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20 July 2022

“Brexit is the biggest act of self-harm a nation could take”: the CEO of Velux

David Briggs on why sustainability and the EU make good business sense.

By Philippa Nuttall

This week’s record-breaking heatwave has proved how most UK homes lack good ventilation and proper insulation. But Brexit and the “idiots” in charge of Britain will only make it more difficult for the country to reduce its buildings’ greenhouse emissions and make them more comfortable places to live in winter and summer, according to David Briggs, the CEO of window manufacturers Velux.

Velux is one of those rare companies whose name is synonymous with its product: slanted windows embedded in house roofs. Founded 80 years ago, the Danish firm has the jolly-sounding job of “selling daylight and fresh air”, Briggs told me when we met in the shady courtyard of a hotel in Brussels last month. Born and educated in Britain, Briggs has been with Velux since 1991. He worked his way up the ladder before being appointed Velux’s Copenhagen-based CEO in January 2018 aged 52.

Despite Covid, the war in Ukraine and the threat of a global recession, “we have never done better,” said Briggs. “Our business is up dramatically.” It is difficult to ascertain exactly how dramatic this increase is since Velux’s financial results are incorporated into those of its main owner VKR Holding, a company owned by the Villum Foundation, which also includes various window and door brands (the founding Kann Rasmussen family also retains a 10 per cent ownership stake in the foundation). In 2021, VKR reported revenues of €3.5bn, an increase of around €500m on the previous year.

Briggs attributed some of this growth to the pandemic and the subsequent transition to more home-working. “Under the roof isn’t a bad place for a home office, it’s away from the kids and the dishwasher,” he said. But despite its success in other regions, Velux’s growth in his home country has been slower. “The UK is nowhere near as good as it could be because we have idiots in government,” said Briggs, describing the decision to leave the EU as “the biggest act of self-harm a nation could take”. The company’s lack of growth in the UK is “related to Brexit”, he believes, but he admitted his views may be coloured by “fierce anti-Brexit convictions”. Nonetheless, there is “no structural reason” why Velux’s UK market share was “flat” when it has “grown 10 per cent in France and 15 per cent in Germany”.

Cast adrift from the rules, targets and cash of the EU Green Deal, which aims to turn the bloc into a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, Britain will only become less attractive to companies wanting to invest in green projects, explained Briggs. The European Commission has pledged at least €1trn in “sustainable investments” over the next decade to meet the goals. Companies such as Velux hope to benefit from that pot of money. Buildings in the EU are responsible for 40 per cent of energy consumption and 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Renovation rates, including replacing windows, will have to accelerate if these figures are to decrease.

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Briggs is sceptical the UK is willing to back similar action. Recent Conservative governments have failed to agree long-term support plans to help people make their homes more energy efficient. The former UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has been blamed repeatedly for refusing to find money for home insulation. However, as a Tory leadership candidate, Sunak has reportedly promised the Conservative Environment Network that he will draft a new home energy-efficiency scheme if he beats Liz Truss in the contest to become leader of the Conservative Party.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Back in June, Briggs said Velux felt “much more confident” about its future in countries inside the EU than with “countries that want to row their own boat”. The UK’s “standards will diverge” from those in Europe. “That will be a problem and it will further increase our costs.”

[See also: “Engineers build the fabric of society. We need them in government”: Jo da Silva]

Velux has factories in 11 countries, including Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, Czech Republic and Slovakia, but not in the UK. “A Brexiteer would say the UK will build its own factories and create its own windows,” said Briggs. But for him such a scenario is not feasible. “Good luck with that. There isn’t enough volume in the UK to warrant the investment.” The company had “tended to move production from west to east” for wage reasons, but it was now focused on expanding its manufacturing potential in France and Germany – to reduce emissions Velux increasingly wants to “at least assemble windows” closer to where they will be sold.

Briggs insisted sustainability is anchored in Velux’s DNA – its windows insulate, reducing a building’s emissions, and the company’s carbon footprint is relatively low. Back in 1965, before sustainable development was even a concept, Velux’s founder Villum Kann Rasmussen wrote the “Model company objective”, setting out how the company should be run. It committed Velux to produce products that were “useful to society” and to “treat its customers, suppliers, employees of all categories and shareholders better than most companies”. As the CEO, Briggs has a one-line job description that calls on him to operate the company in accordance with this objective. He regards climate action and environmental protection as part of that mandate.

It is much easier for him than, say, the CEO of a listed company with a big carbon footprint to talk about sustainability, he acknowledged, but he insisted that green policies are good for business. Younger customers (“it will be people my daughter’s age buying windows in five years’ time”) want to know that their purchase is not causing environmental harm; likewise, companies working in line with climate targets are best-placed to attract the most talented employees, he argued. “We employed 2,200 new people last year; maybe I interviewed eight of them for senior positions. Of those eight, at last six said their primary reason to join us was because of our real commitment to sustainability.”

It was only five years ago, Briggs admitted, that he really started to understand the importance of sustainability. But now, as a full convert to climate action, “I’d like to die thinking we tried to do something.” 

[See also: Will the solar industry cut its ties to modern slavery?]

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