Looking Towards The Future With ABB’s CEO

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ABB brought CleanTechnica to Switzerland to show off a wide array of the products and services ABB offers, as the base from which to cast a vision for the future through the eyes of ABB. We sat down with CEO Dr. Ulrich Speisshofer over lunch at the conclusion of the tour to get his top-level perspective on where ABB is looking to play in the volatile, uncertain world of electrical infrastructure just as the global grid seeks to evolve in the face of climate change and an ever-increasing influx of intermittent renewable power generation.

Throughout our discussion, Dr. Speisshofer weaved in the ABB vision for the future — opportunities it has grown from in the past, where it is operating from positions of strength today, and what he sees as growth opportunities for the future. As we talked, it became clear that ABB is well positioned both from an organizational design and product lineup perspective for the transition to intermittent renewables-based generation, global grid interconnectivity, and the electrification of transportation — all fields that it has been playing in for many years now — to not only survive in the new global grid, but to dominate.

“We need to stop being afraid and we need to start making proactive decisions.”

Dr. Spiesshofer | Image Credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica


Dr. Spiesshofer is a bold leader who is not shy about his role as the head of a global corporate powerhouse with deep roots in innovation and infrastructure technology, and he has bold plans for ABB. Under his leadership, ABB is looking to connect renewable resources not just within a country, but as a globally connected grid that is coming to reality today as ABB technologies enable wind power from the North Sea to be stored in Norway in the form of pumped hydro.

What’s impressive about his style of leadership is that Dr. Spiesshofer isn’t working all hours of the day and night to keep the ABB machine on track, but rather, is very intentional about prioritizing downtime. While many CEOs across the US are up at arms about the latest craze in Silicon Valley where CEOs and startup execs see long working hours as rights of passage, at ABB, Dr. Spiesshofer takes a completely different approach:

“You must have a disciplined, balanced life…. It’s very important when you have a job like mine. You owe your team to be relaxed. You owe your team to be fit. The worst thing you could do is to be a CEO that is rushed and worn out.” –– ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer

Upon taking up the role of CEO in September 2013, he transformed the company from a products- and manufacturing-driven company to an agile company focused on innovation and technology as the engines for growth. To accomplish this, he has led the charge to push much of its manufacturing to external suppliers, resulting in a largely white-collar workforce comprising 100,000 of its 135,000 global employees.

“We have shifted from a manual world to a world driven by electricity. We have shifted from stable fossil fuels to world powered by renewables.” — ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer


The Clean Future

Dr. Spiesshofer isn’t just talking about the future — he’s living it. He drives a BMW i3 and clearly has his finger on the pulse of where the electrification of personal transportation is headed, even sharing his own driving efficiency (18.2kWh/100km for the curious) and how it was so much cheaper than driving a petrol-powered vehicle (aka an ICE car).

We talked about how the new BMW i3 will have the same cost but double the battery capacity and range and how it was exactly these types of technological breakthroughs that are being realized in new products TODAY — happening across the electrified landscape — that represent so much opportunity for ABB to lead.

“We need to ride the S-curve of the market, we need to ride with our technology.” — ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer

The Clean Grid

As renewables are intermittent, more electrical infrastructure is required to bring them online. Think about a 200 MW solar installation. At peak, it has the potential to produce 200 MW of power, but when the sun goes down, the output is zero. The system will need 200 MW worth of infrastructure but won’t ever see 100% utilization of that infrastructure in any given day because of the nature of solar.

While this is challenging for grid operators, for ABB, it’s 100% opportunity, as ABB produces the equipment to connect energy-generating units to the grid. Net: more renewables result in more sales of electrical infrastructure equipment, which can only be good for ABB.

The addition of renewables doesn’t just “work,” but rather, the variability of the power output must be managed very rigorously or it will result in outages. Supplying stable baseload power is the core product for grid operators, and ABB is looking to the future with its “next level strategy” that aims to ensure ABB has a holistic plan for managing and succeeding through the shift towards renewable-powered electricity generation.

ABB provides much of the critical infrastructure required to integrate grid-scale storage, while at the same time adding more regional connectivity that allows grid operators to tap into renewable resources in other areas of the globe — after all, “the sun is always shining somewhere in the world,” and the same applies to wind, geothermal, tidal, and many other renewables.

The Team

Building up from this foundation, Dr. Spiesshofer has reshaped ABB over the last few years into a lean, mean innovation machine … okay, it is actually very nice, but you get the point. A heavy bias towards innovation and technology has shifted ABB’s workforce towards white collar workers with 100,000 white collar workers supported by a core of 35,000 blue collar workers.

Shifting non-essential manufacturing workload to suppliers has allowed ABB to focus more on developing technologies and integrating innovations into products while at the same time being more agile. The new and improved agile ABB is able to respond faster to changes in the market such as the spawning of new business opportunities — in electric vehicle DC fast charging and data center power management, for example.

Green.ch Solar-slathered data center in Lupfig, Switzerland | Image Credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica (Hi, Tony!)

