John Sheridan, CEO of Ballard Power Systems

Ballard Power System's new CEO John Sheridan talks to BCBusiness about how he got the job, what he's doing differently, and the company's fuel-cell technology.

Ballard Power System’s new CEO John Sheridan talks to BCBusiness about how he got the job, what he’s doing differently, and the company’s fuel-cell technology

John Sheridan clearly isn’t giving himself much of a honeymoon period as the newly minted CEO of Ballard Power Systems. The former president of Bell Canada and Ballard’s acting CEO since October is hours away from hopping on a plane that’ll take him to England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Denmark for a series of investor meetings – the first trip of its kind for Sheridan. “The European market is very hot on alternative energy and energy technology,” he explains. Still, Sheridan was able to squeeze in a quick phone call with BCBusiness, eager to discuss his vision and plans for Ballard’s future. With the fuel-cell maker having failed to live up to previous expectations, he’s obviously firing on all cylinders to talk up the company any chance he gets. (Get a load of what he has to say about hybrids.)

Rumour has it you were reluctant to take on this position.
I wouldn’t use the word “reluctant.” I just said, up front, that I wasn’t going to be a candidate. I was involved in other businesses and companies and I was happy with that. I had a home and a life in Toronto, and a home and a life in North Carolina. I was engaged with Ballard as chairman, and that was going to be my ongoing commitment to the company.

What happened to change your mind?
Some very nice people worked on me to get me to think about staying.

Did they serenade you under your window at night? Yes, and they sent over flowers and booze – all of that stuff. No, just kidding! From October to January, I thought we really made a lot of progress in repositioning the company and getting some momentum. In early February, I talked to my family and told them I thought this could be a great opportunity. They agreed and supported me, and I told the board at Ballard that I would consider it.

How are you doing things differently than Dennis Campbell?
Dennis’s background was manufacturing. My background is commercializing technology. Dennis came into the company at a time when there was some tough restructuring required and for the three years he was here, he worked through a lot of tough decisions of selling assets, downsizing the company and restructuring. Now we’re solidly focused on moving forward and looking forward to growth opportunities.

When Campbell left, it was apparently a mutual decision. Was it really mutual? Or was he asked to leave?
No, it was mutual. The board of Ballard, as any good board does, regularly reviews leadership and in discussions with Dennis the decision was reached.

What did you give up to take the job?
I was involved with a number of different companies. I was on the board of a major paper company in the U.S. and I was doing some private equity things as well. I had some diversity, some variety and also more flexibility time-wise. I’ve given all of that up.

Ballard hasn’t really lived up to the hype around fuel cells – a lot of people are saying the technology is decades away. You’re taking the reins at a shaky time.
It’s not a shaky time. For many years Ballard faced very, very high expectations. I joined the board four years ago when the stock price had fallen from an extremely high level down to about $25. The company needed to be restructured – the cash consumption rate was too high and there were major questions about how the company should be repositioned. Our stock is up 40 per cent since the start of the year. I think the company’s establishing a bit of a sense of momentum.

Why are you so convinced about fuel-cell technology?
The world we live in, without getting too philosophical, desperately needs this technology. We have huge and worsening energy problems. Think of our addiction to oil and what that means for our national economic well-being and security, and what it means for our environment. There’s some gripping evidence that shows we are on the wrong path. We need a new paradigm.

Are you looking beyond the automobile industry now?
It would be wrong to think we’re not still focused on the automotive sector. It’s a huge priority for us, but it’s a longer-term play. In the shorter term, we’ve got other market opportunities that we think are very significant, including the co-generation market, where we can generate both heat and electricity for residential customers. We’ve got major activity going on in Japan now on co-generation. And there’s a short-term, medium-term opportunity in materials handling – self-powered forklifts and equipment trucks.

What do you make of hybrid cars? Aren’t they making fuel-cell-powered vehicles redundant?
To us, a hybrid is a transitional technology. It’s a key step toward fuel-cell-powered vehicles. They’re not inconsistent with our goals – they’re a step along the way.

What’s your primary focus right now? You’re going to the U.K. to talk to investors. Are you looking for more cash?
No. I think it’s important that people understand that. We are now very solidly positioned financially. We have US$233 million – enough to last us through to 2009 in research and development. The trip is to visit current investors and some prospective investors, investment fund managers, analysts, investment researchers – the usual mix.

How does Vancouver compare to Toronto?
It’s a less congested city and a far more beautiful city. I just bought a house in Coal Harbour, and I’ll be able to do more of the outdoor things I enjoy, like golf and skiing. Still, I’m in the office at 6 a.m. and I go home at 7:30 p.m. A lot of what I see of Vancouver is pretty dark.

Are you in it for the long haul?
This is not a short-term commitment. I’m 51. I’ve got a lot of runway left in me.

What do you need to work comfortably?
I’ve got my laptop, I’ve got my BlackBerry; I can work anywhere.

Everybody’s watching to see how Ballard performs. How do you handle stress? Oh, stress never bothered me. I love the challenge – it turns me on.