Stef van Hout is Strategy & Transformation Director at Nobian, and last year Sweav had the privilege of assisting Stef with his energy reduction strategy.
We sat down with Stef to discuss his transition from BCG to Nobian and to explore the challenges he’s currently facing.
Before joining Nobian, you were a Principal at BCG. What made you trade consulting for the chemicals industry?
Working in strategy consulting – first 5-6 years at a boutique consultant, followed by 6 years with BCG – helped me to develop many essential skills, while also having a fantastic time with colleagues and great & challenging clients. During my tenure at BCG I also found my sweet spot: rolling up the sleeves and driving change, side-by-side with the organization, and preferably in asset-intensive sectors.
After a nice side-step to BCG’s Milan office and spending more than 2 years as Principal it was time to mutually decide on next steps beyond BCG. I felt I had more passion for ‘doing things’ than for ‘selling things’ (which would be a logical next step).
I took on a new challenge, working as a freelance consultant together with Nobian’s management team during the carve-out from Nouryon. Nouryon itself, a carve-out of AkzoNobel and owned by Private Equity investors Carlyle and GIC, is an essential chemicals producer.
After a while, my work transitioned from ‘working on the carve-out’ to ‘getting involved in some of the strategic challenges and opportunities’. Then Nobian asked me to join on a permanent basis and lead the newly developed Strategy & Transformation team. This team is home to former strategy consultants, but also operational excellence, digital and market intelligence experts. For me it felt as a logical choice: taking up the chance to build a team, work in a Private Equity environment, and help drive Nobian’s sustainability agenda is very rewarding.
Nobian is one of the largest energy consuming companies in the Netherlands. How is Nobian contributing to a greener future as the world shifts towards sustainability?
We are deeply aware that our initiatives are not just about meeting the financial expectations of our investors. Overall, Nobian consumes approximately 1% of the total natural gas consumption in the Netherlands (equivalent to circa 225 thousand households) and we are in the top-20 of the CO2-emitters in the Netherlands.
Nobian has set the ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2040 and so far we can build on a strong track record in realizing our ambitions. For example, between 2010 and now, we already reduced ~40% of our emissions.
A current exciting initiative is that we are working with the Dutch government to see if we can further accelerate our decarbonization. We are now co-developing plans to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2030 (in The Netherlands). Not unimportantly, this will also contribute to other emerging issues such as nitrogen deposition and realizing an affordable future energy system.
Another example is that we’re developing large scale energy storage solutions in former saltcaverns and developing giga-watt scale hydrogen production via our joint venture HyCC. From my perspective, this way I can make a very significant impact to a better world and that fulfills me with excitement.
What is it like to have one of the biggest Private Equity firms in the world as a major shareholder?
Not a surprise, but it is nice to now build first-hand experience with the relentless focus on value creation. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to prioritize projects, but also get relevant support to think big and execute. Different to large corporates, decision making can be fast as well. And contrary to the popular belief: in working with our Private Equity owners I clearly experience they want us to grow, rather than only focusing on cost.
One other thing to keep in mind is that PE firms, when working with their portfolio companies, are not keen on surprises. They demand regular updates, and any setbacks must be communicated quickly. Transparency is key, and we prioritize always keeping our PE partners in the loop.
Finally, what advice would you have for those who aspire a leadership role?
Well, absolutely nothing beats first-hand experience. So don't get lost in the ivory tower of theory - make frequent on-site visits to stay grounded in reality.
Secondly, it demands a pragmatic perspective, a willingness to work collaboratively with your team. Focus on fostering the growth of all employees, not just the top performers. Remember that success is a team effort, and investing time in those who excel at what they do is essential.
Lastly, for those not sure about their career path: embrace the element of luck that inevitably plays a role in any career journey, and don't be afraid to learn from your mistakes along the way!