04.10.2023 | A story of passion, expertise and trust
With a team of 40 industry experts, several landmark deals and one of the largest renewables portfolios in northern Europe, Axpo Nordic is celebrating two decades of success. We sat down with Managing Director Håkon Røhne, Head of Nordic Origination Kjetil Holm and Head of Trading Karsten Engen to learn what it took for the business to establish itself as a leader and how the future might look.
Let’s start by looking back 20 years. How did each of you join Axpo Nordic?
Håkon: I joined at the very beginning, in 2003. At that time, EGL was setting up its Nordic operation in what was probably the most advanced and liquid power market in the world. I was head of mid-office and structuring for a six-people ‘start-up’ working out of a small office in Oslo.
Kjetil: I joined shortly after Håkon, in February 2004. I moved back from Zürich with my family, including a new-born daughter, and remember being very excited to be starting my adventure in origination at Axpo Nordic.
Karsten: I started a few years after Håkon and Kjetil, in 2006. I was an established senior options trader in the Nordic power market. EGL seemed like an exciting young company and, seventeen and a half years on, I haven’t looked back. At first, my role was as a proprietary trader. Now I’m heading the structured trading desk with responsibility for pricing, position management and proprietary trading.
What are your fondest memories of your time at Axpo?
Håkon: I remember the first big deal we closed back in 2007, when we bought a considerable portfolio from a Nordic trading company. This marked the end of the start-up period and the beginning of the big-deal era. I also look back proudly on the first long-term PPA which we closed in 2010 after four years of negotiations. From that point on, our growth in the renewables space accelerated.
Kjetil: For me, the thing that stands out the most is how much responsibility we had at a very young age. We signed up our first customer after just one week of operations. We built a strong client network, were genuinely nice and respectful, in it for the long term, and this approach always pays off.
Karsten: Yes, those customer interactions are really important and the same goes for the social aspects within the company. I think we’ve been able to maintain a very good environment for people to work and thrive in. I have very good memories of the various teambuilding activities we’ve organised over the years.
What is the secret behind your success? How do you maintain motivation?
Håkon: The passion has always been there, developing over time as we and the business grow. As such, there’s nowhere more exciting and meaningful to be than our industry. We’ve been granted a large degree of independence and trust that enables us to quickly adapt our business, try out new ventures and constantly be on our toes trying to stay ahead of the competition. Axpo has always had a strong belief that local people in local markets make wise local decisions.
Kjetil: That passion to succeed that Håkon mentions is something we built over time through curiosity, the eagerness to learn new things and being open to new ideas. Many others have tried to copy our model, but our ‘company soul’, fun working environment, flat hierarchy, and the quality of our people are not easy to reproduce.
Karsten: I think the best thing about this business is that you have to continuously adapt. We know how we made money last year, but we don’t yet know what will bring in the profit in two years’ time. We’ve been able to maintain the hunger for finding these opportunities, the passion that Håkon and Kjetil describe, and I believe that’s the main reason for our success.
Many Axpo Nordic employees describe the company as still having a start-up culture. How does this empower the way you work?
Håkon: We want to create an environment where you can and should become an expert, be able to pursue what you believe in and, most importantly, be able to fail and learn. Despite operating in a very competitive environment, we nurture a team spirit and a system of sharing where successes are celebrated together.
Kjetil: True. In this sense, we’ve always shared our achievements. We’re still a relatively small business in number of employees, have known each other for many years, and need and want to make deals every day. Every year we start at zero profit and loss, with ambitious targets and many ideas but no fixed plan for where the P&L will come from.
Karsten: It’s important for our employees to know that their ideas are highly valued and they are encouraged to put them forward. For me, the ability to bring ideas to life quickly is the key to motivation. Additionally, I think our company has a very high level of integrity.
How has Axpo grown over time?
From the very start, our over-arching business strategy has rested on the pillars of proprietary trading and origination. Prop was swift to set up and the trading volumes rose quickly, whereas origination needs more time and patience. In 2005, two years after entering the Nordic market, Axpo acquired a small portfolio management company based in Malmø that later grew to become Axpo Sverige. In 2009, we set up our operations for Axpo Finland Oy to cover both the Finnish and Baltic markets. Denmark has been covered out of our Oslo office.
The key ingredient to our success has been the hiring, retaining and developing of people with grit. They have a passion for what they do and set themselves ambitious targets. This, combined with a can-do culture, curiosity, drive and a lot of fun along the way, creates a productive environment for both business and people.
Flash forward 20 years. Where is Axpo Nordic now?
