John Pontin OBE
“My responsibility to my children and grandchildren is uppermost in my mind,” Pontin continues: “The signs are, what my generation will leave is pretty precarious. It’s a failure of stewardship, and I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Pontin co-founded The Converging World in 2008 to use innovative means to create environmental, social and community change. The charity is connecting communities thousands of miles apart, creating sustainable energy, and helping some of the poorest people in India - all while creating returns for investors.
Thinking big and refusing to accept the status quo have long been hallmarks of his enormously successful career though. Pontin left school aged 16 with thwarted ambitions of becoming an architect. He joined a builders’ office and qualified as a quantity surveyor on day release. After seven years of employment, he decided that the building industry of the time was inherently inefficient because it separated design and construction.
A company that could design and build would be at a big advantage, Pontin thought. The idea led to the JT Group, which was formed in 1961, co-founded with colleague Tim Organ using their 1960 £100 Christmas bonuses.
Their insight brought improved margins and big success. Although “we were so small to start with that no one noticed,” their turnover grew by 50% annually for the first ten years.
In 1973 the company bought the derelict former tea warehouse Bush House, which was the group’s headquarters and home of the Arnolfini art gallery. It was the first building on the Bristol waterfront to be renovated after the city docks were closed to commercial shipping and the catalyst for the startlingly successful regeneration of the area and city.
Pontin’s and JT Group’s achievements have been highlighted in research by the Tavistock Institute and A View to the Future by Roland Adburgham. But the self-effacing Pontin is at pains to say that his achievements are group efforts.
“I doubt if I could do anything on my own,” he says: “The people around me are key. I know they are needed and I think they know they are needed.”
Teamwork and co-operation is at the heart of The Converging World’s ambitious goals, and its reason for being.
Pontin is convinced of the western world’s responsibility for climate change, and of the need to help supply and finance technological solutions to the problems for developing countries that will be worst hit.
“It’s been snowing in Arizona today,” he tells me: “It seems to make sense to focus on climate change.”
His village in the Chew valley near Bristol is well-known for its sustainable stance, but Pontin realised a number of years ago that he and his neighbours wouldn’t make a huge difference if they confined themselves to local action. Renewable wind energy wasn’t a palatable local solution to many of them.
However, Pontin heard about a small village in an impoverished, rural area of Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where he and his neighbours could make difference by supporting sustainable energy projects and local NGOs. The respective sizes of the two villages also matched the 1:5 population ratio of the developed and developing worlds. The whole project is a microcosm of how such different communities can interact.
With £1.25m from Pontin (including Gift Aid) The Converging World was able to secure the loan of a similar amount from an Indian bank to build two 1.5 megawatt wind turbines in Tamil Nadu.
They raised money for two further turbines in August 2012, and have further turbines currently under construction that will produce 8.4 megawatts from July this year. In total 12.9megawatts.
Geared funding is incredibly effective for the project. The turbines have a lifespan of 20 years but it takes only 10 years to pay back the bank. The remaining money is split between further investment in more turbines, NGOs in India, and investors in the project who can receive a 6% return per annum return for a five year loan.
“We are over the learning phase and can now grow exponentially,” Pontin says. “We are dealing with a low economic metabolism in India. They can do ten times more with a pound than we can in the UK.”
There are another 16 megawatts worth of turbines in the pipeline this year. With successful fundraising The Converging World investments in turbines in Tamil Nadu could be producing 30 megawatts by January 2014, ten times more than two years previously.
Pontin’s plans don’t stop there. The Converging World plans to go ‘open source’, passing on the blueprint to others who can replicate their success. The charity is pressing ahead with a woodstove project for some of India’s poorest households and has helped launch a twinning programme for schools in Tamil Nadu and the Bristol area to improve communication, understanding, and cooperation.
He sees an opportunity to create pension (or savings) products that fund long-term sustainability projects, for people to invest in for their children. “The twenty first century sustainable economic model will deliver big results,” he says. “Even without climate change it’s worth it.”
Pontin’s conception of stewardship is as broad as it is exciting. I hope his grandchildren look back in 50 years and marvel at his endeavours and achievements.