The CEO of Axpo Bulgaria, an energy trading company, demonstrates the power of women to transform the world
When Milena Videnova applied for the position of CEO at Axpo Bulgaria, an energy trading and derivatives company, she was not deterred by the fact that the firm operates in a male-dominated field. Her previous experience working in international banking, insurance and finance institutions, along with her drive and track record helping businesses grow, made her the perfect match for the position. Since taking on the role in 2020, Axpo Bulgaria has expanded its client base and portfolio of services significantly.
The energy industry is changing fast. Renewables, which have the potential to replace more environmentally harmful energy production methods, must continue to be developed despite opposing local and global policies, international crises, and technology drawbacks.
Axpo Group has been demonstrating for years that, with vision, innovation, and smart investment in people, markets and technologies, renewables can benefit and help transform the natural world, societies and people's lives. The company develops, expands and perfects alternative energy sources in Europe and across the world through sustainable energy solutions, power purchase agreements and the creation of state-of-the-art energy technologies. The group opened its subsidiary company Axpo Bulgaria in 2006.
What is needed to be a female business leader today?
Everything is in a state of flux at the moment, across the world and the markets. To be a female leader in such an environment requires adaptability and flexibility, and the ability to motivate your team to adequately react to all the changes and challenges a company faces nowadays, both internally and externally.
As a woman, have you noticed differences between being a top manager in Bulgaria and abroad?
Yes, definitely. My experience in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France shows that it is easier for women to be in leadership positions in Bulgaria. Our society is used to the idea that a woman can have both a successful career and a harmonious family. Axpo Bulgaria is often used as a good example of gender equality in the group as we have a roughly equal split of men and women. All employees are chosen for their outstanding qualities after undergoing rigorous independent assessments and our talent development programme, not because of their gender.
What are your strengths as a leader?
My ability to network and grow businesses is one of my strongest characteristics, along with being able to build and nurture good relationships with external partners, the company's stakeholders and team members. When a leader has a strong team, everything is possible.
Perseverance and discipline are also crucial to achieve sustainable business results.
In 2022, energy independence became vital for the EU. How did Axpo Group react to this new atmosphere?
Axpo has been working towards making energy independence possible long before the war in Ukraine made it a pressing issue for Europe.
Axpo Group is owned by Swiss cantons and the cantonal utility companies, and has over 100 years of history. Together with its partners, it is Switzerland's largest producer of renewable energy from hydropower, biomass and nuclear sources. Abroad, Axpo focuses on solar and wind energy. The company has a portfolio of wind farms and is active across the entire solar energy value chain.
The company is also an energy trader – Axpo Bulgaria is an active wholesale trader in 15 European markets, selling guarantees of origin and CO2 emissions, and long-term green energy stocks. We also offer solutions to producers of renewable energy.
We are already seeing changes in the Bulgarian market. For example, recently many new solar projects became operational, although this may be in part due to the warm winter.
Less than two years ago, the group created a special unit for hydrogen production and battery installation in Western Europe. This unit has the potential to change the market as it will make storage and trade easier.
One of our key challenges are the different regulations, including pricing and taxes based on the EU's Renewable Energy Directive. These need to be announced well in advance so that stakeholders can plan properly.
I must underline that the profit margin from energy trade in 2021 was as low as 2.5-5%. The excess profit is for the producers.
The current policies for fast energy independence from Russia, however, forced European countries to go back to traditional, less green energy sources. Is it still possible to achieve the Green Transition's goal for climate neutrality by 2050?
I believe in the Green Transition and in free trade. I am sure that the current restrictions are temporary and that we will soon return to normal market economy and trade conditions. The EU's whole concept is about creating a common energy market, and Bulgaria is traditionally a large electricity producer and exporter.
The Green Transition can become a reality if a fast-track line for green energy projects is created and red tape is minimised. The current approval regime is too slow – for example, some of the projects in Bulgaria are only becoming active now, even though they were started three years ago. This is too long.
