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CEO Dialogue Series

Leadership

ACWA Power’s Marco Arcelli: ‘I’m the Chief Facilitating Officer’ 

26 March 2024 in CEO Dialogue Series

A year into the job, Marco Arcelli, CEO of ACWA Power, tells IMD President Jean-François Manzoni how the Saudi company plans to triple assets to $250 billion in six years by expanding...

A year into the job, Marco Arcelli, CEO of ACWA Power, tells IMD President Jean-François Manzoni how the Saudi company plans to triple assets to $250 billion in six years by expanding internationally.

When Marco Arcelli was first approached about becoming CEO of Riyadh-based ACWA Power, a developer, investor, and operator of power generation and desalination plants, his initial reaction was to decline politely.

Like many Westerners, Arcelli regarded Saudi Arabia as a conservative place, and where he couldn’t see himself living. But then he read the Vision 2030, launched by the Crown Prince in 2016, and was won over by the Kingdom’s ambition to transform itself from the world’s biggest oil exporter into a leader in clean fuels and renewables.

“It was visionary, and very pragmatic, with short-term targets spelled out across different parts of the economy and society, and I was intrigued. Then they invited me to Riyadh for the final round of interviews, and I was blown away,” he tells IMD President Jean-François Manzoni.

“At that point, I said, if ACWA Power doesn’t take me, I still want to come here because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see societal, cultural, and economic change at such scale and pace.”

Founded in 2002, ACWA Power, whose biggest shareholder is Saudi Arabia’s $500 bn sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is at the forefront of the Kingdom’s ambitious plan to wean itself off fossil fuels and have 50% of its electricity generated by renewables by 2030, up from just 0.2% in 2020. This means building the equivalent of 58.7 gigawatts (GW) of green energy capacity.

Some climate experts have questioned whether the country — which gets most of its revenues from petrodollars — is serious about the energy transition, pointing to a stop-and-go record regarding renewable energy policy. Yet Arcelli says there is genuine commitment from the state to move away from fossil fuels domestically.

“Companies like ACWA Power can turn Saudi Arabia from the largest oil exporter today to the largest exporter of low-carbon expertise in the world — and we’re fast becoming that.”

He cites how ACWA Power has transformed its energy portfolio from 100% fossil fuels to 46% renewables in seven years. In 2023, the government awarded renewables projects with a capacity of 7 GW, he says and has projects either in operation or under development with a collective capacity of 23 GW.

“Everybody is seeing that the world is going to decarbonize, so clearly, at some point oil and fossil fuel demand will decrease over time. You cannot wait until that happens before you start diversifying your economy,” says Arcelli, who has over 20 years of C-level experience in energy and infrastructure, retail, and digital innovation, including at Italy’s Enel.

“Companies like ACWA Power can turn Saudi Arabia from the largest oil exporter today to the largest exporter of low-carbon expertise in the world — and we’re fast becoming that.”

An inflection point

Saudi Arabia’s decarbonization plans certainly represent a major tailwind for ACWA Power. The company plans to triple its asset base from $80 billion today to $250 billion by 2030, with 60% of its targeted growth expected to come from its home market.

Another part of Arcelli’s remit is to steer regional and global expansion. As a major shareholder, the PIF positions the firm as a national service provider to help Saudi Arabia facilitate energy transitions globally. The company is betting big on Central and Southeast Asia, where it is called upon to provide technical and financial expertise for bilateral agreements and government-to-government collaborations. A case in point is Uzbekistan, where it plans to invest $15 billion in the coming years.

Both Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have a clear vision and operate a dual-track model of negotiated deals and tenders, which bring speed and scale, says Arcelli. It also enables the company to plan beyond the project, including training workers needed to drive the transition.

ACWA Power, which employs 4,000 people across the Middle East and Africa, is also working on a raft of megaprojects. These included the first desalination plant worldwide powered by renewable energy at Red Sea Global, and a new tourist destination the size of Belgium that is fully powered by green energy.

It has also signed a joint venture with Air Products and Neom to build the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, which plans to export 1.2 million tons per year of green ammonia when it comes into production in 2026.

Many CEOs can only dream of having such growth opportunities. Arcelli agrees that it’s a “dream job,” but the breakneck expansion brings challenges.

This includes how to transition from being essentially a large, successful startup to a more institutionalized organization, while maintaining its agility, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity.

“We’re now at this inflection point where we really need to focus on strengthening the organization to accelerate growth. This means we need to develop and elevate the quality of our colleagues, so that we can defer more of the decision-making to lower levels, and we can go faster,” he says.

We receive 150,000 applications for those hundred positions. It's more selective than Harvard.
— Marco Arcelli, CEO of ACWA Power

The company has established advanced technology academies for workers in Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Around 800 people graduate from the Energy and Water Academy in Saudi Arabia every year.

“We receive 150,000 applications for those hundred positions. It’s more selective than Harvard. And we have replicated it in Uzbekistan. It’s a little smaller — about 200 to 300 people a year — but we are creating, basically, the ability for local people to elevate, train, and become the workers of the industry of tomorrow.”

The Chief Facilitating Officer

Arcelli views his role as CEO as like that of a conductor of an orchestra.

“I think my North Star is that my job as a CEO is not more important than anybody else’s job in the company, and I try to communicate that,” he says. He spent the first six months on the job visiting all ACWA Power’s sites and speaking to people on the ground. “What I told everybody is, I’m not the CEO. I’m the CFO here, the Chief Facilitating Officer. I would like you to tell me what your problems are, and 90% of the time, you also know what the solution is. What do you need from me and your organization to help you work better? That’s my style.”

As a CEO, you don’t want to be so shielded from problems that you see them too late, he adds. That’s why he works to break down silos and encourage direct access to information to ensure that everyone is working in the common interest of the project and company.

Working for a fast-growing organization means that it can be challenging to maintain a work-life balance. So, how does Arcelli manage to keep himself at peak performance?

He says he is energized by travel, meeting new people, and speaking with colleagues, customers, and suppliers. At the same time, his morning ritual keeps him grounded. “I might surprise you, but I start reading the gospel every morning,” he says. “It’s something that is almost meditation about something deeper. And I see now in the Gulf, with people praying five times a day, I see how more balanced they are.”

He also carves out time when he switches off his phone and doesn’t look at emails.

“I think it’s very important, in a fast-paced environment like ours, to try to convey also to all our colleagues that yes, we’re an adrenaline company, but you need to set some boundaries because otherwise, you cannot sustain it for the long run.”

Watch the full CEO Dialogue to hear Marco Arcelli discuss how ACWA power is financing this capital-intensive growth, Saudi Arabia’s oil sustainability program, and what keeps him driven.

Expert

Marco Arcelli CEO ACWA

Marco Arcelli

CEO of ACWA Power

Marco Arcelli is the Chief Executive Officer and responsible for overseeing the strategy and operations of ACWA Power's growing global footprint and ensuring its continued growth and success worldwide.

Expert

Jean-François Manzoni

Jean-François Manzoni

IMD President

Jean-François Manzoni is the President of IMD, where he also serves as the Nestlé Professor. His research, teaching, and consulting activities are focused on leadership, the development of high-performance organizations and corporate governance.

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