20.05.2021 | Johan Arnberg talks about Axpo Nordic’s start-up DNA and how to foster innovation
Johan Arnberg, Head Physical Optimisation & Structuring, epitomises Axpo Nordic like nobody else. A graduate meteorologist, he came on board a year after the founding of Axpo's Northern European subsidiary. Since 2004, he has made a variety of career moves in the energy trading business, worked in both Oslo and Malmö, and has always been at the forefront of innovative projects. In this interview, he tells what it’s like working with Axpo Nordic, why constant learning is mandatory, and how he supports his team in taking responsibility, being ambitious and implementing their own ideas.
Johan, you hold a Master of Science in meteorology. Why did you choose this subject for your studies?
Johan Arnberg: I have always been interested in sailing, boats, navigation, and I really love the sea. Weather is very important in this regard. On top of that, I like mathematics and physics and that’s why it was kind of natural for me to start studying meteorology.
How did you step into the energy business afterwards?
At that time, as a student in the year 2000, I was already working part-time with a Swedish utility and energy trading company as an analyst and meteorologist. The company produced a lot of hydro power in the North of Sweden, and after the market opening in Sweden they started to realise that the power price was pretty much dependent on weather and climate. That’s why they asked the University of Stockholm whether anyone was interested in telling them a bit about meteorology and the impacts of weather on power production and prices – and strangely I was the only student who was really interested (laughing).
When did you get in touch with Axpo?
When the company I was working for was sold, I was looking for a new job and applied for a position as a meteorologist at EGL – the predecessor of Axpo’s energy trading business - in Switzerland. That position, at the end of the day, was given to someone else. But a few weeks later I was contacted again and asked whether I wanted to join EGL Nordic’s team in Oslo as a meteorologist and junior trader. So I finally got a job with them and started working in Norway.
"We used to have a start-up culture and still try to keep this spirit"
What was it like working with EGL Nordic at that time; was it very different to today?
The subsidiary had been founded one year before, and we were only seven employees. Today we are more than 40. It was like a very small start-up, the market was really booming and it was super exciting to start off. We had a very nice open environment in the company. We still try to keep this spirit today, 18 years later.
You were mainly active in proprietary trading at the beginning.
Yes, until 2012 I did mostly proprietary trading activities, but when the need for pricing and managing of structured deals increased, this also became one of my tasks. I have always liked quantitative decision making support and I have been working with modelling, for instance spot prices, to support trading decisions.
“Constant development and exploring is part of our DNA”
What did you especially like about the change of your tasks?
It has been constant on-the-job development, with the need for continual learning. It has been in our company DNA from the very beginning, first at EGL and now at Axpo, that everyone is expected to develop their skills, to learn, adapt and explore all the time. That’s typical of Axpo.
Some years later you decided to leave Oslo and went back to Sweden for private reasons – but still stayed with Axpo. Was there any change in your daily work after your relocation?
At the beginning, the idea was for me to have the same job function in Malmö. But then we saw the need to be more active on the physical desk and that was more or less the only part of the energy trading business that I had not done before. Things can change quickly at Axpo Nordic, and I was asked by the Managing Director whether that would be an interesting option for me.
Why was physical trading getting that important?
With more wind and solar production in the Nordics, short-term trading and balancing becomes increasingly important. Many PPA transactions also require physical handling and to be competitive we need to excel in forecasting and trading of renewable assets short term. The increased liquidity and volatility on the intra-day markets also gives us proprietary trading opportunities. These are the areas we have been focusing on in the past years and will continue to do in the future. Meanwhile, we have five employees in my team. Some of them are based in Malmö, as I am, and others work in Oslo.
“After one year of the pandemic it’s important to see people again, discuss ideas and have a beer together”
Is it a challenge to manage a team spread across different locations?
No, it doesn’t really matter where they are. I have always worked with colleagues from many Axpo locations, whether in the Axpo Nordic offices in Norway, Sweden and Finland, in Madrid or in our headquarters in Switzerland. I have been travelling a lot in the past but also worked remotely before the pandemic. You can be very productive when you don’t have to travel all the time. However, after more than a year of the pandemic, it’s becoming important to see people again, have a chat, discuss some ideas, have a beer together. That’s what I’m really missing now.
