Nicolas Keutgen’s dual role sees him creating the future at a 113-year-old company as well as building a new organisation focused on innovation. He says having a 360-degree view is vital when running any organisation.
Kurrant Talent: You are chief innovation officer at Schréder and head of Hyperion, Schréder’s Smart City Centre of Excellence. Which of the roles excites you most?
Nicolas Keutgen: Well, it’s a very difficult choice for different reasons. Hyperion is the new business unit and a new venture. We are creating the future of Schréder, one of the leading outdoor lighting manufacturers in the world. It aims to go beyond our traditional business and help us to reinvent ourselves. Being CIO is also exciting because innovation is one of the core values of Schréder. Throughout the 113-year-old history of this family company, innovation has rhythmed its growth and conquests. But Hyperion is what I am dedicating myself completely to at the moment. Building something new is what excites me most.
KT: Before becoming the group CIO, you were country and regional manager for almost 10 years within Schréder, first for Hungary, and then for the Americas based in Sao Paulo. What do you enjoy more, product development and innovation or business development and operations?
NK: Again, it is probably both. Before joining Schréder, I started at Schneider Electric and had the opportunity to work in a lot of different departments in different countries. This gave me, in the first decade of my career, a 360-view of a company. And indeed, this is helpful because in order to build great products, you need to understand the underlying operating or business models in detail. To innovate, you need to be connected to your customers and if you have a background that enables you to understand the business and the operations it is extremely useful. So, I enjoy both sides and combining both experiences allows me to imagine the future challenges customers will face and translate this into applications and solutions they need.
KT: Smart street lighting is often presented as the first area of smart city investment and the backbone for other applications. Do you foresee any other application taking the lead in smart city projects in the near future and, if so, how are you preparing Schréder for this possibility?
NK: Our perspective is slightly different than the one you describe. We see lighting and the pole as the host for digitalisation of cities, independent of which application you are considering. We have developed a philosophy that focuses on the cities and the citizens, understanding local needs and identity. We are looking at accompanying cities to acquire the knowledge and elaborating the public policies that address their local challenges and opportunities pragmatically. This often comes down to transversal thinking: pooling resources, assets and people together.
Smart cities should be more about sustainability rather than greenfield developments or which newest application to add
So, it is often not about a smart water or street light application, but about what open, interoperable systems can be put in place that serve all actual and possible future applications and make them work seamlessly together while eventually exchanging information with each other. This can be achieved while re-using existing city’s infrastructure and repurposing them to give a much more personalised and timely service to their citizens. In short, for us, smart cities should be more about sustainability rather than greenfield developments or which newest application to add.
To answer your question, we are preparing Schréder obviously to lead in smart street lighting but also to build the capabilities and connections with a wide ecosystem of partners that allows us to achieve the vision I laid out.
KT: Why did you choose Lisbon as the location for Hyperion?
NK: There were a number of reasons. Schréder is a Belgian company based in Brussels and we wanted to give this new business unit a chance to develop away from the headquarters. It is not uncommon for an intrapreneurial initiative such as Schreder-Hyperion to be living on the margins of the company.
We looked at the research and development centres that we had across the globe and tried to find out what would be the best location. When we explored the availability of talents, Portugal came out as the number one choice for us, while also staying close to some of our main markets.The Portuguese universities have been training a large quantity of qualified engineers for more than a decade. With the financial crisis in 2010 a lot of them have emigrated to other countries like UK, Germany, France and the US. This allowed them to gather valuable experience in international companies and in an international context. Many of them have come back to live in Portugal. This all makes the pool of talent one of the most interesting in Europe.
We have developed a philosophy that focuses on the cities and the citizens, understanding local needs and identity
Another reason is that the quality of life in Portugal is high and it attracts a lot of people, investors as well as employees. This means that for the roles we couldn’t fill on the national market, we had no problem convincing people from around Europe to move here. It is also one of the safest countries in the world and economically and politically stable, which helps us to do business.
