Greg Jackson starts each day by flicking on the radio and “scrunching” into his bath. The boss of Octopus Energy has a small tub, which pleases him as it is efficient and fills quickly. His morning routine echoes the tycoon’s underprivileged childhood. “You can tell if someone grew up in a cold house: we often prefer baths – when you get out of the shower you get a real shock,” he says.
Jackson, 50, grew up near Middlesbrough. After his parents split, his mother worked as a barmaid and later studied while on benefits. He now runs Octopus, the green energy supplier founded in 2015 and valued at £4bn, with more than 3 million customers in 14 countries and backers including former US vice-president Al Gore.
He believes his thrifty upbringing allows him to empathise with struggling customers. “It’s actually more than that: bringing down energy costs is one of the reasons I started the business,” he says. “It’s demoralising that we can’t keep bills lower in the short term when we need it most, but we have done a tremendous amount up to now.”
Last month Octopus pledged £50m to cut customer bills until October’s price cap rise, part of a longer-term package worth £150m. “We’ve never made a profit and were going to, but we’ve ploughed everything we’re going to make into customer support so we’re not going to make one this year,” he says.
The mop-topped energy boss, dressed in grey T-shirt and jeans, has become the acceptable face of a pariah industry. As 31 energy firms went bust since the start of last year, public ire has been directed at the bosses of failed challengers. They’ve been characterised as inexperienced and foolhardy for not hedging their energy far enough in advance.
“You can’t become a car dealer if you haven’t got the money to buy cars,” says Jackson, exasperated. He says it took years to find the £10m he needed to launch Octopus. “You can’t just enter this market by shaking your piggy bank.” He believes suppliers with more than 10,000 customers should be subject to hedging checks. Fellow green energy group Bulb went bust last November and remains in “special administration”. It could cost taxpayers £2bn.
Could Octopus become another Bulb? “We’ve raised 16 times more investment than Bulb did. We have a technology licensing business with big customers like E.ON and EDF, and we’ve invested in generation and a heat pump centre. We’re nothing like Bulb.”
Before Bulb’s collapse, Octopus flirted with taking over its rival. Jackson said the size of the supplier – with 1.5 million customers – meant there was “no viable route” for the business to be taken on by a competitor before its collapse. Since our interview, Octopus has rejoined the race, submitting a last-minute bid. Jackson declined to comment on it.
Octopus took on 600,000 customers from bust Avro Energy last year, and Jackson accuses the administrators of “arguing and quibbling over completely unimportant technical points”.
With the crisis that toppled so many suppliers continuing to rage, Jackson thinks the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is right to plough £15bn into addressing the cost of living: “It makes economic sense for the government to find ways to bring bills and inflation down. I lived through rip-roaring inflation in the 1980s and double-digit interest rates. These are things we should do everything to avoid.”
He believes the energy crisis has underscored the need for Britain to move away from oil and gas. “The first nail in the coffin should have been climate change, then it should have been the fact that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Now we see this as a national security issue as well – if that’s not the final nail I don’t know what to do.”
As the Observer arrives at the headquarters near Oxford Circus, in central London, for our interview, Jackson cheerfully leaps up from his desk among the troops. There are bright pink octopus toys dotted around the half-full offices, and crisps and sweets on a communal table. Octopus’s youthful workforce is poring over energy consumption charts and enthusing about that bespoke tech, called Kraken, which will now be licensed to other utility companies.
One department looks after Electric Juice, a service that lets customers add car-charging payments to their electricity bill. Elsewhere, a vast screen displays the progress of Plots for Kilowatts, a scheme that matches areas where residents have said they’ll put up with an onshore windfarm in return for lower bills with areas where landowners are keen to host one. Internally it’s called Winder (wind-Tinder, geddit?).
“We want a similar effort to the vaccine rollout,” says Jackson, sweeping bags of Frazzles aside. “It takes seven years to get a windfarm through the planning process and connected to the grid. The engineering part only takes a year.”
Octopus’s other renewables ventures include a huge push to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, and investment in what will be the world’s longest subsea power cable, linking Devon to a vast solar farm in the Moroccan desert.
The collection of projects reflects Jackson’s entrepreneurial background. He began his career at consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble before running businesses including a coffee shop and a mirror manufacturer. In 2006, he sold a customer relationship tech business for £4.5m.
Now his mission is to turn Britain on to renewables, despite the efforts of a small noisy group, including Nigel Farage, attacking net zero goals. “Climate change is no longer this vague thing: people are literally baking in India and Pakistan,” he says. “I’m just gobsmacked anyone’s opposing this.”
Does being a flag-bearer for green energy get him in hot water at dinner parties? “I literally don’t get invited to them. I think I’m too opinionated. My mum is very, very politically opinionated and I have that.”
Jackson won’t be drawn on how long the energy crisis will last: “It’s a fool that predicts commodity markets. Europe is going to go into this winter with more gas storage than last year, but if Russia stops sending gas to Europe, prices will skyrocket.”
With that he dashes off to do the school run, ready to pass on his opinions to the next generation.
Family In a relationship; has two children from previous partners.
Education Huntcliff secondary school in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, east of Middlesbrough (left at 16); wrote video games software before returning to do A-levels; economics degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Pay “Minimum wage”; Jackson gave up his £150,000 salary when the energy crisis began last autumn, donating the rest of his original salary to Octopus’s staff welfare and its financial hardship fund, Octo Assist. He has never taken a bonus, and owns a 6% stake, worth about £240m.
Last holiday Cotswold Water Park, with family and friends.
Best advice he has been given “Integrity is what you do when no one’s watching.”
Biggest career mistake “Not seeking backers for the idea of Octopus Energy sooner.”
Word he overuses “Brilliant. Or the F-word.”
How he relaxes “Beer and mild geekery.”