LAWRENCE WU, CA (SINGAPORE), GROUP PRESIDENT & CO-FOUNDER, SUNSEAP GROUP
The high-stakes, fast-paced world of investment banking was once where Lawrence Wu thrived in. The accountancy graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) had spent a few weeks at a Big Four accounting firm as an audit assistant, before taking up a job with DBS’ investment banking division. The pace fitted him better, he felt, and over the next 10 years, he was deeply immersed in the world of corporate finance and capital structuring with other big banks including Macquarie and BNP Paribas, helping companies raise money from public and private investors to finance sizeable investments and projects. He enjoyed the often-punishing demands of the job and the adrenaline rush of deal-cutting, but little did he know that he was in training for the next phase of his career.
In 2009, Mr Wu was having drinks with a good friend whom he had gotten to know while both were undergraduates at NTU. While chatting about the latter’s solar panel manufacturing and assembly family business, the pair realised that while clean energy trends were here to stay, the prevailing business model – whereby consumers had to pay high upfront installation costs – was hampering market adoption. The answer: “Infrastructure-for-a-service” via a power purchase agreement (PPA) model, already practised in many other forms of business but not yet commonplace in Singapore. Under this model, an energy provider fully finances, installs and maintains the solar system on consumers’ rooftops so that they pay only for the energy consumed on a monthly basis; this effectively removes, from the consumer, the burden of financial risk and technical complexities of maintaining a solar system. Think of it as “solar-as-a-service”, describes Mr Wu, drawing parallels with the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model whereby companies pay a monthly fee to use cloud-based applications instead of forking out large capital amounts to build physical IT infrastructure.
While he enjoyed his job, Mr Wu could not resist the prospect of building a business from scratch, and not just any money-making venture, but one that would help make the world a cleaner, better place. The pair established Sunseap Leasing in 2011, and that very year, they secured their first project with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) – to install solar panels on the rooftops of 40 HDB blocks under the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council. The next step was to raise money for the project, but they hit a snag. Smaller financial institutions did not really understand their business at that time and were thus reluctant to fund them S$4 million, which was too minuscule for the big infrastructure banks that typically dealt in hundreds of millions of dollars. This was where Mr Wu’s background in accountancy and expertise in project financing, fundraising and investor engagement were brought to bear. The cash was raised, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At the centre of Sunseap’s value proposition is the concept of grid parity, which refers to “the ability to provide clean energy at a cost lower than that generated from fossil fuels”, explains Mr Wu. Grid parity is dependent on multiple factors from the amount of sunlight in an area to financing costs, existing electricity prices, installation costs and others. “This is why we can offer discounts of 20% and above to our clients on their electricity bills. If we can deliver clean energy to you at a price competitive to that of conventional sources, without requiring any additional upfront costs from you, what’s there to lose?” enthuses Mr Wu.
THE CLEAN MACHINE
Today, Sunseap Group is one of the largest renewable and solar energy companies in Singapore. It was also recently named among the Financial Times’ top 500 high-growth companies in Asia Pacific – the only one of 10 energy companies to have made it to the list. Among its biggest early successes was securing a contract with Apple in 2015 to be its sole power supplier, from its retail store in Orchard Road to its corporate office in Ang Mo Kio. In October last year, Sunseap won a tender to install more than 170,000 solar panels at 1,218 HDB blocks and 49 government sites. “As a city-state that does not have the luxury of space, we’ve come a pretty long way. We’re constantly finding innovative ways of overcoming our limitations.” One of these innovations is a floating photovoltaic (PV) testbed project at Tengeh Reservoir, in which Sunseap was a participant; the project is one of the world’s largest floating solar panel systems. “The past 10 years have definitely been exciting, because while our vison and mission stay the same, we’re constantly innovating. Back in the day, we were just a solar utility company; now we’re offering a whole suite of decarbonising solutions to our clients,” says Mr Wu.
But while he’s busy helping to fight climate change with his green initiatives, Mr Wu still has a finger on the pulse of accountancy, and values his ISCA membership not only as a resource to keep him up-to-date with what is happening in the sector, “but also what is not happening”.
“By current International Financial Reporting Standards, companies incur a large liability on their balance sheets if they choose to adopt solar energy. There has to be a ‘friendlier’ way of financial reporting that is in line with growing expectations on corporations to seek out more sustainable ways of doing business,” Mr Wu responds, when asked how accountants can play a part to help businesses better attain their corporate goals of energy efficiency and sustainability.
Fittingly, Mr Wu is also part of the Institute’s Infrastructure & Project Finance Oversight Committee, where he offers industry expertise alongside that of other market leaders to support ISCA’s Infrastructure & Project Finance Qualification (IPFQ) programme. It is Asia’s first-ever qualification leading to the conferment of the ISCA Infrastructure & Project Finance Professional (IPFP) credential by a professional body in Asia.
The comprehensive programme, which covers project lifecycle to project risks and financing as well as contracts and financial modelling, is tailored to meet the growing demands of urban infrastructure and services in developing markets in Asia (projected to be S$28.5 trillion from 2016 to 2030). “There will be other institutions offering similar qualifications, but it lends more credibility when backed by a professional body like ISCA,” opines Mr Wu. “ISCA’s IPFQ programme helps accountants develop a business owner’s perspective and skill sets, and is particularly suited for those interested in the interplay of business, finance and accounting in infrastructure projects, all the way from pitching and business development to getting steel on the ground,” he adds.
PIVOTING PAYS OFF
To prepare for a global marketplace where disruptions and automation are increasingly the norm, Mr Wu advises young accountancy professionals to seize opportunities to expand beyond pure accountancy functions. “There is growing expectation for accountants to go beyond a ‘silo-ed’ function to take on a more active business partnering role, helping to drive growth and strategic planning.” As one whose accountancy degree has enabled him to pivot into banking and finance, and now entrepreneurship, Mr Wu’s own career attests to how far one can go by adopting an interdisciplinary approach to career planning and development. Besides Sunseap, Mr Wu is also an investment partner at TRIREC Pte Ltd, a clean technology and sustainability venture capital firm and SkyLab, a startup in the Internet of Things, connectivity and cloud solutions, that optimises the transmission of content, software and machine data for mission-critical applications. Asked if he has ever regretted leaving his banking job, the 43-year-old father of two daughters aged eight and 10 years affirms, “Absolutely no regrets. It has been a wonderful journey.”
2000 to 2006
Vice-President, Mergers & Acquisitions, DBS Bank
2007 to 2008
Senior Vice-President, Corporate Finance and Principal Investments, Macquarie Capital
Director, Corporate Finance, BNP Paribas
2009 to present
Director, Thirdrock ISSEA Advisers Pte Ltd
2011 to present
Group President & Co-Founder, Sunseap Group
2014 to present
Co-Founder and Partner, TRIREC Pte Ltd
2016 to present
Director, SkyLab Holdings Pte Ltd