Interview: Ghislain Lescuyer, CEO, Saft industrial battery manufacturers
Image credit: Saft
Industrial battery designer and manufacturer Saft celebrates its centenary this year. Here, CEO Ghislain Lescuyer describes how a mature technology can play a vital role in supplying back-up power to critical infrastructure, while grabbing the headlines in Formula 1 and space.
To the consumer, battery technology is just another mundane aspect of modern life that only ever becomes apparent when it doesn’t work. We expect everyday devices to be operational at all times, while ensuring they are charged is a chore most of us would prefer to do without. Chargers, leads and access to mains power are necessary evils in a world where we just want to get on with our lives. That’s just about it.
Yet for Ghislain Lescuyer, batteries are far more interesting. They keep national electricity supply grids going, provide safety for rail networks, keep data centres running during power outages, provide the energy lifeblood to satellites and create acceleration for Formula 1 cars. It’s a world of high-end precision engineering that continues to push frontiers, despite having electro-chemical principles that go back to the mid-18th-century era of Benjamin Franklin.
Lescuyer, who is CEO of French battery manufacturer Saft, sees the development of the modern industrial battery as an evolution that, in the case of the company he is in charge of, dates back to the end of the First World War when Saft made batteries for porters’ trolleys at the nearby Gare de Lyon. As the medium-sized company, which employs 4,100 people in 18 countries and across 14 manufacturing sites, prepares to celebrate its centenary, Lescuyer takes time out to discuss how the humble electrochemical cell is stepping up to play a more central role in the development of the future than ever before.
Lescuyer says the battery market can be broken down into three categories: consumer, automotive and industrial applications. “Saft is in the high end of industrial and automotive. We don’t design batteries for iPhones or standard commercial cars. We provide batteries for electric buses or Formula 1, and we supply and design batteries for high-end applications such as satellites, trains, aircraft, submarines and telecoms. It’s a wide range of market segments.”
We’re sitting in Saft’s Paris offices overlooking the River Seine and the Île de la Grande Jatte, where Seurat painted his famous pointillist masterpiece. However, there is no time to discuss 19th-century French art, because we’re here to talk about the battery manufacturer’s centenary. As Lescuyer explains, the company was formed in 1918 as ‘La Société des Accumulateurs Fixes et de Traction’, creating the acronym the company uses to this day. Originally, Saft manufactured and distributed nickel-based batteries for powering luggage trolleys. In 2017, the company celebrated a milestone with the 200th satellite equipped with its lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology taking flight on the second Iridium NEXT mission.
“Of course, the technology a century ago was different, but we’ve maintained a leadership presence in the market for 100 years.” Lescuyer says that having a recognisable name in the battery business is critical. “Every day I get emails from start-ups with the type of revolutionary ideas that you see in the newspapers. But what customers want is something that is reliable and safe, that provides the right performance.”
He goes on to say that the experience accumulated by Saft over the past century is “a key differentiating factor”. From trolleys, Saft made the logical step on to the trains themselves, initially providing power for carriage interior lighting, “which was how the company grew in the 1920s. We started in the transportation sector and we’re still there.” Last year the company supplied back-up power in the form of SRM nickel-technology batteries for 93 eight-car trains for the Hong Kong metro, MTR, which are currently under construction by Chinese rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Sifang.
‘In the near future there will be more and more global interconnections and that creates the need for more batteries.’
In the second half of the 20th century Saft grew through acquisition of companies in Sweden, UK, US and Germany during a period of “consolidation through build-up strategy”. These tended to be small family-owned businesses, in stark contrast with the 2016 announcement that the world’s fourth largest international oil and gas company Total had acquired Saft for $1.1bn as part of its commitment to “acceleration of development in the fields of renewable energy and electricity.” Lescuyer is happy with the arrangement, as “we have the stability of being part of a larger group, while maintaining our identity”.
Lescuyer cheerfully admits that for most people, batteries are simply “boring. The basic technology doesn’t change very much and lasts for a long period of time. We still have lead-acid batteries in most of our cars, but performance price has improved very significantly. It is true that lead-acid still represents 80 per cent of the industrial market, which is huge. Customers are very reluctant to change because there is one element above all that remains critical, and that is safety. You don’t want your battery to explode in your car.”
Yet today, says Lescuyer, “we are starting to see disruption in the battery market as lead-acid gives way to nickel-based technology. One of the reasons for the shift in emphasis is that nickel can be operated at extremes of temperature.” Saft has recently supplied nickel cells to the new Lucknow Metro in India, “where there are high temperatures and monsoons. Lead-acid has a lot of qualities, but it has drawbacks too. Yet if you look at the NiCad option, it is bigger than lead-acid, but is very reliable.”
