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Derry Newman of Solarcentury: ‘I do not want to look back with regret at 60′

The head of one of Britain’s fastest-growing businesses is joining the executive burnout trend and stepping down

It is not hard to imagine what a former Sony boss used to the trappings of a five-star corporate lifestyle would think of Solarcentury’s offices.

The renewable energy company’s HQ is sandwiched between a betting shop and a newsagent offering money transfers in the colourful but scruffy market that shares the road behind Waterloo station in London.

Derry Newman made that journey. The softly spoken but steely Welshman went from head of European operations at the Japanese electronic group with more than 3,500 staff to a job at Solarcentury, where he had responsibility for 65 employees. “It was a shocking change,” says the chief executive who gave up half his salary and company car to join a company that he has turned into one of Britain’s fastest growing businesses, with a team that has almost doubled to 120 staff in his time there.

But Newman is now about to embark on another brave leap of faith: into unemployment. The official reason the 54-year-old is quitting is that he wants to spend more time with his family.

That is often a euphemism for a boardroom bust-up but in this case reflects the fact that both he and his wife have had health problems: “There have been times when my wife has had illness and I have had to rush back from business trips abroad, and we don’t want to be in that position again.”

His decision to leave Solarcentury in April, announced to the staff on Thursday, is not just about taking his marital duties seriously, it is also about looking after his children, himself – and the company. “One of the first things I will do is go out and buy a dog for my son. I have committed to do that for him – but only when I had time to look after it properly. I have had 33 years at senior-level appointments when I have not been able to support the family in the way that I should or could have done. I do not want to get to the age of 60 and look back with regret.”

But Newman is also influenced by the fact that Solarcentury is at a turning point. The company, which is more often associated with its founder and chairman Jeremy Leggett, will hear in the appeal court on Friday whether the government had the legal right to cut the feed-in tariff (FIT), which reimburses small renewable energy generators, in the middle of a consultation period.

Solarcentury and a group of other renewables firms won an earlier judgment against the Department of Energy and Climate Change and they expect to win again. But the reality is that any judgment over this decision will not stop the industry here being badly hit. The FIT is to be cut in half and new rules on insulation standards will rule out 90% of UK properties from receiving solar panels in future, argues Newman, who describes the move as “draconian”.

Solarcentury needs to find new markets in Asia and elsewhere fast, and the current says he is not the man for that job. “I do not want to find myself in a position where I am financially secure but emotionally bankrupt and physically not able to do what is needed for the business. The demands on a chief executive these days are extreme. There is a need to give financial returns to investors, there are kneejerk reactions from governments and the need to keep the staff together. Anyone who leads a company and thinks they can take all this in their stride is fooling themselves. It inherently chips away at you and causes emotional and spiritual stress.”

Newman, born in Port Talbot and educated in engineering at Southampton, questions whether António Horta-Osório, the group chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group who recently took time off work due to fatigue, was right to rush back, and Newman says he does not want to end up like Steve Jobs, the Apple boss who kept on working despite having pancreatic cancer and being already one of the richest men in the world.

There are serious challenges at Solarcentury but Newman says he is leaving the company with no debt and a strong pipeline of contracts including high-profile ones such as the setting-up of new lighting for Blackfriars station in London, involving the installation of more than 4,400 solar photovoltaic panels on a bridge over the Thames – which the company says will be the biggest solar array in London.

And, although he must be looking forward to cutting out the commute from his home in Fleet, Hampshire, he reflects: “Whoever comes in will have a rare privilege. There are few companies where the staff all have absolute passion for their work.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds