07.12.2023 | A Dutchman with a knack for smooth sailing
“Managing energy risk is what we do well and timely,” says Michiel Rutgers, Axpo Netherlands’ Managing Director, early on in our wide-ranging interview, the first since he joined Axpo more than nine years ago. Michiel also talks at length about his fantastic team and what makes it unique. He reflects on the early days of the business, what kept his customer base faithful over the years, and explains how Axpo Netherlands is actively advancing the energy transition.
Can you summarise your journey at Axpo Netherlands?
I joined as a portfolio manager in the summer of 2014, helping to grow the Dutch business. During the first six months I was based in the Brussels office, working for the Belgium business and closing the first transactions in the Netherlands.
There were three things that I was really looking forward in this new job: entrepreneurship, commercial and a small organisation. And the role at Axpo fully lived up to expectations!
For the first few years, I was mainly working by myself as we were a relatively small organisation. In the last five years or so, however, since I took over as head of the Dutch team, our business has steadily expanded and our team has grown threefold.
Reflecting on the past years, what are the things that stand out?
From the very beginning, we developed a lot of partnerships with independent retail energy suppliers, and they remain some of our most important customers to this day. That close bond is most evident during times like last year when volatility and prices are high, putting pressure on everything. To get through a period like that in harmony, underpinned by trust, is something I’m very proud of on both a personal and commercial level.
On the non-commercial side, it gives me great joy to see how the team has developed over the last years. We had a few people who were relatively early in their careers, and they’ve developed phenomenally. This applies to our originators but also to the supporting functions. And I think out of this environment, where everyone fully trusts each other, comes a stronger portfolio, enabling new business deals and new opportunities.
Why do you think clients have stayed with you for this long?
Integrity: we do what we say, and we deliver what we promise. Additionally, I think transparency and an entrepreneurial spirit also made a difference, as well as flexibility and the willingness to share risks. Essentially, we manage energy risk. It’s what we do well and what we do quickly. There is no unnecessary red tape or bureaucracy, and we find it intellectually stimulating to help solve our customers’ issues.
We’re just one phone call away. We’ll meet with you immediately and if there’s anything we can do, we’ll support you. If we’re not able to do something, you’ll always get an honest answer.
Are there any lessons following last year’s energy crisis?
Looking back, what really counts in those moments is the strength of the partnership and mutual trust. When exposure is high, you very quickly see the risk appetite of the other party. When confronted with high volatility, you must think, act, and behave as a partner rather than looking at it as just a business transaction. And whereas one day you might have a large exposure to the customer, the next day the customer could have a very large exposure on you. So being able to work with our customers during those tough times, trusting each other, has played a crucial role in maintaining our business relationships.
What are the main solutions you’re offering today?
In line with Axpo’s service offering across Europe, in the Netherlands we have three focus areas: renewable power purchase agreements, with PPAs for solar and wind as well as waste-to-energy; the market access service system, including risk management; and finally servicing industrials, corporates and, most recently, large public energy consumers. While we continue to grow the business, we also aim to keep it balanced and diversified.
Let’s talk culture for a second. Why should somebody join the Axpo Netherlands team?
The Dutch have a concept known as the ‘Polder-model’, which means that everybody is a stakeholder in decision-making. This works on a government level and is also how we collaborate within the Axpo Netherlands team. We’re a flat, non-hierarchical organisation, all sharing the same office space.
As a manager, I don’t set the course that everyone must follow. I actively look for opinions – especially divergent ones – on where our focus should be, because that’s how you’ll stand behind the strategy. And with this comes a great level of personal responsibility for each and every one of us. The team have their focus areas, which gives you a greater sense of enjoyment and fulfilment in your work. You can be the one who truly drives something. It also means there is a high degree of trust. If you have a lot of responsibility and you’re learning new things, it means that inherently you’ll make mistakes and that’s OK. Mistakes will happen, and we solve them together. That’s how we learn.
The degree to which you can develop and shape your own future in a team like ours is something unique. And I’m really proud of how quickly the members of my team developed. They trust each other and that brings out the best in them.
The average age in the office is somewhere around early 30s, so most of the team are young, driven, fun professionals (Michiel turns his camera to a couple of colleagues playing a noisy game of table football and continues, smiling) … it’s a good way to just get your mind off work for a few minutes.
How has the PPA market developed locally and how are you adapting to it?
