A s a graduate of law from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Thomas Keller didn’t anticipate that one day his career would uproot him almost 7,200 kilometres from his hometown. The transition from Denmark, a country with a population of 5.8 million, to China, populated by around 1.4 billion, has been a positive one for Thomas.
It has added a dimension to his work and family life, providing an opportunity to learn about a different culture, meet new people, and discover ways to interact with friends.
“I take the chances that are presented and do my best,” says Thomas, reflecting on the choices he has made. Having worked as a lawyer initially, Thomas decided to swap the litigation world for one of tax advisory. He spent seven years at KPMG Denmark, followed by four years at Danfoss as Head of Group Tax.
On 1 February 2014, Thomas joined the sustainable energy solutions business, Vestas, where he headed several functions and departments before moving to China to take on the role of CFO and then President.
“I feel passionate about China. It’s a great place to live,” Thomas enthuses. “I’m here with my wife and family. We appreciate the openness and friendliness of the people we meet, and I enjoy working with an engaged and passionate team.” Alongside taking in the new environment and culture, Thomas is here to further grow Vestas in the Chinese market.
“China is the world’s largest and biggest single market for wind,” he reinforces. “It’s a big opportunity and challenge to unlock the Vestas market. Although we are a global world leader, we are a niche player here.”
But either way, the nation’s wind capabilities are endless. “The Chinese wind market is becoming more professionalised. It is maturing in its mindset as well as in KPIs for production and consumption.”
Since Vestas entered into the Chinese market more than 30 years ago, the business has been actively building trust and understanding of what it is the China wind market is asking for and what the constraints are.
“Our China supply chain is, by far, the biggest in the world,” Thomas notes, while also highlighting the pleasure it has been to work with the supply chain. “You can be strong when you find the right partner.”
The long-term partnerships are also a significant part of the business’s growth strategy. “We are here in China to utilise the vastest amount of research and development, and to bring our global leadership knowledge to the customer,” he explains. “But also, to help the country transition from fossil fuels to valuable energy. China has ambitious goals, and we are here to help achieve them.”
China is the world’s largest market for energy, solar and wind. It is also the world’s largest wind power market in both new and cumulative installations. In 2018, the country installed 20.2 gigawatts of onshore wind energy and 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind farm, indicating 44% and 37% of global market share.
“China’s ambitions are the highest in the world,” Thomas says. “It is the key to the iron gates. The country wants to ensure growth without having to destroy the local environment. I feel this in every meeting and interaction. Not just with people in the industry but also with people in the street, restaurants or whenever I have a social meeting.”
Vestas has been making wind work for more than 40 years. The business designs, manufactures, installs and services wind turbines across the globe. It currently has more than 113 gigawatts of wind turbines in 81 countries.
“No matter where we are, Vestas has dedicated and engaged people, who want to do the best. They share the same purpose,” Thomas explains. “We want to save the planet; we want to renew energy. We share a vision for clean energy.”
Since the transition, Thomas points out a few differences between Danish and Chinese working environments. He says the Danish way is open, trustworthy, with mutual reliance. “We tend to involve people early, and they need to be able to raise their voice and share their opinion,” he says.
But in China, it is slightly different. “People rely on their leader to take the final decision.” The leader also needs to engage people and encourage them to speak up.
“It is about working well and bringing the business culture of Vestas. It’s bringing our values of accountability, collaboration, stability and passion into a Chinese work environment, where they can see that their opinion matters and that their knowledge contributes to not just Vestas China, but all of Vestas.”
Another area Thomas is focusing on is team engagement and ensuring mutual understanding. “It’s a hard market. Therefore, we must get smarter and drive a culture where we are helping each other to succeed, transparently and openly,” he explains, adding, “Building trust through communication and involvement is what we’re looking for.”
It has been an educational journey for the past two years. Thomas explains that the industry is exceptionally specialised and high tech. “We will never get it right on day one. We have to make errors, and that’s fine. If it’s not the right decision, then we do it all over again.”
As the journey continues and challenges arise, staying motivated is no challenge. People are what keep Thomas encouraged. He enthusiastically explains how much he loves working with his team.
“We are working on the long run, on transforming the whole country into having sustainable renewable energy solutions. That's the game we're in, and the players are definitely dedicated.”
“Engaging with people and seeing how you can achieve something that you didn’t believe was possible – that motivates me every day. I love coming to the office. I love meeting new teams, customers and regulators.”
At Vestas, there is a common purpose, a shared passion – but it’s also about making sure the business is heading towards sustainable solutions. “We’re not here to work on a small two-year solution,” Thomas states. “We are working in the long run, on transforming the whole country into having sustainable renewable energy. That’s the game we’re in, and the players are dedicated.”
Choosing green is a viable option for the economy, with Thomas noting that “green is not just good energy, it’s also good business”. And this way of thinking is gaining traction – slowly.
“Green energy is not just good energy, it’s also good business.”
“This may seem like a small move, but it is big for China because even though you have solar farms and wind farms, if they don’t produce and that energy isn’t consumed, then it doesn’t help. You would still have to rely on thermal and fossil fuels.” The next step is for all stakeholders to swap to clean energy. “It will lead to a cleaner China,” he adds.
Thomas has much excitement for the industry and its capacity. And the Vestas story and future is running strong. “We bring a global mindset and knowledge. We want to be more than just a niche player in China,” he stresses.
“We want to bring innovation and high-quality technology. We want to bring it in all the wind segments and capture more volume in the China market. Our goal is to be balanced in our production as, right now, we are heavier on export. We want to be 50/50 in export and serving the China market.”
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