Refining crude oil and other feedstocks into nearly 15 million tonnes of petroleum products each year, German company MiRO prides itself on its operational efficiency. Ralf Schairer presides over the refinery, which is the largest in Germany. It is jointly owned by four industry giants – Shell, Esso, Phillips 66 and Rosneft – and enjoys a significant competitive advantage from its location in Karlsruhe, where it provides in large parts the region’s ground fuel and heating.
Before his current role, Ralf had built up deep industry expertise, working for a quarter of a century at Exxon. More recently, he was refinery manager at Saudi Arabian company SAMREF. “That was useful in the sense that it was also a joint venture,” he reflects. “So, you learn how to deal with multiple shareholders and stakeholders, and get different perspectives aligned into a common strategy. That was certainly a benefit. Here at MiRO, I have four shareholders rather than the two at SAMREF, so it’s even more complicated.”
While working in Saudi Arabia was a cultural adjustment for the German native, Ralf says the experience was immensely helpful in developing his technical expertise and management skills. “Getting used to the scope of control and learning how to deal with a large organisation was a great opportunity. I’m sure I benefited from my time at SAMREF in that regard.”
On joining MiRO, Ralf was immediately struck by its technical excellence, energy efficiency levels and strong commitment to operational safety. “It’s a very solid, robust, stable organisation, and that typically generates functional excellence and technical strength,” he says. The company’s processes in working with partners were also a distinctive feature of MiRO, with collaboration guided by the principle of transparency and the objective of producing win–win results.
MiRO’s product demand
Last year, MiRO continued to be an efficient producer of gasoline, diesel, light heating oil, LPG and propylene. Its plant utilisation numbers hit a historic high, a figure Ralf attributes to healthy market demand and strong reliability performance. Germany has the highest oil consumption rates of any European nation and Ralf says demand levels internationally were “very healthy”, with a strong Central European economy and a spike in demand from the Gulf Coast, where some refineries were shut down after being hit by hurricanes.
More broadly, demand for its products may change radically in the coming years as renewable energy sources are increasingly favoured and fossil fuel use recedes. Debates over the environmental impact of producing fuels, decarbonisation and climate change have been prominent in the European media and Ralf says MiRO wants to play a part in these debates.
Contribution to climate protection
The company is making a contribution to climate protection through its high levels of energy efficiency; its district heating output saves 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, for instance. Ralf says MiRO can offer fact-based and knowledgeable contributions to the ongoing dialogue. “We want to be aware of what’s going on with the policymakers and the kind of policies that will come into play over the next few years.”
He says MiRO may pursue fuels produced from renewable energy sources, but that this would be contingent on policymakers offering a framework for companies which enables a business case for investments into these alternatives. “In that regard, you want to be part of the conversations with the main stakeholders. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re present in several communities where the future for heating and transportation is being discussed.”
Shareholders’ contribution to final strategy
The company’s four shareholders will be foremost in guiding what it does in the coming years and decades. “How we are going to contribute to all of that and what our final strategy will be remains an open question. It is going to be a huge challenge, determining what our company will look like in 2030. In our business, significant change takes time because of the sheer size of the projects you need to execute.”
Ralf says that ensuring MiRO’s shareholders – who have a strong focus on fossil fuels and heating – are all on the same page concerning MiRO going forward will be a significant challenge. “What we are focused on now is the medium term and we’re trying to start a conversation with our shareholders to determine their views on the more long-term strategies. They all have different views on the business. You can read their annual reports and see how they are going to act in that context. I am sure they are aware of what’s happening; they wouldn’t have taken the step of entering into business in Germany otherwise. But time will tell.”
People and culture strategy
On his own management style, Ralf favours a democratic approach and avoids rigid hierarchies and micromanaging. “I try to be connected to people. I listen to what people are saying and I include the whole organisation in this, not just my management team. I try to be out in the field quite a bit, talking to workers and seeing how they are going. I show interest in the operation and issues, and I think that connects me well to people. That means I can assess what’s going on.”
Ralf says he is always open to good ideas, no matter where in the organisation they come from. “I’m not really top-down. People argue with me, and that’s okay. I listen and I’m willing to change my view.” He is more focused on enabling people to use their expertise and do their work rather than on the specifics of how they get their job done.
He is also keen to emphasise to his staff that MiRO is locked in vigorous global competition with rival firms and needs to stay on edge. “We’re here to win. I try to make that clear. So, I need a team with spirit first of all, a willingness to play the game. My role is to engage and motivate people and make sure they have the skills and resources to play the game and win it. That’s kind of how I operate.”
The company’s culture has contributed towards its strong staff retention rates, as have industry-standard health and pension schemes, flexible working arrangements, opportunities for further education and development, employee recognition programs and competitive remuneration.
Ralf adds that the approach of empowering employees and allowing them significant autonomy has played a major role in this. “People feel motivated working for MiRO. They are able to take ownership and pride in what they are doing. Our leadership framework has been put in place so leaders and supervisors can engage with employees to stimulate and support company culture. We have seen a lot of evidence over the years that this is actually contributing to the company’s success.”
“People feel motivated working for MiRO. They are able to take ownership and pride in what they are doing.”
As Ralf guides the company into this new era, he is mindful that leadership is dynamic not static and needs to be flexible enough to attract the next generation of talent across engineers, technicians, mechanics and computer scientists. “We’ll keep reviewing our leadership philosophy,” he says. “We see the world around us changing and a new generation is coming up that has different requirements. We need to adjust ourselves so that we continue to be attractive to the new generation.”