06.10.2022 | Interview with Paweł Wierzbicki, Head of Origination at Axpo Polska and Management Board member
Twenty years ago, Axpo opened its office in Warsaw. Over the following decades, the company became a major competitor in the Polish energy market. Thanks to its innovative and customer-oriented approach, today Axpo Polska is one of the country's leading renewable energy sellers, supplying green electricity to industrial customers and small and medium-sized enterprises.
In the previous interview in this series, Axpo Poland’s Country Manager Grzegorz Biliński described the company's earliest days and its vision for growth in the Polish market. Earlier, in an interview with Katarzyna Bienias, board member and Head of Small and Medium Enterprises, we learned how the market for energy services evolved when the ability for customers to switch vendors was introduced.
Today we post an interview with Axpo Poland’s Head of Origination, Paweł Wierzbicki, who has been with the company for more than eight years and joined its Management Board 12 months ago.
What did you do before joining the Axpo team? How did the knowledge and experience you gained help in the later stages of your career?
I began my career in Budapest at a carbon broker. Incidentally, this was the topic of my master's thesis – an area still fairly new and unexploited – which interested me enough that I decided to apply to companies active in that field. From our office in Hungary, we conducted activities throughout Europe. I handled Poland. I have very fond memories of this experience. On the one hand, I had to face going outside my comfort zone, working in another country, and speaking English on a daily basis. On the other, working in such an international environment teaches openness to different mentalities and points of view, and allows you to look at different situations or conflicts through the eyes of others. For example, it turned out that not everyone who disagrees with me is wrong (laughs), we simply have different perspectives or come from different backgrounds. Another interesting observation was the varying approaches to doing business. We Poles often have a conservative and timid approach to business, whereas Italians or Spaniards are definitely more direct and open. I watched closely and took lessons from it for myself. At Axpo, we work all the time with company headquarters in Switzerland, branches in many countries, international customers, and my Hungarian experience definitely comes in handy.
Why did you decide to join the Axpo team?
I joined the company thanks to its President, Grzegorz Biliński. Grzegorz previously worked for a similar broker – but in Amsterdam – so you could say we were competitors. But it was competition in the positive sense; we had lots of mutual respect for each other. Grzegorz called me when he joined Axpo and started building a team.
Axpo is a very large company, an important and professional competitor in the international market. The transition to such an organisation from a local CO2 allowance broker was a big step forward for me. It also involved a much broader range of activities – the company really does engage with a wide variety of topics. At Axpo, I first dealt with energy efficiency and white certificates, then with energy and gas and areas connected to them. Such an expansion of competencies and responsibilities has greatly influenced my development. I also felt that I had more opportunities and more influence thanks to the overall scale of the Group's operations.
What challenges did you face after joining the company?
At first, Axpo's activity in Poland was limited to the execution of a few long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs). The team was small, so even though Axpo is part of a large group in the international market, the operations in Poland had the atmosphere of a start-up. A few people in a small office were wondering what new things we could do and how we could do them. For me personally it was quite a challenge – I was just starting to deal with services and products completely new to me and, at the same time, I needed to understand how to introduce them in Poland with the resources we had. Preparing contracts and structures, integrating them into the system, invoicing customers – we had to undertake all this with our modest resources. The first transactions and successes were a sign that the Polish market had great potential and it was worth expanding the team here.
That was eight years ago. What are you doing now? Who are your customers today and what does Axpo Polska offer them?
As I said, I started at Axpo with energy efficiency. Later I took up origination activities, and for the past five years I have been managing this team. Origination's customers are really big players with different needs to the rest of the market. They have more sophisticated risk management policies, and don’t always want to hedge the entire volume, but rather average out the prices. Sometimes their factories are spread across many countries in Europe and they are anxious to index gas and energy prices to a single market. In such cases – gas, for example – we choose the Netherlands, which is the most liquid market in Europe. In practice, this means that we supply gas in Poland based on prices indexed to the Dutch market. It is this type of flexibility and customer service that makes us win out over other companies.
