This electricity giant’s stock is booming as the corporate world gets serious about its ‘net zero’ goals

October 20, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

2020 has been a year of surprises for most businesses. One company that had a few distinct advantages going in: Schneider Electric, the French industrial giant.

The company, which operates the energy management systems in everything from factories to hospitals to data centers, has seen several of its core ideas borne out over nine tumultuous months: a years-long shift towards digital automation—and a timely move to focus on the carbon emissions tracking-and-monitoring business just as many of the world’s largest companies started to tighten their own climate targets.

It’s a vision that has been backed up with a series of high-profile acquisitions this year, amid the pandemic. In July, the company completed the acquisition of RIB Software, a German carbon emissions monitoring company, for €1.4 billion ($1.6 billion). One month later, in August, Aveva Group, the U.K. based industrial software company in which Schneider has a controlling stake, completed the $5 billion acquisition of rival software company, SoftBank-backed OSIsoft. That marks an extension of what CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire refers to as the company’s “cradle to grave” philosophy for managing energy infrastructure, from the factory floor to the cloud.

That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t hurt Schneider, a 182-year-old company that got its start in French mining, and is still reliant on the kind of industrial activity that had been hit hard by global lockdowns. Revenue for the first half of 2020 dropped by 10% to €11.6 billion ($13.6 billion) while net income dropped even further (down 22%) to €995 million ($1.2 billion.)

Even still, investors have bid up the shares by over 30% in the past 12 months, to an all-time high.

Analyst see Schneider as well placed to take advantage of a push towards a “green” recovery in regions like the EU—a challenge that will require a vast expansion of the very electric grids, from factories to car charging points, that are at the core of its business.

In an investor note in August, analysts at Berenberg called Schneider the “clear market leader” when it comes to the technology needed for expanding those grids, versus the likes of Siemens, Eaton, and ABB, though it warned that the transition the sector was undergoing is investment-heavy.

Nuts and bolts approach

Schneider’s strategy emphasizes the kinds of nuts-and-bolts of energy management capabilities that clients demand as they chart out an emissions-cutting strategy. Schneider CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire, a French national who has operated out of the Hong Kong office since 2011, is fond of remarking there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies when a company meets its energy efficiency targets.

But this kind of energy management is increasingly key for emissions-targeting companies. The first step is achieving so-called “Scope 1” targets in which a company reduces the energy it uses to power its operations, including factories and data centers.

“The first point is using digital for saving [energy],” Tricoire said in a conversation with Fortune. “Then the next part is really far more electricity, much more electricity, and much more renewable. . . If we do all of this, we have a trajectory to be within 1.5 degrees” of a temperature rise (in Celsius) this century—the target under the Paris Agreementeven accounting for a larger population and rising global middle class.

Tricoire says that we cannot afford to overlook climate change because of the pandemic. He is optimistic about the direction of “green” stimulus plans, he adds, and the pace of improvement for the battery technology so crucial to managing low-carbon energy systems.

If there’s a liability, it’s in our existing infrastructure. The vast majority of our buildings will require huge investments in retrofitting to cut down on emissions. That conversion, he says, “has to be done now.”

Net zero goals

Alongside its emissions tracking software, the company has also expanded its microgrid offerings, which can be detached from larger electric grids and run on their own renewable energy sources, for example solar panels. That includes a partnership with the Carlyle Group to launch Alphastruxture, which will help retrofit JFK airport with microgrids to move it towards relying on renewable energy.

The company’s own emissions targets include a goal to reach net zero in its own operations by 2025. Further out, its “scope three” emissions goal, which covers the full lifecycles of its products and is the most extensive boundary for corporate climate targets, aims to cut emissions by 35% by 2030 (compared to a 2017 benchmark). Finally, by 2050, it aims to be fully carbon neutral across its supply chain.

Tricoire says the COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced the company’s focus on energy efficiency and its shift to digital, which allows more remote management of energy systems inside what is often critical infrastructure.

But the pandemic has certainly presented challenges, he admits, including putting added strain on major energy clients like hospitals, and the data centers that make working online possible. Meanwhile, a low-carbon policy of keeping supply chains as local and short as possible helped the company adapt and maintain local trust, he says. But he admits the “weak points were not what we thought.”

For example, confusing local orders that failed to specify whether workers in critical infrastructure could go to work, and the full-scale shutdowns of clients’ COVID-stricken factories made it increasingly difficult to manage operations and customer relationships.

“We had to do the two things at the same time,” Tricoire says. “Operate our facilities safely—but operate them. There was no choice to stay home, and say, ‘call us in two months.”

The booming share price belies just how complicated it’s been to run normal operations this year amid the pandemic. But Tricoire feels the crisis has brought new focus to the management team.

“I believe it’s really the moment to have a strong sense of your purpose, your mission, your direction,” he says.