Pioneering the independent power sector: Yasmin Ali speaks to Tom Tribone, CEO of Franklin Park, a US-based global owner of energy and infrastructure assets.
MY name is Yasmin Ali and I’m a chemical engineer working in the energy sector. I was originally attracted to study chemical engineering because of the breadth of career opportunities it provides. To showcase this diversity, I will be talking to a range of fellow chemical engineers to find out what they do, how they got there, and why they do it.
For this instalment, I spoke to Tom Tribone, CEO of Franklin Park, a US-based global owner of energy and infrastructure assets.
Tom founded Franklin Park in 2000. The company develops, owns and operates infrastructure for many industrial sectors including energy, communications, rail and road transport, and logistics. Operations span North and South America, Europe, India and China.
“It may not be the most glamorous business, but think of electricity, our largest business unit, and the night-time pictures of the lit-up Earth from space. Which other business can be seen from outer space?” Tom said.
One of Franklin Park’s current projects is a large battery, for storing electricity generated from the sun, wind and biomass in Hawaii. This will help the islands achieve their goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045.
Prior to setting up Franklin Park, in the 1980s, Tom was involved in building AES; the world’s first large, non-governmental electric company. This spawned a whole new sector, known as the independent power industry, replacing government-run power systems.
“Things really took off when the UK’s energy sector was privatised and deregulated. Within a very short time, many other major countries including the US, China, India and Brazil adopted large parts of the UK model,” Tom explained, adding that the introduction of competition in the electric sector resulted in lower prices and more choice for consumers.
After completing his degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Tom started working as a chemical engineer in what is now BP.
“I got involved in as many areas as I could. Operations, research and development, law school and business school,” Tom said, referring to his two postgraduate degrees: an MBA and Law.
The degrees took Tom a total of eight years to complete, working during the day and studying in the evenings. He believed that an understanding of the law and business would be very valuable, and has benefited from this combination.
During this time, Tom attended a class about the Administrative Procedures Act, taught by a nun who was also a lawyer. After reading a new paragraph, buried in a large regulation, he realised that the government monopoly on selling electricity had essentially been abolished. This had not received much attention, but formed the idea of a new industry.
“Many big refineries had their own electricity plants for self-use. Why couldn’t those plants sell electricity to third parties under this new rule?” Tom said.
This was the genesis of the idea to set up private power stations in the US, and the birth of AES. The first projects completed by AES involved electricity generation plants at BP refineries.
Tom enjoys starting new things and helping them to grow. He has been involved with many first-of-a-kind successes. This includes the world's first power plant to capture carbon dioxide, at the Shady Point Plant in Oklahoma in the late 1980s. The captured carbon dioxide was turned into dry ice, and used by the chicken production industry in the area.
Other firsts were a bilateral agreement to export natural gas from Argentina to Brazil, building a major logistics company in India, and bringing an environmentally-friendly road-building technology to China.
A first priority for Tom is his family. He and his wife Michele, also an engineer, have four daughters. He also coaches children’s basketball at a local school, and professes that this should be his job, and CEO his hobby!
Having learned Fortran at university, Tom recently decided to update his programming skills. He taught himself Python, and writes code in his spare time, including a program that he claims has improved his golf score.
Chemical engineering has taught Tom both systems thinking and practical doing. He also learned to widen his context to arrive at new insights, and gained an appreciation for other important subjects like psychology and liberal arts.
“You have to be more than an engineer to be a good engineer.”
For more articles in this series, visit https://bit.ly/2DZmjA4
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