By Brandon Loy and Daniel Chua
Kevin Low is a consultant at Enea Consulting Asia, where he advises industries, financial players, governments and startups to make the transition to low-carbon, sustainable economies. In this article, he shares the job scope of a consultant and his journey to becoming one. He also reveals some key skills needed by individuals interested in a career in the industry and offers tips for them.
I would describe my role primarily as a relationship manager in IE Singapore. My area of expertise was with environmental infrastructure companies, so I work with them to explore overseas markets. I look at projects that they can invest in, or supply relevant equipment to. By environmental infrastructure, I am referring to water treatment and power generation including renewables.
Then I moved on to Infrastructure Asia, where I took a different perspective in working with regional governments who are interested in bringing investment into infrastructure that they want to see in their countries. That is where I played more of a consultant role where I would advise them on how they should go about attracting private investments, for example, what kind of structures are suitable, what things private investors are looking out for in risk management.
Working with environment infrastructure companies, gaining some basic understanding of the industry and understanding how the industry worked gave me consultancy experience in the region. What I am doing now is a blend of my two previous roles and, to me, it is a natural progression.
At Enea Consulting, we are strategy consultants with expertise in energy and climate transition. Rather than consulting on the environment or projects relating to it, we inform on strategy with a focus on sustainability, climate and energy transition issues.
It is an area that I believe strongly in, and I want to have a hand in shaping this very important issue for future generations. We have a responsibility for the future, and I believe this is going to be a growing area I am able to play a part. Being involved in the periphery of sustainability is very exciting for me.
Focusing on sustainability globally means that the traditional winners in the economy are going to shift, such as oil and gas companies. They are no longer going to be the biggest companies and some of these big multinational corporations (MNCs) who have supply chains all over the world will start thinking about the sustainability of their supply chains. This involves the factories that they are procuring goods from, the suppliers that they are using, whether they are actually engaging in sustainable practices, or discharging polluted waste into open water, disposing their waste properly and their energy sources. If the companies are not compliant, they have to start changing them.
From a Singaporean perspective, we are a very open country and most of our companies who do well are connected to that global supply chain network. It will be very important for them to consider their practices and whether they can align themselves with the end-users and buyers. At the same time with COVID-19, this trend would accelerate as companies were forced to look at their supply chains to find alternative suppliers.
On the other hand, the finance industry has been looking a lot into areas of sustainable investment and sustainable financing over the past two to three years. In Singapore, which is a huge financial hub, this is going to be the focus of the financial institutions, funds, and investors.
On the individual level, as Singaporeans, I believe the impact is really on the kind of jobs that are available and the kind of aspirations we want to have, whether the focus is going to be about just serving the old economy or trying to solve new problems that relate to sustainability.
Developed countries already have the infrastructure, so when they make this green transition it is often because the assets are depreciated. They are looking at upgrades and replacements and it is clear that they want something that is green due to political reasons and investors.
For developing countries, it is different because there is a huge demand for infrastructure which is not fulfilled yet. To fulfil them, you can either go down the old way of just building another plant that you already know how to construct, or you can take the risk and try something greener. While green technology is an option, developing countries have other constraints and may not necessarily dive into that direction. In terms of opportunities, it is very mixed as the infrastructure will have to make sense economically and remain competitive.
Because of the green adoption that has been taking place in developed countries, the cost of this infrastructure has been coming down. For example, the price of solar panels has been falling in developing countries. The cost of using solar energy as a source of power is very close to that of coal-fired power plants. In some countries like India, the cost of solar energy can go even lower than coal. There are opportunities as some of the fundamentals are looking right.
In terms of challenges, I believe it is still an option for stakeholders to fall back on doing things the old way, the familiar way. The other challenge is really the fact that institutions may not be as developed. Factors like the rule of law, the enforcement of contracts, and audit structures can be more of a concern to investors. They will also have to deal with further localization challenges like cultural barriers and language barriers.
Like every job nowadays, no two days are the same. In my current role, I divided my days across three main things. Firstly, I deliver projects which include doing analyses, speaking with industry experts and working on actual reports. Secondly, I also engage in project management, which involves checking in on the status of our projects, briefing analyst on analysis to be done. If there are subcontractors, I have to communicate with them to make sure that they are fulfilling the piece of the work on time and on budget. Lastly, my work involves interacting and engaging with clients or potential clients. This involves presenting deliverables to them, or sharing with them previous experiences, and ideas on how we might go about working on problem statements.
