Sustainable Success Stories: VTTI
“It’s always been about challenging the norm!”
Founded in 2006, VTTI B.V. is one of the world's fastest growing storage providers for energy and other essential products like chemicals, and is currently focusing on diversification and new energy sources. VTTI is working towards a sustainable future with VTTI Bio-Energy Tilburg (VBT), a new state-of-the-art facility that is currently being constructed. The facility is designed to process organic side streams, such as manure from the region and leftovers from the food and feed industry and will produce about 23 million m3 of biogas per year. Part of this biogas will be upgraded to green gas for delivery to the Dutch gas grid, which equals the annual gas consumption of approximately 2,700 homes.
Hans Geurts, Chief Information Officer, is leading the company through a global transition to becoming more digital. Job Voorhoeve, Amrop's Global Digital Practice Leader, spoke to Geurts about the main challenges digital leaders face within their organizations and how to overcome them, and VTTI’s long-standing collaboration with Amrop on creating and developing the leadership team of VTTI.
According to Geurts, injecting a truly digital component in what has until now been a traditional IT organizational set-up within a traditional oil and gas industry has been a challenge, but a rewarding one. From a dream of a digital twin, representing the real-world entity to bridging the gap between what people perceive as IT and how digitization can really drive top-line and bottom-line growth – it’s all about the right type of leadership, the right speed, with which you can drive acceleration within organization and the team to help you get there.
Job Voorhoeve: Many digital leaders nowadays face the challenge within their organizations, where the rest of the leadership team might be less aware of the digital possibilities that are there in the market and the various uses and benefits these possibilities might bring to the organization.
Hans Geurts: It’s all about understanding and awareness: the way I see it, it is currently not yet well enough understood how being more digital within the company and using the potential of data could drive business performance as a whole. Thus, what I see as one of my main tasks at VTTI is to bridge the gap between what people traditionally perceive as IT – the hardware, the laptops, the telephones, and how it can really help drive top-line and bottom-line growth. Oil and gas are quite traditional industries, within which we cannot yet dream to digitize everything – it is not possible. For example, you still have to issue your documents to the customs office via fax in some countries. And it isn’t just about third parties. If you look at terminals, where vessels come in and need to be unloaded – it is a process which requires a fair deal of manual intervention. So, I’m aware that VTTI is not a platform or software company, but I strongly believe that the use of platforms within our business and being open with data, will create great benefits. But one thing I must do as a CIO is to identify the speed at which I can drive and support the organization towards digitization and carefully choose the pockets of value to arrive at.
JV: Amrop has supported VTTI on various occasions, but we had already met before, and when we got an assignment from VTTI to search for a CIO, it was clear to me that this could be an interesting role for you. There was a clear need for VTTI to transform its IT organization and the need for an IT leader that would drive that transformation – that’s the role you’ve occupied now for two years. We talked again once you were already with the company and had the need to start building your own team.
HG: My and the company’s engagement with Amrop is about personal knowledge and also about me and you knowing one another as well – you have known of my key capabilities and interests too, and you had a good understanding of what would be a good fit. I think it’s the combination of knowing the industry and also the digital side of it – I don’t like the term “IT”, because it focuses too much on the technology and not enough on information, whereas digital that’s cross-functional, flowing through the organization.
VTTI employs around 1400 people in 5 regions of the world; we have 18 terminals and I have about 70 people on my team now globally. The company was founded in 2006, which makes it quite young, but from a digital perspective it’s quite old, because a lot of our assets that we still have are from that time. 99% of our assets were in two data centres – on premise, not Cloud. We outsourced less and were doing a lot by ourselves.
I’ve worked for both larger and smaller companies, and often I’ve had to make the decision – do I flip the coin immediately, so to speak, because I have a dream and know where I want the organization to go? Because there is also the pace of the organization to consider. I looked at my own leadership team and saw that they had done a great job so far, but we needed to push the needle further, push to change the norm. This needs a different mindset and leadership for which the team has to lead the way. For me it has always been about challenging the norm – and I wasn’t going to just keep the lights on as the CIO. My goal was and still is to make the company better by introducing digital technology that would drive the performance, and it also required significant changes within my team, which after two years only had one former member of the management team left in it. We put new people and new functions in place – for example, we did build a complete security function, which didn’t necessarily exist in the company in this form before.
JV: During the process we were having those conversations, where we spoke about the strengths of the team, the involvement, the need for new people.
