Sustainable Success Stories: VTTI

“It’s always been about challenging the norm!”

VTTI B.V., founded in 2006, is one of the world's leading storage providers for energy and other essential products like chemicals. The company is currently focusing on diversifying its portfolio including gases, chemicals and new energies and working towards a sustainable future with VTTI Bio-Energy Tilburg (VBT), a new state-of-the-art facility, that is currently being constructed.

Hans Geurts has been with the company for more than two years and heads the IT department responsible for, among others, the digital strategy of VTTI. According to Hans, his keys actions in the digital strategy for VTTI going forward are: ensuring that the organisational IT set-up is becoming increasingly more digital and fit for the future; seeing that the current gap is bridged between what people perceive as IT and how digitization can really drive top-line and bottom-line growth; getting the right type of leadership in place; and having the right speed. All can drive the acceleration within the organization and the needed team to help you get there.

Job Voorhoeve, Partner at Amrop Netherlands and Global Digital Practice Leader, spoke to Geurts about the main challenges digital leaders face within their organizations and how to overcome them. They also discussed VTTI’s long-standing collaboration with Amrop in supporting the creation and development the leadership team of VTTI.

VTTI Success Story

Job Voorhoeve: Many digital leaders nowadays face many challenges within their organizations. Key issues are that 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 already might bring to the organisation.

Hans Geurts: It’s all about understanding and awareness: the way I see it, it is about taking the organisations onboard on how being more digital within the company and using the potential of data could drive business performance as a whole – and showing results Thus, it is about bridging the gap between what people traditionally perceive as IT – the hardware, the laptops, the telephones, and how digitalization can really help drive top-line and bottom-line growth. I believe most companies over the past years have realised this.

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 it is already obvious that the use of platforms within our business and being open with data, is creating great benefits.

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 wish from VTTI to further its IT organization with hiring a new IT leader, who would drive the strategy forward – that’s the role you’ve been in now for more than two years. 

HG: My and the company’s engagement with Amrop is about us knowing one another well – you have known of my interests, 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 organisation.

VTTI employs around 1250 people in 5 regions of the world; we have 17 terminals and I have about 70 people on my team now globally.

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 organisation to go? Because there is also the pace of the organisation 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 this process, we had multiple meetings and conversations in which we spoke about the strengths of the team, the involvement and the need for new people.

HG: Yes, and that’s the value of 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 organisation. Job, you also helped me find the Head of IT Operations and a Manager of our ERP program, so together we build a strong new 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 and advice. As a company, Amrop is and needs to be aware of market developments, trends, understanding the companies you work with/for, and you need to have the network of people who are available and also want to grow. You want to have a pool of talent accessible to you, rather than to carousel people from one company to the next.

JV: True, but we specifically prefer to search in this case for you – not so much by looking at the people who are available, but by really searching in the market and finding profiles which fit. Like the IT Director who came from a different industry and functional background but wanted to move into IT Operations. For him it was a great development opportunity to grow a wider skill set. With this hire your team gained new capabilities, new technical skills, which also meant that you were able to really offload some of the responsibility, have someone take ownership and really drive it forward.

HG: And he’s really liking it! He’s really involved in the Operations part, making it better. Together we’ve developed a  plan for further optimising our infrastructure, where we have a global workplace and 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.

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 organisation, to really drive change.

HG: Absolutely. You approached me saying that this could be a great opportunity for me. Later in my talks with the company management I asked a lot of questions which helped me determine if I really was a good fit. The CFO of the company had a clear view on what kind of CIO he was looking to have on board. 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.

Overall, it is clear to state that the CIO role is not a stand-alone job, which we all know.

Collaboration with the CFO and leadership is key otherwise you run the risk introducing all kinds of new technologies which the company is not ready to absorb. You need leadership involvement and engagement from the start, during the hiring process. Our CFO is quite technically savvy, he understands technology, knows the benefits, and sees the necessity to drive it forward. So, from the beginning there was a clear understanding between the two of us. And I was clear upfront with him, you’re the CFO, but we won’t be just talking about containing costs, we need to talk about how we can further evolve as a company using and further developing digital capabilities.

JV: As mentioned above, you saw a need for a new Head of IT Operations. We, Amrop, supported you to find such a new leader who would enhance and strengthen your team. I think it would be interesting to hear your view on how that collaboration went, where do 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. 

With the new focus, we needed someone 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 IT 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 you are in driving change within the team and the company.

JV: It’s interesting to review how it seemed there was no perfect match, but we both concluded that this person could really do this job even though he had a different profile from what was thought to be needed and what was written 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. I say, life might not be easy, but diversity is a necessity. It’s crucial that we don’t just drive all from the headquarter, and the key is to look for people who have a locked-in potential and a learning agility. For me it’s important that people really want to learn, and not just have their responsibilities with standard training courses. They should be diving into an environment that is unknown and challenging to them. 

JV: You’ve worked with other executive search firms in the past and still are. Can you compare the experience of working with Amrop and others? What, in your view, are our unique characteristics and values, 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 CIODay. 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 Energy, 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 higher/deeper.

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.

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.

JV: 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 energy, 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 who are earlier in their career and have that learning agility.

JV: And then you can develop them yourselves 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 to get there.

Also, for our organization such a digital course needs to be practical. Let me give you an 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, is very hard for leadership to grasp. So you really have to translate those concepts which are well known in our digital community, into practical example and solutions. We have still a long way to go, but that’s also what I like about this challenge and the concept of a Digital academy, something which we need.

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 taking training courses, but about leading and 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. Many have not been properly assessed before or during their last hiring or promotion process. A strategy could be to strengthen your team further in creating a bespoke program, which is neither too heavy, nor too expensive, time consuming and has 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 two 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!