I would say one of them is learning. This means being able to learn really quickly and to think through problems. As you do not usually get the same kind of projects over and over again, we pride ourselves on looking at the frontier issues and problems. The frontier includes new technologies, new kinds of business models and that means that it is uncharted territory. While we may have expertise in certain areas, we do not know everything, which means that we will have to learn and develop solutions quickly around things that we learned. Obviously, to develop solutions, you would need to think through the skills that you have picked up and apply to the problem.
That is actually very applicable in life. Regardless of any sort of university education you have gone through, you are essentially always reading new materials, looking at research papers and more. Those are relevant skills, to be able to plough through materials, internalise them and think through how to deal with them. I think another set of skills that is very valuable as a consultant is of course being able to communicate what you have learned and thought through in a coherent meaningful way. In university, you would have to do that already. Hence, I would say that university education in general would contribute these skills.
In the past 10-20 years, changes have started to accelerate. New, mega trends came up and the world transformed a lot in terms of the relevance of digital technologies and in terms of the widespread availability of air travel, and mobility of the workforce.
These huge changes require dedicated expertise which each company will face once off. However, they do not keep encountering that same problem, but rather, different companies start uncover similar problems as they continue to grow or go international. That is how the consulting industry evolved, where sets of people who realized they can work for this company, solve their problem and utilise those strategies for another company and so on.
Looking into the future, there are big opportunities because there are new things that companies will face, sustainability being one mega issue. There are opportunities in some of these new, specific niches, whether it is looking at digitalisation, sustainability, or decarbonization. A shift is likely because consulting has become bigger and big consulting houses started bringing in more and more different expertise right across different industries, different fields.
Going forward, there may be some fragmentation because now, it makes sense for clients to get someone who perhaps has more expertise in the field. The normal day to day management issues may no longer be the main obstacles. The kinds of problems that companies are facing are more related to this external environment and new challenges. There will be less and less opportunities to optimize. Only with a very stable external environment, then, consulting becomes more about optimization, being able to bring solutions that help improve an existing status quo kind of operation.
My advice would be to be curious, hone your individual personality and be unique. Do not try to fit a certain mould. Strengthen your ability to communicate and to go through a logical step-by-step process. That’s what usually the consulting industry will be looking for. They’re not looking for you to have great content knowledge at the start, but they are looking for smart, intelligent people who can take on a new problem, and work through it systematically.
Humility is extremely important. I have worked mainly in developing economies, where we can tend to come across as believing that we have a lot of value and we have a lot to share. That is probably only true to a certain extent and also in the context in which one is operating in. It may not always be the case in other areas. Developing countries have their own set of challenges that they have to navigate, that they have to deal with, that we may not be able to solve for them. Hence, I think being humble and coming from a position of trying to learn from them is very useful. Learning more about the market, tradition and the culture is also very important.
Another virtue that Singaporeans would need to have is patience. Things do not move as fast in other countries, especially the developing economies that I have been working in. In Singapore, we are very efficient and effective and may want to focus on outcomes and results. However, process and relationships are just about as important. These are important concepts to bear in mind. The mindset is really being willing to humble yourself and also to develop patience, so that you can show that you are in it for a long haul and you are sincere. That helps bring you into markets.
As for the highlights of my career, it is definitely just being able to go to places that I would not otherwise have gone to for a personal reason. If not for my job, I probably would not have been to places like Bangladesh or Iran by myself. These experiences include being able to scout project sites, talk to locals like the authorities about regulations and learning about markets. Beyond that, being able to interact with the industry and learn from the expertise of others in the field is also a highlight.
My one main regret so far is probably that I did not learn another language, beyond English and Mandarin. I think students should learn Southeast Asian languages, like Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Thai or other languages. I had a colleague in the past who spoke Thai extremely fluently. He was a Singaporean but he spent four years working in Thailand. His Thai was so good that people will consider him like a Thai national. I really admire being able to interact in some of these local contexts, especially in ASEAN.
Consulting is something that I can probably go on doing. Working on problem-solving, learning, speaking to experts, there is always something new that is at the horizon that we have to contend with. There would always be new problems that we can deal with. In 5-10 years, I hope to be leading the practice in either Singapore or one of the regional offices.
In terms of careers, we are probably going to have more like a portfolio career, probably not going to just work for one company or one employer. We might be using our knowledge and skills to serve a variety of different stakeholders. When it comes to consulting, I may still be serving a consultancy firm, but I can maybe also work on non-commercial projects on the side. What is interesting about Enea is that we have both our consultancy practice, but we also have a pro-bono practice, working with energy access projects in developing countries. I could potentially see myself doing work that is impactful and meaningful, not necessarily just to earn an income.