Another possible improvement would be to exclude long-term purchase agreements from the restrictions.
What should governments, companies and individuals do to have cleaner energy? What about the social price?
Every member of society should be aware of how to best use the different available resources. Sadly, due to Bulgaria's ongoing political crisis, we are struggling to receive the funding for green energy projects allocated in the country's Recovery and Development Plan.
I hope that we will soon have a parliament and government ready to bear the political responsibility needed to accelerate this process and to allow small and mid-size companies and low-income families to use the different subsidies.
Bulgaria has enough natural resources for a healthy green energy mix. To achieve this, however, we will also need more efficient administration and e-government. This will help get the funding to the people who need it. Otherwise, we are going to pay a very high price for the delay.
If Bulgaria continues to diversify its energy sources, accelerates renewable energy projects, and builds and keeps already existing facilities, including nuclear, then the social price will go down. Low-income families, for example, can become independent if they have their own solar panels.
The Green Transition and cheaper energy are possible with dedicated and consistent effort from all stakeholders and market players.
How can Axpo Bulgaria help in this process?
Axpo Bulgaria offers tools for renewable energy trade. In 2021, we introduced origination services for wholesale traders and for renewable energy producers and traders. We also offer cross border trade. While electricity is usually traded regionally, we are also present in some Western European markets, and can offer it as physical delivery and through financial instruments. If a project requires partnership with other Axpo companies, we will be happy to refer to them.
We can also help in trade with green power guarantees of origin. Companies with environmentally-aware clients can benefit immensely from these.
What is Bulgaria's potential to develop green energy?
Although there are many windmills in the northeast, the country's main potential is for solar. Combined projects, which allow the use of agricultural land under photovoltaic power stations, are also possible.
However, to reach its full potential, Bulgaria needs to invest heavily in its infrastructure as the capacity of the current grid is limited. It should also start using EU and national funding to co-finance green hydrogen projects and to adapt existing natural gas pipelines for this type of fuel. These are long-term investments that depend on many political factors, but projects like these are crucial for Bulgaria's energy independence and green energy.
What is the main challenge that you face as the CEO of Axpo Bulgaria?
New challenges keep appearing and it is hard to predict the future. My team's daily struggle, however, is the different regulation frames set by the different governments in the various markets in which we are active.
Another challenge is finding and retaining the needed talent. Fortunately, Axpo Bulgaria excels at this. We have a team of over 100 professionals and our attrition rate in 2022 was under 5%.
But challenges are part of life. We can overcome them with the right attitude, passion and approach.
What goals did you set for yourself when you became Axpo Bulgaria's CEO? What about your current ones?
Our Bulgarian team manages energy logistics in Europe and many back-office functions for the group. My first goal was to expand these and to optimise and automate certain processes that would allow us to have more clients and services.
Another goal was to turn Axpo Bulgaria into a trade hub. When I arrived, we only had a couple of sales persons, just three licences, and there were almost no active deals. Now we are managing over 30 electricity and natural gas licences and are operating in 15 European markets.
My third goal was to achieve sustainable profits. For a second year in a row, we now are profitable from wholesale trade.
I also wanted to encourage a creative environment to allow our talent to thrive. Innovation is crucial for a company. Now, each employee has the opportunity to present their ideas to a digital board and see it materialised if approved. There is lots of space for innovation in our field, such as processing of large data bases and algorithmic trade.
Looking ahead, we aim to enter new markets and to diversify more.
At Axpo Bulgaria, we never stop to bask in our success. We are always active and ready to cover new ground: new markets, products and innovations. We invest in nurturing leadership skills in all our employees, to help them feel a sense of ownership for the company.
What would you say to women making their first steps as leaders?
I want to encourage them to never give up. Having both a career and family is possible. The world is changing and women have incredible potential. Please, do not underestimate yourselves, even if others underestimate you. Push to be better, each day, every day.
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