18.08.2022 | Celebrating two decades in Poland: How Axpo’s offering to B2B customers has changed in the developing Polish market
Twenty years ago, Axpo opened its office in Warsaw. Since then, the company’s Polish subsidiary has become a major player in the country’s energy market. With its innovative, customer-centric approach, today Axpo Polska ranks among the leading marketers of renewable energy in Poland, supplying green electricity to industrial customers, SMEs and retail clients. Katarzyna Bienias, SME Sales Director and Member of the Board at Axpo Polska, talks about how the market in Poland has evolved, the personal challenges she has faced, her management style and day-to-day work.
Katarzyna, you have been in the energy industry for 13 years but started your career in other sectors. What attracted you to the energy industry?
My degree in management prepared me for a career in the broader field of business. I started my professional adventure in marketing and sales in the furniture industry. The next step was executive MBA studies and project management in the telecommunications industry which – as it later turned out – opened the way to a new job in the energy sector. An energy trading company was looking for a project manager. That's how I joined the industry, although at the time I didn't expect to stay with it for so long. In retrospect, however, I’m glad I made that choice. Working in this industry offers many opportunities for development, which is one of the main drivers for me. I feel very much at home in this environment.
Before joining Axpo, you were a director at another energy company. Why did you decide to move to Axpo? What attracted you?
I worked for a competitor energy trading company for many years. During that time, I progressed through several departments and levels in the organisation. However, I never like standing still and when, after four years, assignments that were once demanding lost their challenge, I started looking for an opportunity to tackle something new. In 2014, just such an opportunity arose in a proposal to join Axpo and develop its offer to the SME sector. At that time, the SME department at Axpo consisted of just a few people but the company itself had great potential. The team and the prospect of continual challenges, hard work and measurable effects of my actions convinced me to make the change. The opportunity to have a positive impact on Axpo’s business and influence the current SME market in Poland was significant for me.
What was this market like at that time and why was it such a challenge?
It all started when the right to change energy retailers was introduced in 2007, which came as a direct result of separating the functions of energy sale and distribution (that is, the third-party access principle). By 2014, however, there were still few companies that had an offer tailored to the needs of small- and medium-sized enterprises. There were a few products for this customer group but they were more conventional and not adapted to this particular customer profile. Customer service was also an area for development along with the need to simplify processes and inform customers.
To design customised products for SMEs, first you require a good understanding of their needs. What do entrepreneurs of small- and medium-sized enterprises expect from an energy retailer? And how have you responded to those needs?
For SME customers, simplicity is paramount. We have developed dedicated products but have also simplified our processes as much as possible and launched a customer service desk. Entrepreneurs want to feel that they are working with a strong partner who can quickly and efficiently explain any doubts or suggest the best solution for their company. Moreover, we are constantly working on solutions that will make changing retailer and concluding an agreement with Axpo even easier. Recently, we made it possible for companies to sign agreements online without leaving home. We are planning further improvements.
What else is important for SMEs?
SME entrepreneurs also value security in terms of energy supply and price stability. When cooperating with Axpo, they can have both. Even with price fluctuations on the commodities exchanges, similar to what we have recently experienced, our customers are guaranteed that the provisions of their agreements and price lists will remain unchanged until the contract term expires.
Today Axpo is one of the strongest independent players on the energy sales market in Poland’s B2B sector. What challenges and opportunities do you and your team face now?
Since I started working at Axpo, we have seen dynamic growth in the market but also significant change. Some companies have reduced their activities or withdrawn from the market altogether. There were many reasons for such decisions but they certainly included too slow a response to changing market conditions, an inadequate offering, or large price fluctuations. We in turn continue to implement our strategy. It has not always been easy but we have earned the trust of our customers and business partners, which continues to this day.
Give us an example, please.
Rising prices are a challenge for trading companies. At Axpo, our contracts provide SME customers with price certainty. Despite this challenging period, we have a stable position because we manage our risks well and introduce new flexible products. Axpo's experience in other markets and cooperation with the group's subsidiaries located outside Poland also provides us with great support.
And we should not forget the COVID-19 pandemic. We had already planned to launch an e-commerce capability and the circumstances sped up its implementation. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a situation where face-to-face contact was limited. Developing online sales was the right response – not only to the pandemic but also to the needs of a digitalising society.
And what kind of internal transformation has the company experienced?
The dynamic growth of the company was quite challenging. In a short period of time, our team has grown from just a few people to about 140 – largely through the development of the SME sales team. This required us to act quickly and be flexible. It was necessary to give a proper organisational structure to a company that was growing stronger every day. At this point, it is imperative to take care of the culture within the company. We have tried our best to instil Axpo's values in our colleagues and create an organisation where everyone feels important, appreciated and responsible. What is more, they are not afraid to ask questions and make mistakes. What could be more valuable than feeling that your work makes sense and that the company trusts you to do your best?
You talk about change and success in an energy company. But the industry is still perceived as 'male' in Poland. What is it like to be a woman working in that world? Is it becoming more female-friendly or do stereotypes still exist? What is the reaction to having a female boss?
The energy industry likes women. And I don't think I have an answer to why this is so. Yes, stereotypes suggest that it's a typically male industry – probably a dozen or so years ago, that was the case. For some time now, however, we have seen a change in this trend. This makes me very optimistic because I believe that women have many qualities which make them successful in high-level positions: empathy, the ability to work in a team, but also qualities that used to be attributed only to men – decisiveness and the ability to make quick decisions.
But the key thing for me is that we understand that although everyone is different, we are equal and can complement one other. I don't like to look at someone's professional development or career from a gender perspective. I understand the discussion about female bosses because we face the problem of discrimination, which cannot be ignored. However, this is changing. At Axpo, we treat employees equally - work is evaluated in terms of competence, education and qualifications, not gender, age or beliefs. In the Polish branch of the company, as many as 70% of heads of department are women – which confirms that our values can also be seen in our actions.
How do you relax after a demanding day – what do you do after work? How do you spend your free time?
I often do new things. I look for new hobbies, sports or courses of study. I often have to be stopped from enrolling at another university or starting a new course. I used to think this was inconsistent behaviour, and perhaps it is a little, but it also has its advantages – I am open to the new and unknown, ready for frequent changes, and accepting of uncertainty.
Physical activity such as exercising, cycling and running gives me a lot. I also enjoy very long walks and driving. I love reading - I read dozens of books a year. I also get great pleasure from spending time with my children, although I do find that one of life's biggest challenges. My children teach me something that no professional job has ever been able to teach – patience!
Katarzyna Bienias, Member of the Board, SME Sales Director at Axpo Polska
Katarzyna’s 13 years of energy industry experience began at RWE, where she was a director. Since 2014, she has worked for Axpo Polska where, as one of the few women in the energy industry, she manages the sales division, building a strong team with a 600-plus people partner network. She has contributed to positioning the company as one of the leading independent players in the B2B energy sales market.
With MBAs from the Université du Québec and the Warsaw School of Economics, in her personal life Katarzyna is a mother to three girls and passionate about corporate social responsibility, having completed CSR courses at Cambridge University.