In conversation with Stanley Maas and Trudy Onland

We are facing a huge challenge in the form of the energy transition. We have to build more than in previous years to achieve this. We cannot do it alone. Cooperation with our contractors is essential. Our COO Trudy Onland discusses this with Stanley Maas, CEO of Visser & Smit Hanab (a division of VolkerWessels).

Looking back at 2022, Stanley can see many topics that had an impact on business operations. ‘The transition to sustainable sources of energy, due to the sustainability targets that the Netherlands has set itself. This leads to congestion issues on the existing electricity grid. Whereas utility connections used to be a given, this is now the first thing developers ask about. They wonder: will the energy facilities be sufficient in the region where I am preparing to build? Visser & Smit Hanab is increasingly involved in the preparatory phase for these developments. We are now really becoming a business partner, instead of a “pipeline supplier”. This obviously affects our processes.’ The war in Ukraine in particular has been a major accelerator in the energy transition, says Trudy. I think that in retrospect, the war will be seen as a turning point in the energy transition. Because of the current energy prices, electrification is proceeding much faster than we had expected.’

‘I think that in retrospect, the war will be seen as a turning point in the energy transition. Because of the current energy prices, electrification is proceeding much faster than we had expected.’

Care for and retention of employees

We need large numbers of additional employees to facilitate the energy transition. How do Visser & Smit Hanab view this challenge? With regard to personnel, Stanley believes the initial focus has to be on caring for and retaining existing employees.

‘We are seeing some of our people getting into financial difficulties as a result of inflation and higher energy prices. We are very aware of this, because it impacts people’s performance. We provide assistance where necessary, for example with confidential advisers and budget coaching.’ Trudy is pleased to hear that caring for and retaining employees is a top priority at Visser & Smit Hanab. She nods in agreement. ‘That’s the first step. It is useful in that respect to know what is attractive to employees and what is not. We hear, for example, that our internal online training is seen as very important. And the other day I heard about a person who was considering applying for a job at Stedin, but was afraid he would never be able to pick up his children after school. We don’t want to be a company like that. We attach great importance to flexibility and a good work-life balance. It is crucial that we respond to people’s existing needs.’

The smaller the distance between management and the shop floor, the better, says Trudy.

‘I often hear the best solutions when speaking with colleagues. As the Board, it is our task to facilitate those solutions.’

Trudy: ‘I often hear the best solutions when I discuss things with my colleagues. It is our task, as the management board, to facilitate those solutions.’ In Stanley’s experience, it’s important not to impose a single culture on your people. ‘We used to want to have a single culture, but we have let go of this now. It’s far better to accept cultural differences. After all, Limburg is different from Zwolle. It’s important to recognise such individual features: the main thing is for people to feel at home within their teams.’ It is notable that Visser & Smit Hanab and Stedin both have successful business schools - essential, apparently, to attract new fitters and broaden training. Stanley: ‘We have many young people among our workforce; the average age is 32. For now, there is no shortage of new employees.’ That also applies to Stedin, says Trudy.

Multidisciplinary working
On 19 October 2022, we and Oasen and Dunea signed framework agreements with the contractors Baas, Van Vulpen, Quint & Van Ginkel and Visser Smit & Hanab. Stedin, Dunea and Oasen will cooperate more closely in the installation and replacement of electricity cables and gas and drinking water pipelines. This will mean less nuisance for the local area, as the work will be carried out jointly. How does this type of collaboration work in practice? According to Trudy and Stanley, people who understand each other usually get on well. ‘When things go wrong, it’s often in the internal domain. When margins are under pressure, for example, people can be very adamant that they’re in the right,’ says Stanley. Trudy adds, ‘I believe we can work much better if we see each other as partners. But it will take time to grow into this. Undoubtedly we will revert to our old roles occasionally, but we will then re-emerge from that and that will strengthen the new way of working. After all, our relationship has been one of client and contractor for years. The old relationship will not immediately disappear because we have a new contract.’ According to Stanley, this is why it is important that the mandate is placed as low as possible in the organisation. ‘They will work things out together; at that level they all share the same goal.’ Mutual relationships are crucial in this context. ‘That’s why it is such a good idea of Stedin to bring all the parties together for a few days before the project kicks off. After all, we’ll have to work together for quite a long period of time.’

Shifts in the chain
Activities are shifting in the chain towards the parties carrying out the work. Stanley welcomes this. ‘There is tension, but in these times with so much work the most important thing is that we work efficiently. Sometimes we as a contractor can simply get things done more quickly. So why not reallocate the work?’ Trudy completely agrees. ‘I often say that even though our task is impossible, we’ll go for it. This means we shouldn’t bother each other unless it’s really necessary. The energy transition demands that we take a pragmatic approach. There are enough challenges already.’

Stanley Maas: CEO of Visser & Smit Hanab
Trudy Onland: COO of Stedin