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 sees many issues affecting his business operations. ‘The transition to sustainable energy sources as a result of 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. Are there adequate energy facilities in the region where I plan 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 is affecting our processes.’ According to Trudy, the war in Ukraine is causing a huge acceleration in the energy transition. ‘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 and retention of employees

Many extra people are needed for the energy transition. How does Visser & Smit Hanab see 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. ‘This is the starting point. 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 recently I heard someone considering working at Stedin saying that he thought he would never be able to collect his children from school. We don’t want to be that sort of company. Flexibility and a good work-life balance is important to us. Moving with the times and what people need today, that matters.’

The less distance between the shop floor and the management, the better, according to Trudy.

‘If I discuss things with my colleagues, I usually hear the best solutions. Our task in management is to facilitate this.’

Trudy: ‘I often hear the best solutions when I discuss things with my colleagues. Our task in management is to facilitate this.’ 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. There are differences between Limburg and Zwolle, for instance. We see this individuality as important: the point is that you feel part of your team.’ 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, the average age is 32 years. Intake is not a problem at the moment.’ The same applies to Stedin, agrees 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 means less disruption for the environment, as the works will be carried out collectively. How does this cooperation work in practice? According to Trudy and Stanley, people who understand each other usually get on well. ‘When things go wrong, it’s usually internally. 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 find a way together; everyone will then have a common objective.’ The relationship here is very important. ‘This is why it is so good that Stedin brings all the parties together for a few days before the project starts. Ultimately we are going to be working together for a long 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. And sometimes we as the contractor can simply work faster. Why not shift the work?’ Trudy completely agrees. ‘I often say that we have an impossible job, but we’re going to do it anyway. This means that we have to preoccupy each other unnecessarily as little as possible. The energy transition demands that we do not make problems. There are enough challenges already.’

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