Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, István Kapitány, who used to spend 200 days a year travelling, has been managing the 80 countries he is in charge of from home. The global executive vice president of Shell is responsible for the world’s largest retail network. He thinks that even though the business can be managed this way, there is no substitute for personal encounters.
In what way do you think the current crisis is different from previous ones?
The coronavirus has fundamentally changed mobility: from one moment to the next, 30-40 percent of our turnover disappeared. I’ve been working for Shell for 34 years – it is said that in such a long time you experience everything - but I hadn’t seen a crisis where our basic habits were to change. Such changes present a major challenge to managers.
However, a crisis is also an opportunity.
Before the epidemic, I used to travel for 200-220 days in a year. My work involves leading people, so it is important for me to be able to motivate colleagues. Therefore I always thought I’d do my job well if instead of sitting at the company headquarters in London I visit the filling stations and watch how people are working. However, I have been working remotely since March last year; we have switched to virtual management, which proved to be more efficient than the previous system.
I had never thought, for example, that a phone conference involving 80 countries could work on a daily basis. The shops in the filling stations switched to home delivery in 30 countries in just a matter of two weeks, and we purchased and installed plexiglass walls to protect workers at the stations in a few days.
Today we manage to hold conversations that used to last 3 or 4 days in 3 or 4 hours.
Moreover, people listen to each other and learn from each other. In the past, if something worked very successfully in Germany, for example, American colleagues simply attributed it to geographical differences. In times of trouble, however, people are more open and stick together. I used to wish the 80 countries could learn from each other. This has now been achieved, which is no mean feat, so we will try to maintain it even after the epidemic.
The epidemic also has adverse effects, of course. Virtual platforms are suitable for communication, but they cannot replace personal encounters.
What do you think will happen after the epidemic?
It is very important that people not only understand what an executive is communicating, but also feel and see it, and this is hard to achieve now.
With the long-standing pandemic, people are getting worn out as working from home and also the fear of getting infected take their toll on them. We try to make up online for things that we are missing in the office; we organize virtual meetings where we have a cup of coffee and a chit-chat together. When I’m at the company headquarters in London I also go from “coffee machine to coffee machine”; my Canadian secretary keeps running after me because I am not in my office when they want to find me.
Informal conversations are useful and they can’t be done in the office. If all this is over, I’m definitely not going to spend 200 days a year travelling.
The challenge company executives will be facing after the epidemic is how to maintain the positive changes the crisis brought about.
Figures show that our operations have been successful: although we sold 20% less petrol worldwide in 2020 than a year earlier, the retail area that I am responsible for was profitable.
The crisis has played into our hands by accelerating the change in customer habits and shifting the focus from large shopping trips to home delivery. The fact that we were open 24/7 was also a competitive advantage, especially during the curfew. Besides food products and lubricants, we are also selling plenty of cleaning products.
How long do you think we will keep using oil as a fuel?
The energy transition has already begun and we are very actively involved in it. Last year, we set up an electricity division, we buy wind farms and solar parks, and in addition to wholesale, we also carry out retail activities. Electromobility, including electric charging, will become our core business within a few decades. Our market share keeps growing: in the UK, we have acquired the ubitricity charging network with 2,700 street chargers, and we also operate 150 kilowatt chargers at 120 filling stations under the Shell Recharge brand. We also sell many home EV chargers.
We are in third place in the petrol market, but we are the biggest in e-charging.
Of course, the transition will take time; there are 160-170 thousand electric cars in the UK today, compared to 35 million vehicles with internal combustion engines. We focus on markets (e.g. the Netherlands, China, Germany and the west coast of the United States) where we see great growth potential.
We also install EV chargers in Hungary; last year we installed 2x4 pieces of 350 kW chargers in Balatonkeresztúr, which can charge a Porsche Taycan with a range of 500 km in 5 minutes.
Our goal is to have half a million electric charging points by 2025, making Shell the largest company operating such a network.
The ultimate goal is, however, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which is a major commitment. By then, 90% of passenger cars will be electric, freight traffic is expected to run on hydrogen, and biofuels will dominate in aviation. We have already been involved in a test project with KLM where a flight flew on 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
The role of oil will become smaller and smaller until it disappears completely.
Of the fossil fuels, gas helps with the transition; it is flexible and controllable enough to complement weather-dependent renewables. However, today we still sell roughly ten times as much oil as we produce. We buy the rest from partners, for example from Mol in Hungary.
How differently should people be treated today than a few decades ago?
The techniques may vary but the main point is still the same.
A leader can only be successful if he is being true to himself.
People can forgive, and they do forgive you when you make a mistake, but they don’t if you are not authentic and consistent. It is also important that the goal you want to achieve is clear and understandable. If goals are vague or they are changed on the fly, it never works.
As a leader, my job is to make people get the most out of themselves, more than they could ever imagine, and to help them improve. I am fortunate because I have been able to work in many places, South Africa, the United States or Europe, where cultural differences do exist, but everywhere people go to work because they want to win and feel useful. Micromanagement is the worst thing a leader can do because it kills passion.
The biggest curse is not providing a young leader the opportunity to make mistakes, because you can learn from mistakes.
That is why I accepted presidency of the Hungarian Association of Executives, as I strongly believe that we need to provide help to the new generation of leaders. The main topic of the conference is what we talked about earlier: how we can run the business in an ecologically sustainable way, paying attention to environmental protection but at the same time remaining profitable.
Whenever your name comes up you’re mentioned to be the highest-ranking Hungarian executive in the world. What do you attribute this success to?
I got to where I am now because my main goal was not to pursue or build a career, but to deal with what I am good at, what makes me happy, and which is thus a source of energy for me. Wherever I have run a company, I have been able to connect with people, create an atmosphere in which they feel liberated and do their jobs well. I have always been able to work together with other people, no matter whether it was in the UK, the US or any other place.
I can motivate people, and this is efficient and measurable also commercially.
I have a colleague, István Alföldi, who joined the company and started working at the Shell petrol station in Székesfehérvár one month after me. I don’t think his career would be less valuable. If you can renew yourself every day and stay in one place for 34 years, which also means doing a good job, that’s a huge achievement. It doesn’t matter how high you have reached. Even to my young mentees my advice is to enjoy the journey, do what they are good at and what they can achieve good results in.
You don’t have to overthink this: it’s not a competition about positions; it’s all about how you are feeling.
Executives for Society - Focus on the Future
As Global Executive Vice President of Shell, István Kapitány is responsible for all Shell retail outlets and half a million people in the world. The president of the Hungarian Association of Executives and another 60 executives will give a presentation at a digital conference ‘Executives for Society - Focus on the Future’, which can be viewed online on the association’s website on February 18, from 9 am to 7 pm. The topic of the event, which also serves charitable causes, is: ‘Economy in the service of a sustainable future, or an ecologically sustainable economy’. The main patron of the conference is János Áder, President of the Republic of Hungary.