Executive Interview Series: Jamal Burki, Senior Vice President of IHI Energy Storage

Jamal Burki is the Senior Vice President of IHI Energy Storage. He shared some thoughts on his career path, his experience in leadership in the current COVID-19 crisis, and where he sees the energy storage industry going.

Q: What was your first job out of college?

A: I started my career in the telecommunication industry in the mid-90’s when the industry was starting to advance into digital wireless communication. It was a great ride as markets were expanding and I got to work on the most cutting-edge technologies at the time. I started off at Motorola and was lucky to be a part of a leading company in the industry. I learned to value quality, customer focus, and innovation early on in my career. These values are high priorities for me to this day.

Q: How did you shift into the renewable energy industry? What made you shift into a new industry?

A: By around mid-2000s the telecom infrastructure industry had reached maturity through standardization and intense competition. I remember a townhall event around then when the CEO of the company made big claims of how well we were doing only to follow three days later with a major round of layoffs. I understand that difficult decisions have to be taken but also that leadership should be honest and not mislead. As a leader one needs to have the courage to be honest so that employees can make informed decisions. At this point I started to think and plan to move to an industry that has growth in front of it and that also is purpose driven. It took me time but I was able to successfully transition to GE in the renewable energy storage business. It was a long road from there to where I am today, and it was well worthwhile.

Q: What have you learned and noticed as an executive working during COVID-19? What takeaways can you share?

A: This experience echoes the 2008 crash for me. At that time, I was managing a large engineering organization developing infrastructure products for the WiMAX 4G technology, and I had to manage through the challenges on the front lines. A lot of things can go wrong during times of crisis: customers can cancel projects, the company you work for can hit financial setbacks and things can change really quickly. During periods of stress like this, it can be really hard to accept that no one has all the answers! This is the time you can turn to your values and principles. Honesty, sincerity, open discussion, and a collaborative approach towards challenges hold so much value.At a personal level, managing emotions and your own stability is a big challenge during periods of crisis. Keeping calm isn’t just important for your own state of mind – you act as the source of stability for your team. Leadership in these times is really important. You have to actively manage your stress, both in your personal life and professional life in order to offer support and share your sense of calm with your team. Times like these also call for an extra dose of empathy.

Q: Let’s turn to a lighter topic and relieve some of that stress! What was the most memorable experience in your career and why?

A: Early on in my career I worked on a team developing the communication system for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics! I was young and excited and motivated, and that was a really cool experience that sticks with me. I was recognized as a key contributor to the project, and I still have the plaque on my shelf; it brings back fond memories and team spirit that the band of young engineers had. There have been many more great experiences, but like childhood memories the early career experiences are special.

Q: Let’s talk bigger picture: what is something you think will happen within 5 years in the industry that people aren’t paying attention to just yet?

A: I expect Energy storage to scale with solar energy, reaching levels that even bullish analysts can’t predict. I strongly believe that battery peaker plants will displace gas peaker plants. Energy storage will be front and center of electricity grid redesign to address renewable energy generation and load changes driven by the electrification of the transportation industry. Energy storage can win big with renewable energy industry is prime candidate for COVID-19 economic recovery plan.I think we’re already starting to see demand for Li-Ion batteries in data centers, which until now have used predominantly lead-acid batteries. It’s a shift to more compact, energy dense batteries that have less off-gassing issues and will be safer in basements, where most data centers are. I’m also looking forward to seeing what happens in international markets.

Q: To close out, can you tell me what your career with IHI Energy Storage has been like?

A: In 2016 when I joined, we were just a handful of team members with early controls development and unpaid pilot project deployed at one site. IHI entrusted me to lead the commercial operations (with sales, strategy and product management) and then later engineering, project development and services. It has been great ride from the start with our share of failures and triumphs. We’ve been able to build a business with some of the best talent, strong culture, values and processes that will ensure responsible growth for many decades. I’m looking forward to watching us continue to grow – stay tuned for a big announcement on August 19th!