HG: Yes, and that’s our relationship. We talked about where I’m heading and the ambitions of the company, what key positions need to be filled, the capabilities that I need people to have, the way they would need to fit the culture of the organization. Job, you also helped me find the Operations Director and a Manager of our ERP program, so together we build quite a strong team.
We will not be giving all assignments to Amrop since that’s our sourcing strategy – we always look at our own network as well. But I think it’s really important to have these conversations. As a company, Amrop is and needs to be aware of your environment, trends, the companies you work with, and you need to have the network of people who are available and also want to grow – you want to have the pool of talent accessible to you, rather than to carousel people from one company to the next.
JV: True. And we specifically searched for you – not so much by looking at the people who are available, but by really going to the market and finding profiles which fit. The Operations Director came from a different industry, but wanted to move into IT Operations, which for him was a great development opportunity, whereas your team gained new capabilities, new technical skills, which also meant that you were able to really offload some of the responsibility and have somebody take ownership of it and really drive it onwards.
HG: And he’s really liking it! He’s really involved in the Operations part, making it better. Together we’ve developed a battle plan for our infrastructure, where we have a global workplace; refurbishment of the global network, which will take at least 3 years to complete, and moving our estate from on premise to the Cloud in the next two years. Together we’re challenging any boundary that’s there!
JV: Good to hear! Could you also describe the collaborative process between yourself and Amrop? What has your experience been like? As for your own onboarding – you were looking for an opportunity to make a real impact in an organization, really drive the change.
HG: Absolutely. You approached me saying that this could be a great opportunity for me, and in my talks with the company management I asked a lot of questions, which would help me determine if I really were a good fit. The CFO of the company had a clear view about who they wanted on board, and after the first talks with the hiring manager the click was there right away. So, I think when it comes to my collaboration with Amrop, I think we both understood what the challenges are – in this process, I believe, the matching principle was the most important part.
And it’s not a stand-alone job. If you looked at it that way, you would be too far ahead introducing all kinds of new technologies which the company is not ready to absorb, so you need leadership involvement and engagement in that. Our CFO for example is quite technical savvy, understands technology, knows the benefits, and sees the necessity to drive that. So, there was a clear understanding between us, and I also told him that yes, you’re the CFO, but we won’t be just talking about money every day – we will also talk about how we can further evolve as a company using and further developing digital capabilities.
JV: Then, on the other hand, there was the position of the IT Operations, where we supported you on building your team. I think it would be interesting to know your view on how that collaboration went, where you see the added value of Amrop.
HG: Within our company IT Operations was previously seen as something that’s keeping everything stable – keeping the lights on, so to speak, making sure there are no disturbances. For quite some time we were hiring external help for that position, but my view was different – I saw that it was possible to drive operations more to improve the company performance. It’s a very simple example, but if you hire a new employee and it takes 2 weeks before they have their laptop and phone, and everything is working, I see it as time lost. So even onboarding of new employees is where you can really make a difference for the company.
But more generally, we needed somebody who, on the one hand, drives continuous improvement within the team, but at the same time understands what it means to have a technology refresh of your environment. And I think in the search that we did together we combined it – we found somebody who understands how to operate in a complex and decentralized environment. He might not have had all the knowledge of the operations to start with, but he understood the concept of what it means to build an IT operations organization. It is all about the learning agility of the people and team, how passionate are you to drive change within the team and the company?
JV: It’s interesting how there seemed to be no perfect match, but then we both concluded that this person could really do this – he had a different profile from what was just on paper.
HG: And I still get to challenge him! But for me it’s a good thing – it’s better to have people on your team to sometimes disagree with you; life might not be easy, but diversity is necessary. It’s crucial that we don’t just drive all from headquarters, and it’s also about looking for people who have a locked-in potential and learning agility. For me it’s important that people want to learn, and not just in the sense of going for a course – also by diving into an environment that is unknown and challenging to them. You know that I’m quite result-driven, so it’s sometimes a bit difficult to keep one’s patience, but…
JV: That’s normal (both laugh). You’ve worked with other executive search firms in the past and now too. Can you compare the experience of working with Amrop and others? What, in your view, are our unique characteristics and tools, and, perhaps, you have some suggestions regarding what we could do better?