If you asked me this in 2003, I’m pretty sure I would have underestimated the importance of a flexible trading and origination strategy. By 2043, we will have hopefully progressed further in the energy transition towards net zero, and Axpo will have played an important role in getting us there. In a totally changed power and energy system dominated by intermittent renewables and hydrogen, our customers will need our expertise in providing reliable energy and managing their risks. Trading and optimisation will be even more prevalent in such a system. The way we do this and the technology we apply will differ from today – just think about the early days of AI and what developments might come in 20 years’ time.
How do you relax away from work?
Physical exercise, preferably outdoors, including running, cycling, tennis and padel (a sort of mix between squash and tennis). I enjoy playing with my children in their free time and have coached both my sons in football. I also enjoy gardening – it helps me disconnect, you get fresh air and accomplish something completely different. It’s therapy, basically (laughs).
Håkon Røhne has been responsible for Axpo Nordic and the Baltic region since 2010. Based at its Oslo headquarters, Håkon has worked for the company since 2003. During this time, he has held a wide range of positions within risk management, trading and origination. Before joining Axpo, Håkon worked for Enron in Oslo. He holds a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and studied finances at the BI Norwegian Business School.
How did your first PPA come about?
In 2011, after many years of negotiation, we signed a deal with Høg Jæren in Norway. This was the first long-term PPA in the Nordic market, and the first of its kind in Norway. It was a milestone transaction, generating many new agreements afterwards with developers, investors and industrials. They say the first deal is often the hardest!
Today Axpo Nordic has an impressive renewables portfolio. What do you offer to clients that is unique in the market?
That’s right. Our portfolio today comprises more than 3,500 MW of renewable energy production which we manage and balance in the Nordic and Baltic energy market. Sharing our insights and knowledge of the market and managing its risks has helped build strong relationship of trust with our customers and encouraged them to enter into long-term relations with Axpo. We always find solutions to our customers’ needs!
What is the ‘secret sauce’ of origination? Is there a typical originator?
As my colleague Cathrine ably explained, an originator is a person closing deals with customers. To do so in a long-term, consistent manner you need to understand the risks in what you do for the customer and for Axpo and build trust. In addition, you need to be a trader and sales minded person – we call it ‘slow-motion trading’ or trading with social skills. We offer products that no one has seen, so it’s essentially a discussion between two individuals. I prefer to do deals with like-minded people, and the best deals are those you do for the second or third time with the same person, whether in the same or a different company.
How do you relax away from work?
I also take part in many different sports with my family and friends, mainly running, skiing, hunting and hiking. My favourite activity is running, either in the woods or the mountains. It clears my mind, refuels my body, and keeps me fit for the next new deal!
Kjetil Holm joined Axpo Nordic in 2004 and is currently Head of Nordic Origination. Prior to Axpo, Kjetil held several senior portfolio management roles at Atel, Energipartner Europe, and Hafslund Markets. He holds a Diplom Kaufmann degree (similar to an MBA) in Logistics and International Management from the University of Mannheim, Germany.
What were the most memorable market moves during your time at Axpo?
There are many incidents I remember very clearly, typically those impacting the profit and loss figures in either direction. However, some events have shaped the development of the market more than others. The Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 really changed the whole European energy market and trading conditions in general. German nuclear plants were closed down and the building of renewables capacity really took off. It is certainly a market event to remember. And, of course, it is hard to avoid the recent bull market peaking in August 2022 when talking about memorable market moves.
What excites you about the future energy world?
I think our company has a very important contribution to make in the energy transition. The challenges ahead with regards to intermittent power generation, energy storage and covering the need for electricity at exactly the right time and place are enormous. The right framework conditions are needed, but I strongly believe the market has a crucial role to play in solving these issues in the most efficient way. We are all part of this. Our expertise combined with all the opportunities related to AI, the ability to handle big data, et cetera, will allow us to play a key role here.
How do you relax away from work?
I’m also a big fan of physical exercise, including running, playing soccer, skiing and going to the gym. For the past 11 years, I’ve spent a large chunk of my available time coaching soccer teams for my three children. It has been very rewarding, but I am now looking forward to retirement from that job! I love fishing and hiking in the mountains, but I have not been too great at finding time for this lately! (laughs)
Karsten Engen joined Axpo Nordic in 2006 and is Head of Trading. He has been trading in energy markets since 1997, previously working at Statkraft and ABB Financial Services. Karsten holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Economics and Technology Management from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Visit Axpo Nordic’s LinkedIn page.