The $31 billion startup: Q&A with Schneider Electric's Jeff Drees

Schneider Electric is not new to entering emerging markets. The French-based energy specialist started as an iron and steel producer before making a significant play into the new-fangled electricity market in 1891 and has never looked back.

Now regarded as one of the leading industrial makers of energy and smart grid hardware -- along with Siemens, ABB and GE  -- the company is putting a "big bet" on software as the company's future direction.

Indeed, through a spate of recent announcements and acquisitions, Schneider Electric has begun a transformation with new offerings in energy dashboards, electric vehicles and smart cities.

The changes include purchasing Virdity Energy to provide visibility for building and facilities managers in IT and operations; launching a new line of electric vehicle fast chargers; and, after the acquisition of Telvent last year, targeting cities through a suite of offerings in city planning, energy and water management, transportation, building efficiency and public safety.

Thanks in part to these efforts, the company, located in 100 countries with 130,000 employees, has a bit of a freewheeling mindset these days: "We consider ourselves a $31 billion start-up," said Jeff Drees, president for Schneider Electric in the US.

Recently, we caught up with Drees to learn more about this transitional time, what it means for energy stakeholders to disrupt "business as usual," and how three macro trends (spoiler: one is big data) directly influence what's next for Schneider Electric.

Derek Top: What opportunities does Schneider Electric see in the convergence of smart grid, EVs, smart cities?

Jeff Drees: Businesses and cities [need] to get smarter about their energy usage. We are helping many companies today understand how to use their energy bill as an asset to be managed and controlled, just like their healthcare, IT and operating expenses. These companies are seeing savings of 20 to 30 percent and more.

This awareness will continue to accelerate as the convergence of smart grids, EVs and smart cities become more of a reality. The days of utilities, cities and companies large and small living harmoniously separate lives have come to an end, and the answer doesn’t lie squarely with one group.

It will depend on all entities, which previously never had to interact unless there was a power outage, engaging each other in an entirely new and uncharted way -- disrupting "business as usual" and introducing a new way of operations.

Next page: Internal challenges and the "big bet" on software