A large white-collar workplace has its challenges, however, and has rapidly made conventional manufacturing-focused productivity efforts such as Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing less relevant to unlocking the productivity potential of the ABB workforce. Instead, ABB has launched its own “White Collar Productivity” initiative which seeks to apply the very same Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma principles to white-collar work in an effort to unlock an estimated $1 billion CHF of white-collar productivity.

“We have changed our value chain from a very deeply integrated value chain to a much lighter value chain. It allows me to run my company with a lower fixed cost and be more agile because I can flex my volume to my customers in a more agile way.” — ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer

The Money

Staying close to its profit centers, ABB has grounded its leadership and financial strategies in its customers. Keeping a finger on the pulse of customers around the world has allowed ABB to stay in touch with not only customers and their industries but also with regional trends around the globe.

This bottom-up network of sensing with customers and regions culminates in the ABB central treasury approach. This team is the single point of contact for cash management at ABB and singlehandedly manages the allocation of cash across global markets and currencies for the entire company. Managing the company’s cash centrally provides another key input to the ABB sensing machine as country and regional currencies fluctuate in reaction to market trends.

The Plan

We toured the data center of ABB customer Green.ch, where the ABB team shared that data centers specifically were not something that ABB was prepared for. Talking about this with Dr. Spiesshofer, he reiterated the sentiment that “you cannot be first in everything” — and that’s okay.

ABB is playing in the industries of so many of the key pieces of the electrical infrastructure puzzle and continues to innovate, which positions it well to not only lead in some areas of the markets it plays in, but also to respond quickly when market changes are detected, as was the case with data centers.

“You need to have a good radar in place that gives you early warning signals.” — ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer

Tying back to the customer sensing network that ABB has diligently assembled, the company is firmly rooted in the belief that being prepared for change both on the technology side and the customer side is the key to success moving forward.

“Stay close to your customers in difficult political climates.” –– ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer

ABB believes that being in a place to hear the early warning signs coming from customers around the world — and taking action in response to them — have enabled the company to minimize risk and react more quickly to emerging trends.

On top of this global sensing network, ABB is very intentional about communicating changes on three levels:

  • To employees — Communicating internally early and often ensures your team stays with you. A unified team that is working off of the same page of music is an effective team, and ABB puts its team first when it comes to communication.
  • To customers — Keeping key customers close and treating them as partners reinforces the feedback loop to and from customers and is foundational to lasting relationships. Being transparent with customers builds trust and reinforces the trust that customers put in ABB products when they invest in critical infrastructure underpinned by ABB technologies.
  • To shareholders — Clear communication to shareholders and to the public is critical to maintaining a healthy public image and a positive reputation. ABB was built on the shoulders of infrastructure-grade equipment that requires people to trust that the equipment will work without fail for many years — even decades — and reinforcing that trust with transparent, timely communication is critical.

The Long Game

Looking beyond the challenges of the next 5 years, Dr. Spiesshofer shared a company-wide focus on cutting inventory to free up company cash. As a technology company, inventory carries more risk, as the longer a product sits in inventory, the less valuable it is. Who wants to buy a 3-year-old computer? The same applies for many of ABB’s tech-heavy products.

From the multi-day tour of ABB’s products in action and the capstone discussion with its CEO, I’m excited to see what ABB brings the world of cleantech in the next few years. It is delivering amazing, industry-leading products — such as the Smart Sensor and the Azipod — that continue to move the collective world of electrified products forward, and it appears positioned well to continue doing so long into the future.

All Images credit Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Disclaimer: ABB brought CleanTechnica to Switzerland for a tour of the work its doing around the country and to see some of its products in action. We were not required to write on any specific topics or articles coming out of the tour. I’m not an ABB shareholder — though, after my tour, I’m considering changing that. Having said that, do not interpret the above as financial advice, but rather, seek advice from a financial professional. 🙂

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

Kyle Field has 1638 posts and counting. See all posts by Kyle Field

23 thoughts on “Looking Towards The Future With ABB’s CEO

  • It’s good to know which companies are proactive. It got me to look at their website abb.com. Most of their products are quite interesting. I wish all companies were so advanced.

    • I think it’s the biggest company that is basically 100% focused on cleantech. Focuses on renewables, EVs, and efficiency.

      But I haven’t looked at the list of biggest companies in the world in awhile to confirm.

      • I would doubt you’d find many others, if any others…

    • I beg to differ. You see these boys at ABB are so scared from a move towards a distributed system. That is where you have some solar panels that charge your Li ion battery pack without a charge controller. Then you use an inverter to run your house. I had this system since two years ago. There is no need for their products that they use to loot developing countries. Siemens is sell us turbines here in Egypt so that we stay in a centralized system where we will need large transformers transmision lines, intelegent transmisson software that cost more than the hardware to maintain. What will ABB Siemens etc do if we move to a distributed system? In Australia they are changing the building code for new homes to cater for production and storage at home. They will use the batteries as walls! So what will ABB sell Australia? No transmision lines no software etc. They will not make money from developed countries like Australia.