Five years ago, the Netherlands were at around seven per cent renewable electricity on the grid. We had difficulties competing in this sector and corporate interest in renewables was relatively low. Since then, there has been a big increase, a big catch-up in renewable electricity production. Solar facilities have been developed at a greater pace on land as well as on household roofs. Nowadays, the Netherlands has by far the highest number of solar panels per capita in Europe. Which also has consequences for the flexibility of the electricity grid. In terms of wind, there is limited development capacity onshore as building wind farms always impacts nearby stakeholders. That said, offshore wind projects, which started around nine years ago, are really catching up. So we’ve got between two to three gigawatts coming online for solar and the target for offshore wind is 21 GW by 2030, which is significant.
We see a number of things happening in the market today: our own supply customers have an interest in green energy, and that really helps when discussing a PPA with developers, and also subsidies have been declining. There was little risk five years ago but now we look for more innovative solutions to help a developer reach financial investment decision on their project. There needs to be more value for a producer than just the subsidy and that’s where we come in. And for that reason, we’re signing more PPAs now than five years ago.
How is Axpo Netherlands supporting the energy transition?
Our business model is to manage energy price risk, across the board, from renewable production and towards supplying customers. Energy is never produced in the same shape or form as it is consumed. So there’s a natural mismatch there. And this mismatch calls for parties that are not only willing - but also able - to manage those risks. If you don’t have this lynchpin, renewable energy projects will not be built. So in terms of how do we contribute to the energy transition, we’re not afraid to take risks and we are also able to manage them. This is in the Axpo Solutions DNA but also in the Axpo Group DNA, where hydro power projects have traditionally been developed with a 50 to 80-year horizon. In doing so, I believe we play a key role in the development of renewable energy.
What is your biggest challenge?
We are a small team with a great place in the market. Our customers appreciate our service, but with our broad portfolio we also have to be able to deliver a great service and keep that closeness to the customer that we’ve always had. We want to remain a partner in energy rather than a distant energy supplier that doesn’t pick up the phone. So scaling the business while keeping our DNA and staying true to who we are is actually our main challenge nowadays.
Which are the business activities where you see the biggest opportunities?
There’s still a lot of potential for growth in what we do, especially in supply and renewables. We’re experiencing strong growth and I expect that to continue, both in PPAs and the supply side.
In terms of new business areas, I hope in the near future we will also start to manage batteries. There are a lot of batteries coming online in Holland and that is certainly an area we aim to develop next year. Biomethane is also experiencing significant growth, and I hope we become more active in that market as well.
How do you relax after a long day of work?
Well, like any proper Dutch man, (laughing), I bike home for half an hour. The 10km ride through the centre of Amsterdam gives me great joy. Regardless of rain or snow, I always try to get my daily bike ride if I am not visiting customers outside Amsterdam. I really enjoy the commute; I couldn’t do without it.
Otherwise, evening sports are sometimes difficult, but there might be running, ice skating, swimming – I live on a boat – so it’s the first thing I do when I get home from work or when I wake up and the weather is nice, especially in the summer.
Then obviously family time, spending time with my two kids, and I love to read.
Any good book you’d recommend?
Some of my favourite books are Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels about a British Royal naval commander during the Napoleonic wars: the Aubrey–Maturin series. One book was made into a movie, and it’s fantastic. I’ve read the whole series three or four times.
If you could have another job for one day, what would it be and why?
I’d like to be a broker for used sailing boats. I love sailing and anything to do with water. It gets me beyond excited.
Michiel Rutgers began her career in 2007 and has held various roles in the energy sector. After working for RWE and Essent in the Netherlands, in 2014 he moved to Brussels, setting up Axpo’s business in the Netherlands. Michiel has been leading the Axpo Netherlands team since June 2019. He holds a master’s degree in business economics from the University of Amsterdam.
You can visit Michiel’s LinkedIn profile here.
Axpo concluded its first wind PPA in the Netherlands back in 2015. Since then, the company has facilitated several bespoke PPAs between developers and off-takers.
Based in Amsterdam, Axpo’s Dutch subsidiary is a leading marketer of wind and solar energy in the country, drawing on its long-standing experience in this market across Europe. In addition to its PPA business, Axpo’s core expertise includes power and natural gas supply and structuring for corporate off-takers and providing market access to independent retailers and wholesale counterparties.