Led by Jeroen de Haas, Eneco has stood out in recent years as the Netherlands’ most sustainable energy company. But the top executive wants to go further. Journalist Max Christern interviewed him exclusively for Eneco’s Annual Report. He discussed working together and feeling welcome, cycling to work and the social importance of his company. And, in particular, the power of belief.
The Netherlands chose ‘selfie’ as its word of the year for 2013 – taking a self-portrait on your mobile phone at arm’s length and then publishing it on social networking sites. Asked for his favourite word of the past year, Jeroen de Haas, Chairman of Eneco’s board, cited one which is almost diametrically opposed to selfie: ‘together’. It’s the warmest word from the three concepts which express the vision of his company: sustainable, decentralised, together. This is how Ene co views the future of energy. All energy, De Haas and his people believe, will be sustainable in the future, and will largely be generated locally. And Eneco is going to do that generation – here comes the word – together with customers and corporates.
“Our mission and vision are rock-solid,” insists De Haas. “There were so many signals last year that we were on the right track. But that doesn’t make us the winner in this era by definition. Plenty of companies with brilliant missions and visions have disappeared, because they didn’t manage to put them into practice. The difference is made by actually carrying out that vision and mission. By doing it. Doing it together. With the client.”
It’s a stormy Friday morning in December. The wind is howling outside. Jeroen de Haas is sitting in a peaceful working area. It’s a place where he often sits. Eneco’s new headquarters in Rotterdam is a widely-adulated icon of the New World of Work, open and transparent, with a splendid network café on the ground floor where the chairman of the board also likes to sit.
This year, at the invitation of the director of sustainability campaigning group Urgenda, Marjan Minnesma, he took part in the so-called Low Car Diet, a ten-day test for managers to travel the country without a car. He cycled through wind and weather, and discovered along the way that the status of a director on a bicycle is different to that of the man who is chauffeured. “At the Ministry of Economic Affairs the doorman asked me to put my bike in the storage area rather than on the pavement,” he recalls. “But if you are brought by car, no-one minds if the car is left briefly at the kerb.”
The doorman treated De Haas as ‘a normal person’, and in fact that’s exactly what Eneco’s top man prefers. He is averse to trappings or status. Being normal suits him just fine. But Jeroen de Haas has certainly always been marked by ‘daring’. “And I want to see more of that mentality among our people, particularly now,” he explains. “Dare to leap, I often say. See whether you can stay in the air. Dare to break free of the orderly structure every major company has, including ours. I often see how fearful people can be of that, and I certainly understand it. But we in Eneco, Stedin, Joulz, Ecofys, Oxxio, in short all the members of the family, we really are different from all the other energy companies, and we must dare to express that.”
So what is Eneco’s story which needs to be more clearly expressed to the outside world?
“Our company operates in a market which is in revolutionary evolution after a very long period of tranquility. All the major energy companies are being shaken to their cores. Naturally, the
economic crisis is a major reason, but so too are the discussions on shale gas, coal-fired power stations, alternative energy sources and the low CO2 price. There’s also the question as to whether energy companies like ours, the way we have known them for decades, will soon still exist. It’s unsettled, but it is also a perfect moment to distinguish yourself from the rest. Naturally we are doing that with our sustainable-decentralised-together vision. And within that, I think our attitude to customers is really revolutionary, as opposed to those of our competitors. For Eneco, a customer is not just someone who buys energy from us or is connected to our grid. We used to regard a customer as a system risk: someone who, above all, needed to keep his hands off the electricity meter. But now a customer is also someone who lives in the vicinity of one of our wind turbines but doesn’t buy power from us. We also need to involve these people in our plans, I believe. If we want to realise our vision, we need to think in terms of the broad definition of a customer, who is increasingly part of our energy system because he can also produce
energy himself. And because he also has an opinion on the energy he uses or generates.
The modern customer of an energy company involves himself in the energy product. And so we simply also need him. For instance if there are strong winds. Or even if there is no wind, to explain that he or she should not turn on the washing machine for a while. It’s all about a revolutionary, different attitude from Eneco towards the customer.”
And is that where that favourite word ‘together’ comes peeping around the corner?
“Yes exactly. I think collaboration is crucial. And in all the examples of successful projects we have seen in the past year, that is still the common thread. In the Netherlands, consider a project like Heijplaat, where we create an energy-neutral district together with the residents. Or our projects abroad, for example the one in the UK, where we have now opened a second wind farm in Scotland’s Aberdeenshire,
in close and excellent consultation with the inhabitants. These are projects I look on with enormous pride and satisfaction, because this is where we fulfil that concept of ‘together’ so well. And internally I also see exceptional collaborative initiatives coming into being. Take The Movement for instance, where around a hundred colleagues from Eneco, Joulz and Stedin, from technicians to managers, are inspiring the staff to really put the client at the core of everything. Naturally there’s also the cooperation with external partners, such as WWF, or Vitens, or Akzo or Scottish Water – gradually there are almost becoming too many to list. And I think that’s a wonderful thing to see. Genuine, successful practical examples of collaboration from our mission. Increasingly we are seeing that we are simply doing it automatically in Eneco, and that’s important. That ‘together’ feeling now really enjoys broad support. It’s not me, it’s all of us here, together.”
How does Eneco measure whether something has actually been a success?
“What I am trying to introduce here is the idea that yields are not just a financial concept. For me it’s about whether something fits within our mission and vision, so I think it is hugely important that we keep an eye on the societal importance, the broad social yield. And if we adopt that as our guideline for our strategy, for our operations, in fact for everything we do, then that’s the best basis for a good and predictable financial yield.
For many large companies I see far too much of a division between the company’s interests and those of society. Company interests predominate almost everywhere. I think this is no longer viable in 2014. And actually it’s never been viable. The founder of the free market economy, Adam Smith, indicated a while ago that the free market does not function if companies do not also ensure care for others, for social importance.
I also point out these days that Eneco is only present where it is welcome. This is relevant to what I just explained. Eneco doesn’t just go
ahead and install wind turbines, even if we do have official permission. No, I insist that we first hold discussions with the people living in the affected area. These are the clients I was referring to in my broad definition. I am insistent on this in Eneco. And I’m happy to note that the message is getting through strongly within our company. We need to keep a constant eye on the social relevance of our work.”
You can only provide leadership to a mission like this if the leader believes in it himself. Where does your belief come from?
“Ultimately everything begins with yourself. With daring. You need to overcome your primary fears. You self-reflect and discover who you actually are. And why you want to do specific things. My experience is that when you say and do things from a strong personal belief, that’s when they work best. I believe in our mission and I dare to say it. That immediately creates a bond with the people you talk to.
Slowly but surely we are also succeeding in not being the company or the Eneco Group, but being a collection of 7,000 people who are
increasingly able to tell their own story on the basis of a vision. If you understand what that vision means for you, for your role within Eneco, that’s good. For me that is the real meaning of the concept of sustainability.”
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