We also cooperate with RES producers. Today, Axpo Polska is the largest independent buyer of renewable energy in the Polish market. Invariably, since the beginning of our operations in Poland, we have offered producers a range of services – from balancing and short-term power off-take agreements to long-term contracts – based on which new RES projects are likely to obtain bank financing. We connect end-users and RES producers through corporate power purchase agreements (CPPAs), providing a platform for everyone to work together.
Less than a year ago, we also span off a special team from the Origination division to deal with photovoltaic projects. We have put a lot of effort into making Poland one of the markets where we can offer this type of service. The photovoltaic offer is aimed at business customers, investors and landowners. We will be able to sell the acquired energy on the market or directly to end customers under CPPAs.
Are CPPAs popular in Poland? Have you noticed an increased interest in such agreements recently?
We have seen tentative interest in CPPAs even before energy prices were at their currently high levels. Perhaps this was due not so much to a desire to reduce costs than to promote the development of RES in Poland. Of course, as soon as prices began to rise, interest in this type of agreement increased significantly. Despite their growing popularity, CPPAs are still not an easy area due to a legal framework that is not fully defined. However, those are the challenges of any new market sector. At this point we have identified all possible risks that could arise. If regulations are put in place over time, great – but we can also cope without them.
Your team must also be much larger than at the beginning?
The team is growing, as is Axpo Polska as a whole. Of course, this also comes with its own challenges – I can no longer devote as much time to everyone as I would like. However, that is a natural result of the company's growth. On the one hand, we deal with large contracts, and I am happy to have responsible people in my team who I can count on and who I know have the right know-how to excel at their jobs. On the other hand, the team is cool, young, we are all on the same wavelength, and have a lot of fun together. We often discuss each other's ideas. You could even call us sparring partners: we try to challenge and inspire one another to come up with new solutions.
From a start-up, Axpo Polska grew into a company employing more than 140 people, and you became the head of the Origination team. A year ago you also joined the board. How do you find your new role?
My work looks the same, only there is more of it! (laughs). Of course, as a board member I have to think about the needs and directions of Axpo as a whole, not just my department. But this is also a good thing – I want to better understand what is going on in other areas in the company, learn about the challenges faced by each department, and proactively come up with solutions. Together with the rest of the Management Board, we are discussing the future of Axpo in Poland. We discuss where our ideas could take us and what needs to change in the company to get us where we want to be.
Talking about work in the management team, Axpo Polska has a very diverse working environment: women make up half of the Management Board and head five out of seven departments. This is quite unprecedented, not only among Polish energy companies. What advantages do you see in working in such a diverse environment?
In my opinion, the people who work at Axpo are very competent and in the company for a reason. Gender is not an issue here. The average age is also noticeably lower than in other trading companies. This encourages us to take a different approach to the world, a desire to change, to innovate. Axpo's staff are very competent, professional people. And if half or most of them are women? Great! When recruiting and developing employees to take on leadership roles, we are primarily guided by competence, knowledge, experience and potential.
And a final question: how do you relax after work? How do you handle the responsibility of your position?
It’s difficult to cut yourself off after work and not think about it, especially now that we’re experiencing tougher times in the market again. Recent years now seem like a piece of cake in comparison. The constant challenges to our business mean that my head often stays in work mode. Looking at what is happening in the world, I keep wondering how Axpo will be affected.
But I do try to distance myself from all this. Certainly my son, who has other, admirably non-negotiable priorities (laughs), helps me. He engages me in his cheerful world, and this takes my mind off professional matters.
Paweł has been with Axpo for more than eight years, initially developing energy efficiency and white certificates services for strategic clients. For the past five years, he has managed the Origination team, specialising in structured products for renewable energy producers and industrial end-users. He is an expert in long-term contracts, PPAs and commercial balancing. Paweł also has many years of international experience trading on the carbon market. He is a graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics with a CEMS Master’s from the International Management (CEMS MIM) Programme.