Thomas Zinniker, BKW Group’s Chief Information Officer, pops up on Zoom against a striking Alpine backdrop and for the next hour, speaks with refreshing clarity about the changing nature of energy and technology, and BKW’s pivotal position at the heart of these changes.
Whether it’s urbanisation, climate change or digitalisation, BKW Group is a driver of change and comfortable embracing solutions, innovations and data, as befits its vision to create “infrastructure solutions for a future worth living”.
One of its core messages is decentralisation and maintaining flexibility amid volatility, across its three central business sectors – Energy, Grid and Services. Specifically, it has expertise in five key areas; Energy, Power Grid, Infra Services, Building Solutions and Engineering. The numbers speak for themselves. In the half year to 2020, BKW’s revenues shot up 12 per cent to around CHF1.5 billion and operating profit rose 5 per cent to CHF219 million.
“We have grown dramatically over the last couple of years and we’ve taken the strategy to build up a network of companies rather than integrate them,” Zinniker says, “which means we need technology to create that network, to combine skills, for bigger projects and all the collaboration elements that are essential.”
Recently BKW announced its entrance into the gas market, primarily for two reasons; it has significant participation in power plants, enabling it to buy gas more cheaply, and many of its business customers are demanding turn-key solutions.
Fuelling Energy, Grid and Services
One key factor in the group’s ongoing success is its ability to diversify and keep one eye on the bigger picture – whether it’s entering the gas market and providing end customers with a comprehensive energy offering from a single-source supplier; opening up new distribution channels with electricity suppliers and installation partners; or growing its end-to-end Home Energy system. Underpinning all these elements is the technology; each day computers with “100 engineering years’ worth of performance” scan the entire BKW network.
From a ‘pure energy’ company, BKW has grown into a service company across Europe, specifically Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In future, Zinniker believes the energy sector has to come up with solutions in a more smart way.
With half of energy consumption occurring within buildings, the group is striving to develop solutions to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions. Zinniker believes technology is a “key enabler” in the fight against climate change.
“With the increase in decentralised power production – be it wind or solar – the grid has a completely different meaning and capacity issues,” he says. “Technology helps us get better insights into where the bottle-necks are and also what we need to change to adapt to new consumption and production patterns, and to a certain extent, steer the new ways of consumption.”
In terms of engineering services, BKW has been appointed as general planner for the overall build-up of the Tesla Gigafactory in Berlin – a prestigious win for the group. Besides that, infrastructure services focuses on the large transmission grids, communication networks, and drinking water supply.
On the business side, COVID-19 has impacted its services area and energy consumption dropped, but the group has not been heavily impacted. In its company presentation, it states Mühleberg nuclear power plant disassembly is ‘on course’ despite the pandemic, while innovative, tech-oriented buildings include the Tic Tric Trac solar-power cooling system in Zurich and Lonza’s new laboratories in Visp biopark.
“Due to our model to hedge prices and sell production in advance, we were in a good position when energy prices dropped due to lower consumption,” says Zinniker. “When it comes to working from home, we were well prepared and ready from the first day of the pandemic. We have been building our remote working platforms for many years in the light of networking the newly acquired companies, so when the lockdown came, it was quite easy for us to transition.”
But Zinniker acknowledges that in a world of volatility, there will be ongoing challenges and technology is going to be increasingly crucial. “It’s important, during this period of working from home, that we give employees stability and structure from a working perspective,” adding that the group ranks among the top 10 recruiters in Switzerland.
Industry 4.0 is a hot topic in the area of power generation and power grid as it switches to a decentralised model.
“Electricity cannot easily be stored so you need insights into what’s going on with the power grid,” says Zinniker. “We will now have more room to influence production and consumption. With the combination of technologies and combining new ways of storing energy, we are better equipped to deal with these uncertainties. In other areas, AI is enabling us to plan with new piping, leakages and installations and check everything fits by using Augmented Reality technologies.”
The cloud supports the group as a tool to gain flexibility – but it is just a tool, Zinniker stresses. “Digital transformation is not just automation – it’s the smart integration of people, processes and technology. You need to question everything, have the right culture and be allowed to make mistakes.”
He highlights Uber as a good example of a company which could have created an app that just bundled call centres but they completely re-thought the model from the consumers’ viewpoint.
Clean tech is another key area, though Zinniker wishes the debate wasn’t so “dogmatic” when assessing energy consumption benefits. The flexibility of a gas plant, for example, can be much better controlled and use less CO2 serving as a bridge to solar or other new technologies.
Last year, BKW became the first publicly listed Swiss company to launch a green bond for trading on the Swiss stock exchange, with CHF200 million allocated to fund sustainable projects throughout Europe.
Strategic partnerships across markets and sectors are vital for BKW Group, he adds. They add the crucial flexibility and resilience in our growth path and let us focus on our core business. For instance T-Systems is a strong partner in the SAP area. We just outsourced the total SAP infrastructure to them. “With their very strong position as a service provider to the energy market, we are continuously exploring additional opportunities to further grow in to new areas.” As an operator for critical infrastructure in Switzerland we need to be resilient in case of major incidents in order to guarantee an up and running energy supply for our customers. With HPEs services for data storage and backup solutions we have implemented additional resilience. Our goal was to build a fallback scenario which has to work in case our own security measures are failing.
But not only in the infrastructure area, but also in the business part we rely on partners such as Accenture bringing in expertise and new ideas to develop new services for our customers. “It is crucial to think out of the box, when developing new products for a changing market. Strategic partner help us to bring in new ideas an shed light on bling spots we all have. Especially in areas, where we are working since decades more or less the same way”.
“From a career perspective I was always in the area of bringing IT into business, and making technology benefit the business. I’ve worked as a consultant for many years, in large multinational companies.
But my philosophy has changed over the last couple of years. I’ve seen that the increased speed in change can only be achieved through self-organisation and self-sufficient employees. As a manager you can’t always tell people what they have to do. Provide people with guiding principles, give them a clear target – but let them find the way to that target themselves.
I like to see myself as the coach on the sidelines, there when they need help, rather than to interfere with the game itself. Always trust people – trust is essential. Mistakes happen but be transparent and look for solutions.”