Business Development in Natural Gas – get the Frontschwein out

Business Developers have to become a Frontschwein in order to face the challenges of the European Natural Gas business. That’s no easy feat for companies that are still pretty monopolistic – and stiff – in spirit.

Natural gas is going through a difficult time in Europe. The market is shrinking, there is too much gas on the market and the price developments are not right – at least that’s what the players think. Time to send the Business Developers out. But somehow it does not get the intended results. What’s wrong?

For a start, Business Developers are no black hat wizards. No miracles, no frogs that turn into princesses, no prince charming coming to save the day on a noble steed. But more importantly, the whole profession is misunderstood and especially so in the gas business.

We need to fix that gas price ...

We need to fix that gas price …

Responsible for it is the cushioned past – more or less. Before 2002, Natural Gas players were cuddled and posh monopolies. Business Development was (unfortunately still is) a statistics and market data presentation thing for most companies. Sometimes it’s also a high-level lobbying thing. And sometimes it’s the realm of those, the boss does not know what to do with but he cannot fire them. Then Europe liberalized but the gas market was already riding a huge wave (I was eerily reminded of the dot-com bubble in 2000) which finally crashed in 2008. What does all this have to do with today’s Business Development?

To most people, Business Developers are ivory tower strategists and data munchers. Or they are salesman without the performance related pay.

Depending on what one expects from a Business Developer, they could hit you at one or all of 3 levels.

The product level looks at either developing the next generation of the blockbuster product (but how is that different from R&D?) or look for disruptive trends in the industry in order to get the product line ready for what’s coming up.

The commercial level, where he becomes the super salesman of the company. That means developing new markets, broadening the customer portfolio and restructuring the sales force in order to get it ready for the next challenge or improve it for the current challenges.

On the corporate level, he touches upon the existing structures of the company in order to get it either ready for already upcoming business or in order to challenge old dogmas and beliefs (that can be dangerous for his career).

What’s the job description of such a person? In fact, the Business Developer is a Mini company in the company. It’s a space where new ideas can float and be tested for the rough edges in order to weed them out or get them ready for the dark side of the force – operations.

This is an important and demanding job if really taken seriously. But with most natural gas players in Europe, this is pure theory. Most Business Developers have gone to live their comfortable lives as bloodless corporate advisors.

What is needed is someone who brings the oomph back into the job. That means going out and face the impossible, challenge everything, try out new things and – yes fail. Failure is an experience. He, who does never fail, will never learn a thing. In an environment where everything becomes mush, where the market turns nuts and profitable business seems impossible, you must find out what works at any price. Richard Branson said “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

So, if you cannot imitate your way out of trouble – because there are no precedents – you will have to cut some fresh cheese yourself. That means – doing things small scale, breaking the eggs and see what the omelet looks like. Then you take a good hard look, assess what failed and learn the lessons. The lessons from those small-scale failures will be invaluable when it comes to developing a new master-strategy.

Listen up, punks ...

Listen up, punks …

Winston Churchill hit the spot when he said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm“. He also said “When you are going through hell, keep going“. Those results can only be obtained on the battlefield. What’s a failure and what right (by elimination) cannot be determined by an effort of mind in the ivory towers. Business Developers will have to go out and face the real enemy. Failing structures, shrinking markets and blood thirsty competitors.

In German, there is a word for that kind of person – the Frontschwein. Loosely translated into English this means something like a soldier grunt. He is the one who keeps the troops animated, the one who takes the brunt of the battle. He is the tough guy who gets going when the going gets tough. The Frontschwein is never discouraged by problems or issues or corporate politics. He believes in the cause because he has intimate knowledge of the real problem and will storm on regardless of what the odds are. He wants to get the thing done, no matter how many bruises and defeats he will have to take.

This is no mindless job. To the contrary, it demands the best in a man. The Frontschwein is the roughneck entrepreneur in the company and he will do what needs to get done in order to fix what needs fixing. He will do it all to ensure a competitive edge for his company come what may.

But those results don’t automatically come, only because you have a Frontschwein on board. The Frontschwein needs high-level support as otherwise corporate politics will kill him. As crazy as this may sound, this tough individual made of steel is utterly fragile when it comes to stabs from within his own structure. Natural Gas companies in Europe need to give their Frontschweine a freer hand and support. They need to clear the internal battlefield, so he can concentrate his powers on the external one.

Natural Gas players need to come to the realization that the Frontschwein is the only chance they have in order to survive. If that certitude does not exist, they are doomed.

Is that risky? Hell yes, it is. As my father used to say: “Life itself is perilous!” Is that a reason to commit suicide right after getting born? I bet if you had the choice (freshly pressed babies rarely get to chose anything) and you know all the perils you would face in your life, you would still wanna take the ride! Don’t you? To say it with Steve Jobs’s words: “Don’t believe that you have something to lose. You are already naked.” If your only option is to storm out OR to die, why would you hold back?

Would you negotiate with cancer? If you had incurable cancer and the doctors offer you a new, risky treatment option that’s still experimental – would you take it? Of course, you would. Facing certain death concentrates you on what’s really important. That’s true for companies too.

Hope is the deadliest of all poisons. The hope that somehow things will be alright when all evidence points in another direction. Hope, you would somehow wiggle through. Ronald Reagan said: “To sit back and hope that someday, some way, someone will make things right is to go on feeding a crocodile, hoping he will eat you last – but eat you he will.”

A piece of advice: if you don’t have a crystal clear plan on how to handle a problem, forget all hope. It’s treacherous. It’s like staring at the snake unable to move a finger. You know that you will get eaten alive. But you are somehow paralyzed.

Wake up. Give up all hope and replace it with superior knowledge. Knowledge that the Frontschwein will get for you.

But if you belong to those who need absolute certainty, you can be helped too. Most Central European players will face going out of business if they cannot fix their current problems. This is a certainty. Certainty, that your company will be history. And your job with it.

Pick your poison. In the meantime, the Frontschwein soldiers on.

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