How would you describe your management style and what is your aim as a manager?
I would like to see people take responsibility for things themselves. If we fail, we just need to try again and the important thing is that we actually do something. We try, we fail, and we need to learn from these experiences. For me it’s very important to be ambitious. Also, speed is often a very good friend in this business. At Axpo Nordic we do things relatively fast. The perfect solution very seldom comes with the first iteration, but rather after trying several times and the faster we can perform this process the sooner we arrive at a good solution.
“We have a ‘can do’ attitude and are always ready to jump into the water”
Team spirit seems to be important too.
Yes, absolutely. I always try to support a culture where we collaborate with each other within the team. We also need to be reliable and step up for each other any time.
What else is special about working in your team?
If someone has a clear idea about what he or she wants to achieve, I try to support the plan in order to make it happen. That’s the cool thing with Axpo Nordic, it’s pretty unique that you get the chance to implement your own ideas with high level support from the management. We have a clear ‘can do’ attitude and ‘hands-on’ culture at Axpo Nordic and people are expected to jump into the water even if they do not know whether it’s warm or cold. As a manager, my job is to make the guys feel comfortable in their assessment of the temperature when jumping into the water.
“Axpo is a forerunner in innovation, especially when it comes to the renewable energies business”
One of your focus areas is the flexibility commercialisation of large battery storage units. Last year you signed a contract for the marketing of Finland’s largest battery in Yllikkälä.
Yes, the optimisation business has always been part of physical operations and this is clearly an innovation area where we see a lot of opportunities for the future in the whole energy transition context. Meanwhile, we have a team of up to five people with very sophisticated capabilities when it comes to the management of battery energy storage systems. I dare say we have an excellent position for further growth because of our innovative skills.
What about innovation in general, what is your impression – is the energy industry lagging behind other sectors?
As an industry we have a legacy and are not able to build everything from scratch in a new way. But in some specific areas we are pretty advanced and a forerunner. For example, in the forecasting of renewable power production, optimisation of plants and how we trade the markets – if you look at our profitability, we clearly do something right at Axpo.
“It’s not about trying to innovate all alone, we need to listen to our customers”
What is key from your point of view when it comes to innovation and digitisation?
We really need to be open-minded and listen to our customers. It’s about understanding what they actually need and how we can solve their problems in an innovative way. It won’t work if we sit all alone in our office and try to innovate without listening to the world out there. And we need to manage our own expectations on this journey: quite often good things come out of something which was not planned, or which was meant to be something completely different.
How do you relax from your challenging work; what do you do in your spare time?
(laughing) Well, I do not have a nine-to-five job. Indeed, this business is challenging also mentally as the markets are open 24/7 and our processes need to be working 24/7, too. But besides working, I try to go sailing with my family whenever it’s possible. I have two kids, we live in an old fishing village close to the harbour and it takes us three minutes to get to our boat. That’s the best way for me to relax.
Johan Arnberg is 46 years old and has been working in the energy sector for more than 20 years. He has a Master of Science degree in Meteorology from Stockholm University and a Master of Science degree in Real Estate Economics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Johan has been with EGL and Axpo Nordic since 2004. He started as a meteorologist and junior trader in Oslo, was promoted to trader and senior trader and took over the role of Head Physical Optimisation and Structuring in the Malmö office in 2016. His team balances one of the largest renewable portfolios in the Nordics with some 3,000 MW installed wind capacity.
Axpo Nordic was founded in 2003 under the name EGL Nordic. Since then, the subsidiary for Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltics, Iceland and Denmark has become one of Axpo’s largest and most important international branches. At its headquarters in Oslo and offices in Malmö and Helsinki, 41 employees specialise in trading and developing tailored products and services for retailers, energy-intensive industries and energy producers. They focus on long-term power supply and purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energies as part of Axpo’s strategy to constantly expand its international presence and business, specialising in tailor-made energy solutions.