When Helle Østergaard Kristiansen joined the Danish energy trader Danske Commodities a decade ago, the executive admits it was something of a different world.
“First of all, the energy market was not as liberalized as it is today. The production side was very, very different,” she says. “Because we didn’t have the renewable mix we have today.”
Margins were higher, because the competition was lower. The trading was different: more conventional, less digital. Now, she says, almost all the trading at the 16-year-old company is automated.
The staff has changed, too—away from conventional traders, and towards PhDs in software engineering. A third of the company is in IT, Kristiansen says, and the average age is 33. And what was then a small company in the coastal city of Aarhus is now part of the Norwegian energy giant Equinor.
That acquisition happened in February 2019, Kristiansen’s first year as CEO. She is now spending her second year in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Equinor has been busy. The company became one of the first legacy oil giants to aim for near net-zero emissions by 2050, and officially said they would aim for net zero earlier this month. It’s a commitment other European majors, including BP and Shell, have also made this year.
Danske Commodities, which trades gas and renewables markets across 39 markets, including the U.S. and Australia but mostly in Europe, is now in the ever-evolving business of trading a deeply complex, finely balanced power market, with all the fluctuations of wind and solar power that entails, across an entire continent.
It also expanded to the U.S. last year, with a new office in Stamford, Conn. to facilitate its expansion into trading in U.S. energy markets.
As the votes were tallied for the U.S. election and Europe went back into lockdown, Kristiansen spoke to Fortune about managing through a crisis; how lockdowns shape energy patterns; and how U.S. politics will—and won’t—affect the expansion of renewable energy.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What has surprised you this year about how to lead a company through a global pandemic?
In a positive way, it has surprised me how much we can operate from a distance. That has been going surprisingly well. We haven’t seen a slowdown in our activities. It’s not unusual to do 14,000 trades in a day. And when we sent people home, I asked to have that statistic everyday on how many trades we’re doing—just to have an overview—and I could see that nothing changed there.
Of course, one of the things that we have to adapt to is, how do you innovate when you’re not together? How do you collaborate? And so one of the things I’ve done is that I have insisted on business as usual, but also accepting that there are things we need to do differently. And also, as a management team—communicate clearly, and also show that you care. And definitely show that you try. I think it’s okay to fail as long as you show that you have tried.
Earlier this year, the national grid in the UK told Fortune about the radical shifts in energy consumption they experienced in the early days of the pandemic. How have you seen energy consumption patterns shift this year?
Our business model is very much about prediction of production and consumption, and then we have various models and products around these two factors.
Normally, consumption has been fairly easy to predict because you know the history, the consumption patterns—you know how a normal Tuesday is in Germany, for example. The production side, with all the renewables coming into the market, is increasingly difficult to predict. And that’s where we have our competitive edge—with analytics, scientists, methodologists—that are very good at predicting weather patterns, and how it’s shifting into the production.
But with this pandemic, it’s suddenly the consumption side that changing a lot. We can, for example, see that a normal Tuesday in Germany suddenly has a consumption like a Sunday—we at least saw that in the first close-down. We saw that it changed very, very fast—the consumption side—and then we saw [in the summer] that it stabilized. And then coming back from the summer vacation, it increased rapidly, faster than we had predicted, and now we see that it’s going down again, as the countries are closing down.
If Biden wins, what does this mean for your business model, and for your ability to expand in the U.S.?
For us, it’s good if there is a green agenda. Investments in renewables would be good for our business model. In that context, it would, of course, be good if it was Biden that won the election. I would, however, say—and we have seen that also the last four years—that it’s more the states which have their own agenda. And I believe that no matter what, that will also be the case in the future… So, the states are also driving their own green agenda, [regardless of who] is the president.
Will non-U.S. companies be the ones pouncing on those opportunities?
This market has grown to be very, very competitive. And that also means that if you’re starting from zero now, you have to put in a huge investment to be on par. So I think the competition in the U.S. will be international.
You have a huge presence in the U.K. in offshore wind. How will a post-Brexit world impact your company?
We have prepared for it in any way we can. So [that means] broker agreements, clearing banks. We have fuel setups, bilateral counter-parties. We made sure that we can act [either] under a hard Brexit, or no. And then there is the last part where you’re trying to prepare for the unknown unknown. Because the challenge is, for example, around how do you transport power between the continent and the U.K.? We know that it can’t be the current rules, but no one has decided the future rules.
So here you’re preparing. You know that something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. But at the same time, we also believe that that could give us some opportunities. It’s not good for market efficiency. But at least for a trading company—I can’t say that it won’t give opportunities. But of course, it’s strange to be in a situation very, very close to a potential hard Brexit, where you don’t know essential things like that.
Are there risks to the security—or the stability even—of the U.K.’s energy supply as a result?
I don’t think we will have that situation. I think it’s more interesting for us— what will be the investment appetite for renewables in the U.K. in the future, if they are standing alone? What will the subsidy schemes be? How will the investment appetite be, and things like that? And that’s more long term.
At this point, are politics even a threat to the adoption of renewables?
I think years ago, they were very, very vulnerable to political decisions, because you needed subsidies to make them profitable. I think today, the movement is there—because it can compete with other [kinds of] production. That way it will continue now—despite political agendas.
The press have been quick to mention you’re one of the few women in the executive ranks of energy trading. What do you expect for the future of women in your industry?
Honestly, I don’t think it has changed a lot. It has never been a challenge to me to be a woman in the energy sector, but I think I’ve also been in very, very good company. This discussion about women in the energy sector is very much about talent. I think we will, over time, compete with other sectors as we are becoming more and more digital, and so forth. I saw a survey from Boston Consulting saying that worldwide, the energy sector only has 22% female employees. For us as a sector that’s a challenge—that we don’t tap into the whole pool of capabilities and qualification, and only a part of it.
It is, of course, a focus for me. I want to have access to the best talent—the whole talent pool—that’s for sure. We try to do a lot in DC [Danske Commodities] to improve this. As one example, we have introduced paid parental leave [for both men and women]. And that’s not cheap in a company with an average age of 33, and 78% men. But it is a part of recognizing that if you sit in front of women or men, it shouldn’t matter. You’re not afraid that they would go on maternity or paternity leave.
We also are very much focused on our job ads. Because previously, it has very much been in the wordings, like “doing what it takes,” “go the extra mile.” Which is not maybe very appealing to a female trader. Now we focus much more on describing what qualifications they need. That’s actually the fantastic part of being part of a trading company. It’s very much about qualification, and you’re measured on your results, nothing else. For female candidates, it should be an interesting sector to join: you’re part of the energy sector that is moving so fast, it’s so important for the future of every one of us.