has set a big ambition. And it marks a real change of attitude, because environmental policy has changed from being a political marker to a pragmatic reality. That change was essential, and it allows us to objectivize choices, especially in terms of nuclear power, that are decisive for our country. The development of renewables now requires us to attack the issue of procedural complexity. I’d make the comparison with what happens in other countries, because in France, it’s often a real obstacle course. The other major point is that the issue of saving energy is becoming more of a priority. The initiatives already underway to improve building energy efficiency are signs of that. We see this as a high-potential business opportunity. But to go further, we need practical models, incentives and funding. For example, we’re great believers in long-term contracts, and are ready ourselves to fund the hardware needed to save energy for our customers, local authorities and businesses. Our payback will come from sharing the savings made, and we’ve already signed 4,000 contracts based on this model.

The appointment of Gérard Mestrallet as Group Chairman will expire in May next year. Do you fear that this approaching deadline will trigger another round of rumors, and would you want to take over as Chairman and CEO at that time ?

That’s really not an issue for now. When the time comes, we will take a collective decision as a Board of Directors, and once that decision has been made, I’ll be happy to give my reaction.