After a long career at Shell, Gerald Kok made the switch to solar energy company Orb Energy in Bangalore. As the Dutch CFO Kok has to help professionalize this rapidly growing company. “I’m learning even more and faster here than at Shell

Gerald Kok worked for Shell in The Hague, Istanbul, Colombo and New Delhi. Over a year ago he returned to India, to Bangalore this time. And not for Shell, but for solar energy company Orb Energy. At Orb Energy he found a rapidly growing club, which is supported by major investors such as Acumen, the Dutch development bank FMO, the American development bank OPIC, and, recently, Shell. Orb Energy sells solar panels to small and medium sized companies in India. In India, companies pay more for gas and electricity than private individuals, and energy prices continue to rise. Own generation with solar panels and solar boilers is therefore becoming more and more attractive for companies. From Bangalore the Dutch CFO, shares seven insights he has gained in India.

Mutual Trust

“Did you know that there are 50 million small and medium enterprises in India? About half of them may be disorganized, but even then the SME market is huge. For our customers, our systems are a considerable investment, which is why Orb Energy offers a 36-month repayment arrangement. In this way, we not only remove a financing threshold, but it also gives companies confidence that we are doing everything we can to make the solar energy system function optimally. Some Indian companies that could easily make the investment in one go, therefore still choose our repayment scheme. Mutual trust is crucial when you want to sell something in India.

State For State

“We are mainly active in South India: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and a bit in Kerala and Maharashtra. Now we want to go further into India: to Gujarat, Punjab and Rajasthan. This country is so huge, you really have to build up a position state by state. We do this by looking for distribution partners in each state, such as installation companies or roofing companies. So very pragmatic.

In addition, we are looking for influential entrepreneurs who are also active in regional industrial networks. Customer referrals are very important in India. There is a lot of competition, but our reputation is good. It is to our advantage that we are an Indian company, have existed for more than 12 years and make the panels in India itself. We only import the glass. In addition, we have our own maintenance people. Many Indian companies don’t want them on their own payroll, but we do. Then we can educate and train them, we think it’s worth it” said the Dutch CFO.

Extensive Due Diligence

“Orb Energy is experiencing solid growth, which means that the financial risks are considerable, not least because we sell systems on an installment basis. You have to manage that well. Many foreign companies don’t want to burn their fingers on SMEs in India, but they are leaving an enormous market behind. Before we deliver an expensive installment system, we do extensive due diligence. We visit the owner of the company, examine how they run their business and whether there is growth in the company. We even ask who the possible successor will be. This enables us to assess our risk much better. In the last three years, we have only once had a client who was ultimately unable to pay. Every bank in India can only dream of that”.

“Go A Little Slower To Run Faster”

According to the Dutch CFO “A lot of foreign investment in India is cancelled at the last minute. During the final due diligence it often turns out that the numbers are just not right. When foreign investors ask about this, the owner often reacts irritated and like “don’t you trust me?”. This defensive attitude on the Indian side only contributes to the distrust of foreign investors who are then easily tempted to drop out. At Orb Energy I experience this from the Indian side. We are a growth company that has attracted serious investors, but before my arrival, Orb Energy’s budget and financial planning was only in the heads of our two founders. One of the requirements of the investors was to attract a fully-fledged CFO who could have a say at the investors’ level. They didn’t have one before that.

More Accountant Than CFO

“Most Indian SMEs do not have a CFO as we know them. They have a financial manager, a kind of bookkeeper who makes the payments. Someone who only looks back. Such a “CFO” does not think about the future, about the financial risks of rapid growth, for example. That’s all on the board of the director-major shareholder. He decides everything, but often the owner has no insight into the financial implications. As soon as a foreign company knocks on the door, the mismatch becomes clear”.

Financing Company In India

“There is an enormous amount of money available to finance solar energy. Literally every day I get questions from parties who want to invest in Orb Energy. The hardest thing is to get that money from a foreign party in India into the bank account. The amounts involved are considerable, so the exchange rate risk is high. Covering that risk is always expensive. Of course, you can also borrow money locally, but the Indian banks are very averse to risk. For small businesses this is difficult, the process is long and the administration really huge.  Nevertheless, we will certainly try again in the future to get a loan in India.

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Directive Management

“The difference with Shell is, of course, enormous. There I was a small fish in a big pond. At Orb Energy, I’m a big fish in a small pond. It now feels more like doing business: every day I make decisions and we implement them immediately. I’m the boss, so our employees expect me to know how to do it. That requires a different way of managing, very directive. That forces me to learn very quickly. I’ve always learned a lot at Shell, but here I learn more widely and faster: about technology, logistics, management, and so on”.