“A miniature picture of the switch to renewables”
In its early years, Naturstrom AG faced so many problems that everything could well have ended in tears. But over time it has developed into a highly successful business. Almost exactly 15 years ago, on 16 April 1998, seven trade associations (including the German Wind Energy Association and three environmental organisations) founded Naturstrom, Germany’s first independent supplier of green electricity. Even the decidedly conservative tabloid Bild reported on the new company. It was born in the early days of the revised Energy Industry Act, which heralded the liberalisation of Germany’s electricity market and allowed new electricity suppliers to set up shop. As the market opened up, consumers found themselves in a vast new playing field, finally free to choose their own supplier. It was also around this time that Germany started taking major steps towards making the switch to renewables, and this created an entirely new clutch of opportunities. Unfortunately for Naturstrom, the liberalisation of the electricity market didn’t work straight away and a number of errors meant that the company’s first capital increase went spectacularly wrong. All this left the new firm on the brink of failure. Thomas Banning, Naturstrom’s CEO, stumbled across the company rather by chance. He set to work identifying the roots of its problems. Once he had, there were just three weeks left in which to save it. But he proved more than up to the challenge.
Oliver Hummel joined Banning in 2001 and together they steered the Düsseldorf-based company towards success. Naturstrom now serves 225,000 customers, ranks second among Germany’s top four green energy providers, and looks set to keep on growing. Yet Banning and Hummel haven’t let the company’s success and continued growth go to their heads. They both have consultancy backgrounds and could have taken the usual management route: a good life, success, why not, they say. But they both agree, independently of each other, that sustainability is what really matters. Clinging tightly to that belief is what got them through the tough times. And those lasted quite a while: Naturstrom remained in dire straits until 2006. Banning learned at an early age that pulling together was the way to overcome difficulties. His father was a craftsman and ran a small business with ten employees in the Ruhr area: “Your average family business teaches you to think about other people and accept responsibility.” He quickly developed an interest in the commercial side of his father’s company and took over the bookkeeping when he was just 14. “My aunt taught me. We used carbon paper and had to do all the sums in our heads. You became a maths whizz after a while,” he says with a grin.
Banning combined his fondness for figures with a heft y dose of creativity and a can-do attitude. After graduating in economics in 1981, he stayed on at university as an assistant and earned his PhD. Never one for a quiet life, he also started a family and a consultancy firm at the same time. “But I eventually realised that I would rather be an entrepreneur than develop concepts for other people. I was just starting to reduce the amount of consultancy work I did, when I got a contract from Siemens. They ended up offering me a job,” says Banning. But the idea of working in a huge corporation didn’t appeal, so he said no. A few weeks later, he changed his mind. “I figured I would stay there for two years and see how a corporation like that works. But I was there for eight years in the end.” If he had stayed, he could be flying very high at Siemens now.