Partners Netherlands – Robert-Jan van Vliet, Managing Director
The managing director of Sia Partners in the Netherlands discusses the challenges of establishing a new consultancy in a crowded marketplace, and offers his perspectives on the current shifts taking place in the oil and gas sector in the Netherlands.
Sia Partners arrived in the Netherlands in 2009. How has business been since then?
Today business is going well, after a difficult period between 2012 and the start of 2013: today we are 15 people in the Netherlands, concentrating on implementing strategy for different segments, of which energy and utilities and financial services are the two most important sectors we serve. I started working for Sia here in 2009, after a career in the oil and gas side of other consultancies. Back then, Sia had 250 consultants globally, with a small number outside of France; today, it has 550 globally and 200 of these are outside of France. The evolution of the company in this relatively short period of time has been interesting to watch: today, the company is a magnet for consultants from the larger consultancies, particularly as a result of being voted as one of the best places to work in France last year. This growth has also translated across to the Netherlands office.
Why is the oil and gas sector a focus for Sia Partners, and why is it a natural fit for you as a consultancy?
The founders of Sia have a background in energy in France: thanks to their network, some of their first assignments when starting the company were in the energy space, and some of their first consultants also came from the sector. It eventually became clear that energy would be one of their main areas of focus, after a couple of years of growing the business, with the other being in banking and financial services. Therefore, when opening the Netherlands office, the energy sector was a first priority.
You mentioned a couple of tough years – how was that for you as managing director and what did you do about it?
There were a few very important things to be done: the first was to ensure solid delivery of all our projects. A French company is not an immediate natural fit as a consultancy in the Netherlands, so we had to establish credibility as soon as possible. In our line of work, this is done through delivering good assignments. We also wanted to make sure that our team was fully engaged, to keep morale high and reassure our customers that our services were in demand, and we had entered this market for the long-term.
Niche players are becoming more attractive as consultancies, I believe: we’re focused on what we’re good at, and by planting our flag in Holland, and keeping our activities small, but concise and clear, we have a great shot at building a sustainable business, and indeed, we are already seeing results: our small team is today 100 percent focused on Dutch assignments in our selected areas.
What was your go-to-market strategy in the Netherlands for the energy industry?
We started here basically from scratch – I came from Accenture so I had a network in the energy domain, and very quickly we were offered assignments with some people from my network, including several major Dutch utilities. We have ambitions to move more to the upstream side of the business, and have just hired two new consultants that come from the oil and gas sector that will help us move closer to this ambition. An interesting point about the Netherlands for us is that in the upstream, two French companies are extremely active: GDF Suez and Total, which together represent almost 50 percent of the exploration work currently being done on the Dutch continental shelf. We try to position ourselves alongside them, but in order to do this, we need the right human resources, which we are now investing in.
What are your thoughts on the current potential of the Dutch continental shelf?
What I see is that the Dutch government wants to protect the gas revenues they have been used to receiving each year, and Groningen gas is depleting, which means that the exploitation of marginal fields needs to be promoted and incentivize, in order to run the Netherlands gas industry successfully as a business, in terms of both revenue and employment. There is still a lot of potential for exploration on the Dutch continental shelf, but now that the oil and gas prices are down, so is investment, as break-even numbers are shifting. I understand that EBN’s asset management team will be working to further incentivize exploration and development at marginal fields, but I also think that there should be some fiscal stimulus coming from the Netherlands in this area.
Given the shifts in the global gas market, do you think the gas roundabout policy is something the Netherlands should be focusing on right now?
One area where the Netherlands is working hard is the LNG space, with Shell operating as a global thought leader in the area of LNG bunkering, along with companies like Gasunie and Vopak. We have done some research into the potential of LNG as a marine transport fuel, and although it would be very expensive at first, given the outlays required on both sides to build infrastructure and convert assets, it might be worth it in the long-run given the environmental regulations that will be implemented in the marine transport sector in the years to come.
However, on the supply side, it is unclear whether Europe will always be less attractive than Asia when it comes to LNG prices. If US LNG producers can sell their product in China for twice as much as Europe, then Gate terminal will continue to be only 10 to 15 percent utilized. However, the potential to store LNG here is enormous, which means that in terms of security of supply, there are great opportunities ahead with LNG.
Dutch companies are renowned for the strength of their collaborations, but in your opinion, is there room for collaboration with larger companies?
I really believe so: first, in the area of gas, the Dutch are globally renowned for their technical competence, and this translates to collaborative projects around the world, as well as companies coming to the Netherlands to benefit from this expertise. Secondly, one particularly strong relationship is between the Dutch and the Americans: a healthy and solid collaboration between companies from the two countries has existed for many years now, on many large projects around the world.
When starting Sia’s operations here in the Netherlands, to what extent did you have to work from scratch to build a new set of best practices to apply to the country?
Our French colleagues had some experience in gas projects, and here they could leverage some of that expertise. When one of the first contracts we got was with Gasunie, validating a plan for replacing a gas transport management system, I got great support from the French office in terms of resources, but when it came to building the business, selling the projects and making the go-to-market strategy, we had to do it ourselves. Today, we are actually able to offer France leverage from our projects in the gas space, rather than the other way around. We are very proud of this.
What’s keeping you up at night at the moment?
What keeps me up is that we are now at the point where we are solid in the Netherlands with a team of 15, which we want to double in the next couple of years – I am anxious to know how we will get there, build our oil and gas presence in the Netherlands, launch ambitious projects with the leading players in the sector, and get more involved in the upstream, on the strategy side. I think we have a lot to offer, and I’m looking forward to getting there.