      As for mobility and the charging of cars, well we are in the very beginning. It will soon be possible to buy a car that will go for a thousand miles on a single charge. And that will be soon. Who will need a supercharging network then? Who drives 1000 miles without sleeping for few hours? Nearly every one will charge at home. NY and cities like that will need ABB etc, but these cities are going to change and horizontal expansion like most of the US will be the norm.

      • BB makes inverters for home and utility scale solar (and other renewable) systems so they’re making money there. As we add grid and residential storage, the same goes there…we need AC/DC inverters at each step of the way…which ABB makes as well as more transmission equipment. Looking to grid scale specifically, renewables are intermittent so we will nee 4-6 x 200MW solar installations to offset a single 200MW fossil fuel generating station…which ABB makes inverters for (4-6 X more than current will be needed)…and transmission equipment for (high voltage DC transformers, etc).

        Basically…distributed networks require a complete rebuild of our current grid, storage needs to be added (plus inverters, power management hardware etc etc), renewables = more sources, less total output so more net ABB equipment required…and it just keeps going from there. They’re setup well 🙂

        • ABB is way too expensive. Inverters are all over the world for a price less than the smart phone that you have.

          ABB and others are vessels that the IMF and such use to loot countries. They go in and say, Aha look if you buy our system you will have a return on your investment that will pay us and you in a hand full of years. Alas it doesn’t and the poor developing country has to pay interest and reaches a point where the IMF comes in and loots the country. So ABB and the IMF etc are working together. Think about it what will ABB etc do with all these employees that they have. They have to find something for them to do.

          The fact that ABB invited CleanTech is a good enough proof that they need publicity. They will have nothing to sell in the future.

          • Quality and market leadership allows them to charge a premium. The market dictates the price…if nobody was buying, the company or the product would cease to exist.

          • And crime & prostitution will always exist in every society and every civilization.

          • Point and case…I was literally buying microinverters today and held off when I realized ABB had a competing product (for 50% more money) because I wanted to see what advantages it had over the enphase ones. I haven’t made a decision yet but seriously considering ABB after what I saw.

            Also…tons of companies run media tours. The fact that we went is a testament to our belief in ABB’s products…not that they are desperate for attention. Investing 3 days in learning about products and not working on the site, writing content or otherwise moving the site forward is truly an investment in learning about what ABB is doing. Anyhow…just my 2 cents…

          • Please do us and the whole world a favor. Buy any battery of a salvaged EV from any scrap yard and connect it to your solar panels. Then get an off grid inverter and you will be able to store your own electricity during the day and use it during the night. I personally am will willing to help you step by step in doing this over the net skype email etc. The main point is that the cost of the system that I am suggesting is cheaper than the cost of transmission alone. Your site has many stories about that. I did that system two years ago with old laptop batteries and it is working perfectly. If you opt for a grid tied system you will still be dependent on the grid and if the grid goes down you will not have electricity, even though you invested in the grid tied micro inverters. Interested or?

          • That’s roughly the plan though the grid here is extremely stable. Money is going towards installing more panels this year…and an electric panel upgrade…then looking into storage 2016…2017.

            Not really a big upside for doing it here as our generation is large (currently max around 28kwh/day but will be around 40kwh/day by 2016) and usage is very high with 2 EVs and ~7.5kwh/day home usage.

            I’ll end up there but not to get off grid as I don’t see that as a large priority or to save money…but more to learn by doing.

      • I am distrustful of large companies. However ABB has reached out to CleanTech to show they are doing what they can to make the planet better. Not many companies are headed by such forward thinking CEOs.

        Maybe batteries coupled with solar panels are all that is needed in Egypt. That there is no need for win turbines. Currently wind turbines, regardless of the infrastructure, is about half the price of solar. I would not put the blame of buying wind turbines on the producers of those wind turbines.

        As for cars getting a 1000 miles… That would make me very happy. I am waiting eagerly for them!

        Often companies are at fault. Sometimes though technology just isn’t there or hasn’t caught on fast enough for all of us. You probably fall into the latter category. You want the tech now that you know will be available ten years from now.

        • Waiting for 10 years is better than being looted for 100 years.

          • And that is what makes renewable energy so wonderful. No more fossil fuel overlords oppressing us like they have for the last 100 years.

        • 1000 miles on a single charge. Elon doesn’t think that will happen soon and it doesn’t make sense to carry around a battery of that capacity when you have grid supercharging. A grid is going to be needed to run heavy industry off renewables. If Egyptians don’t want heavy industry, I say leave it to the Germans and the Chinese!

          • We had heavy industry back when we built the pyramids. At that time the Germans were running bare footed with naked bottoms. And soon they will be done by the Russians. As you can see Frank-Walter Steinmeier is scared to death from what NATO is doing. Do you think that the US will let Germany unite with Russia?

          • I’m giving you an upvote purely for your historical imagery.

          • I hope you join the US and do the Germans AGAIN!

          • Are you talking about the pyramids or..?

          • Get a city car that rarely does over 40 mph and is super light and small. Fill it up with the latest Tesla batteries that are soon to come out of the GF. It could probably get a 1000 miles at low speeds. Take a Model S 85D, put in the new batteries, mileage may jump from 270 to 405 miles.

          • I am content with just 300 miles.

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