Lescuyer says there are “probably ten major performance criteria” related to batteries, and, depending on the technology selected, any or all could become prioritised to differing extents, depending on the context. “If you are operating a satellite, you don’t care so much about the cost, because reliability and safety are the key issues. This is why our strategy is also defined by what we don’t do. We do not produce batteries by the million. We are more interested in supplying product for something like the Rosetta Mission to open the solar panels. It’s just one battery, but we spent four to five years preparing it and then the project was 10 years in space. Everything has to work in the most demanding environment.”
“We have a strong position in space,” he says, referring to 200 geostationary Earth-orbiting satellites using Saft batteries. “This is huge because you have to design a very reliable and safe product for a confined space. It has been 52 years since our first battery went into space. We also provide batteries for a lot of military applications and in aircraft – Boeing or Airbus – where customers are very demanding in terms of level of performance.”
“The DNA of Saft,” says Lescuyer, is simply to “design and supply battery technology to high-end and customised applications. When you work with a train manufacturer, there are weight and size constraints. The more space your batteries take, the less room there is for the passengers.”
Battery back-up for trains starts with the assumption that the unit will break down in the middle of nowhere, creating a requirement for supply power for air conditioning, lighting and door operation functions. “If the breakdown occurs on
the trackside you will need to power a signalling system. As long as the train maintains a functional connection to the pantograph, then there’s no need for the battery. But when it doesn’t, there is what we call back-up application of standby batteries. Sometimes this can be used on a regular basis.
“The reason we like to work with these kinds of applications is that they involve working closely with the customer. The opposites in the strategy are what you do and what you don’t do. It’s the same for satellites and standby operations in refineries. If the grid breaks down, you need to have a system that allows the refinery to start again very rapidly, because when it is down, you are losing money. Data centres are another example of where you need reliable standalone back-ups in the form of power stored in batteries.” Yet storing energy is only one part of the story. Lescuyer describes a rail application in the United States where braking energy is collected and stored. This energy is then released to assist with acceleration, “which is basically the same as we are doing in Formula 1 where we have batteries installed to provide more acceleration to the car when it starts.”
Lescuyer admits that it is these applications that will appeal to the public imagination. “People are more interested in space and Formula 1 than they are in batteries. We work with two Formula 1 teams and every year we have to develop a new battery because of changes in regulation and performance expectations. Every year they try to increase acceleration. We are not talking about Formula E, where the batteries are standard, which caused us to decide not to enter that world. However, the standards may change, in which case we will decide if we are to get involved. But in Formula 1 it is different because you aren’t the supplier – you work in technology partnership and become part of the overall team. Each time there is a success we are congratulated. We have a dedicated team working on this in the US and it represents almost 1 per cent of our revenue.”
“If I look at the companies I have worked in during my career, from grid-related products to strategy consultancy, it has all been in preparation for working with batteries,” says Lescuyer. “When you put together strategy, energy and technology, this produces a relevant portfolio for the battery business, because batteries today aren’t just about electro-chemistry. The world of batteries is becoming more of a system and my background helps me understand the evolution of this world. As a manager, you need to be able to anticipate and have a vision for the whole process. You need to be down-to-earth, but at the same time you need to be able to see where you are going.”
Despite having academic degrees in both management and engineering, Lescuyer prefers not to call himself a ‘classic’ engineering manager, “because I have not been involved in R&D for years. Some very good engineering managers, particularly in the US, have very strong backgrounds in R&D.” He goes on to say that he doesn’t think that there is ‘one profile’ for the modern engineering manager, “but one thing I am certain of is that when you become CEO, you need to have an operational and strategic vision. If you are the leader of a technology company it’s important to understand that you are not the expert, while being able to discuss and share ideas. You also need to be able to challenge what your technology teams are telling you.” Lescuyer thinks the requisite management skills on one level are “obvious. Yet it is also more than just understanding financial concerns. It requires an understanding of customer requirements. This forms the basis of a broad set of skills required of any CEO.”
The skills he is referring to can change depending on the size of the company. “I think the first question for all CEOs to address is scale. When you work for a start‑up, you do everything because you have no resources. You do the copying and coffee as well as looking for financing and visiting customers.” On the other hand, in a large multinational, “very often your responsibilities are not as focused as they are in a medium-sized company like Saft. In a large company, you can afford to be a little bit more laid back. But here, you have to make sure that it works every day. In the medium-sized company your responsibilities are very clear. It does you good from an emotional standpoint to know the people you are working with. Here I would say that I know 500 people and that is a lot.”
When pushed for his insight of what future trends will be in the high-end industrial battery sector, Lescuyer says there will simply be “much higher demand. For example, having a GPS on your smartphone is perfectly normal today, but you must remember that it only works because of satellites. In the near future, there will be more and more global interconnections and that creates the need for more batteries. More people are moving to the city, which means we will start to see smart cities with micro-grids. More cities, more infrastructure, more batteries. The transition to renewable energy means more batteries and new technologies. The question is not just increased demand. Speed is also of the essence and we are in the right place at the right time to respond to that.”