HG: From my experience as a candidate, it was about the personal touch – you would give me a call and ask how things are going, and not just for the interest of selling something to me. It felt like a genuine personal interest, and we knew each other also from the networking events, such as the CIO Day. Amrop excels in having a good portfolio of companies from different levels, and even more importantly – different industries. It’s important because the pool needs to be large enough. That’s a benefit because I, for example, have been working in different industries: FMCG, software, manufacturing and now I’m in oil and gas, and, if there is to be a next step for me, I’d definitely like to challenge myself with something different again. You also have a good awareness of the position of the candidate and a good grasp of where the fit in the portfolio might be.
As for the company perspective – you know that I’m, for example, building out a data analytics capability, and you could definitely find me a great data leader; however, if I need a specific developer in that sector, I will not approach you. For me that’s too specific a role, so I think it’s important to know one another’s strengths. So, I’d approach Amrop when it comes to people reporting to me – one level deeper.
JV: So, you’d be looking at our specialization capabilities, right?
HG: Absolutely. And, since you also asked about what could be improved, I’d say I would appreciate it if you were sometimes more proactive. I think it would be good if you sometimes reached out to say that there’s a potential candidate out there in the market, who has an interest, which you already know might be a fit for us. We are now entering a market situation where there is real scarcity of capable resources, so we must turn our way of thinking around. Up until now we’ve always thought that we need experienced people for the key positions, but I would say that now it’s more about how quickly we can help someone develop in their career path – so we can look for more junior people earlier in their career cycle.
JV: And then we can develop them ourselves internally.
HG: Yes, and it’s not just about the age. It can be people who are more advanced in their career but would like a challenge in a different industry and role. Usually, they don’t end up having these opportunities.
JV: We have previously talked about how Amrop could help you develop your leadership team – Leadership Advisory services and the new concept of the Digital Academy. Where do you see the added value from our side to your own leadership team?
HG: Since the primary conception I have of Amrop is that of an executive search firm, it would be good to first know more about the additional services you offer. As VTTI we know Amrop when it comes to recruitment, but we need to know more about your capabilities on the learning and development side. The other thing which is quite challenging when it comes to leadership teams these days is that they’re so busy – a two-week course, for example, will not work. So, you need to have a concept that triggers interest and is appealing. It’s a very necessary but hard thing to sell – the leadership development in the digital space, where you’re targeting leaders other than just CIOs. The awareness – that I’m a business leader and I need to develop and evolve my digital capabilities will change over time, but it will take some years.
Also, for our organization such a course needs to be practical. For example, I talked this week to the leadership team about strategic agility, but quickly realized that explaining what it really means – that when something happens in the outside world and you have to act quickly, and technology can help you with that – will work much better. So you really have to translate those concepts which are well known in our digital community, and we have a long way to go, but that’s also what I like about it.
JV: That’s a challenge – to really own that space of innovation. But that’s part of your digital role – to have a wider effect on the whole leadership team, to urge them to think about innovation from a digital perspective too. Are you also looking at developing your own core team in this direction?
HG: Yes. I’m coaching and sharing my perspective regularly, I check in regularly with my line managers, we talk about development. So, I always tend to ask: what are you doing next year? And – what would you do if you weren’t working for our company anymore? Do you keep yourself attractive not only to VTTI but also to the market? And all that has to do with development – as I said before, it’s not only about courses, but about driving different projects within the company. We are a people first company, in the end the result counts but it is the teamwork that will lead to success.
JV: Are you perhaps also planning to assess your team? In order to develop further it’s good to get a clear picture of how things are now, and not everyone is assessed in the hiring process. And then afterwards it could be possible, in order to develop your team further, to create a bespoke program, which is neither too heavy, nor too expensive, with development and learning capabilities integrated in it.
HG: It could be a good thing, though I haven’t given much thought to it until now. I’ve been in the role for the past 2 years and hired quite a lot of new people over the last year, so I’d say we’re still in the bonding phase with the team. My fear is that putting an assessment out there now – a test of whether you’re good or not, I’d say we need a bit more grounding before that is done.
JV: So, timing here is important. Is there anything that I should have asked you about but didn’t?
HG: I guess we’ve talked about it already, but when it comes to how Amrop is of value to VTTI, I’d like to emphasize that it’s about the deep knowledge of one another, the personal relationships and being sensitive to the market. The most important thing in this collaboration is, of course, the success of the people you bring on board. Because, in the end, you can bring as many people on board as you want – if they’re not happy or leave within half a year, you haven’t been successful. And I know you’re also keeping in touch with people you’ve recruited for our organization, making sure they’re doing well, and that’s exactly what I would expect!