Finally, there are many start-ups focused on Internet of Things (IoT), networking and communications technologies, not just in Lisbon but also in cities such as Porto and Aveiro. It is extremely exciting to be able to work with this network of young companies that bring a lot of new ideas and technologies.
KT: Did you bring in Schréder employees from Belgium and abroad as well as new recruits?
NK: Yes, we did both. The team that we have today comprises 60 people and 15 nationalities. Some of these people were already in Portugal and we brought in others from Belgium. We started off with some Schréder employees for the simple reason that we were not entirely starting from scratch. We already had engineers working on some of our ideas and products. These Schréder employees now represent less than 20 per cent of the total team. As mentioned before, because some positions were hard to fill on the local market, we could also count on other Portuguese-speaking countries or European countries to find talent.
KT: Hyperion’s offices are located on the Nova Business School and Economics campus in Carcavelos, just outside Lisbon. Do you collaborate with the university labs, lecturers and students and do you feel that working on a university campus has a positive impact on Hyperion’s team members?
NK: It has an extremely positive impact on Hyperion team members. The university campus only opened two years ago. It is an amazing facility with an amazing infrastructure, and we are very thankful to the dean to have invited us to reside there. Working amongst students and the academic community brings a whirlwind of ideas and ignites many interesting encounters.
It has also brought us a different concept of working. We work in a very large open space (previously a classroom) and have access to meeting rooms, auditoriums and libraries. Everybody has a desk in the open space, but it is used more like a kind of mothership to which everybody returns from time to time during the day for social interaction. Meetings actually happen around the campus. So, when Covid pushed us out of our amazing office to work remotely, it was not as disruptive as it might have been because we were already used to being separated physically. We miss the social interaction though.
In terms of collaboration, yes, we are working with Nova and other Portuguese universities on different initiatives like hackathons. Obviously, this work has been put on hold since February but we’re looking forward to resuming as soon as it will be safe to do so. We have also been invited to do lectures but again this all went on hold because of Covid-19.
KT: How did Covid-19 impact the Schréder workplace in general and Hyperion more particularly and what process and policies were put in place to deal with it? And how do we see that changing going forward?
NK: Obviously, the first decision we took was to ban international travel to make sure that we didn’t participate in the spread of the virus. And then, very quickly, we also decided ahead of government instructions to send people to work from home. At the Schréder group level, we also decided to close all our factories – each one for around three weeks – to give us the time to organise ourselves and implement the right protocols that would ensure safe working conditions. This obviously had an impact on our customers, but the safety of our employees, their families and their communities comes first.
In retrospect, we had two types of employees that suffered most from remote working: those with small children as they needed to cater for them all day long; and those who were living alone as their social interaction was almost annihilated from one day. We organised a number of ways to make sure we stayed in communication with each other, as well as outside of working hours.
It is often not about a smart water or street light application, but what open, interoperable systems can be put in place that serve all actual and possible future applications
It is difficult to say how it will all evolve as we don’t know what awaits us during the winter. So, we decided to survey our team regularly to assess how to best operate. For the moment, we have a system where people can register to come to the office and participate in meetings and other social interactions such as training programmes. The system will limit attendance to what is deemed safe.
Most people will likely work from home at least two days a week, if not more, but it really depends on the function. For example, it is very difficult to set up an advanced electronic lab in somebody’s home. So, we try to adapt our policy according to the requirements of the jobs and the individual family situation.
Hyperion has just celebrated its first anniversary. We are still in the process of building our culture. While we have a strong team spirit, it is difficult to further deepen relationships and heighten engagement via a screen. I’m looking forward to being allowed to meet with the entire team again. For the moment, the meeting restriction here in Portugal is a maximum of 10 people. That’s very limiting.
Nova is by the sea. I often look out and wonder how it feels again to be gathered all together and share a stroll on the beach.
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