Energy and its various resources: traditional, renewable and energy needed for personal welfare
I was anxious to interview a woman that ranks among top managers in the Czech Republic and has devoted four decades of her professional life to the energy sector, namely the gas industry. She is publicly known as being “as sharp as a razor” and her media image is heavily influenced by many charges that have been filed against her since she assumed the position of the Chairwoman of the Energy Regulatory Office. She has been in charge of the institution since 2011 – the term in office lasts 6 years.
When I met Mrs. Vitásková personally, I enjoyed her profound knowledge and the ability to present rather controversial arguments regarding new trends in renewable energy that are in sharp contrast with the public opinion in a way that even a layman understands. I was astonished at how frank and open she was regarding the issue we both care about – overall diversity, not only gender but also generational one, overall low presence of women in Board positions and their unequal treatment in highest top-management positions including a salary gap difference. I also admired her strong determination as well as her ability to deal with all the external pressures given several accusations she has to face that eventually brought her living under the police custody. Last but not least, we discussed her involvement in charities and her life credo to give and support those in need but not to make it necessarily public.
Mrs. Vitásková, your life and career is associated with one sector – energy, namely gas. What was the reason that you, being a 17-year old girl, decided to choose the typically male technical discipline in the era of “normalisation” in the Communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s?
Well, my family background was not the Communist one and despite the fact that I was a high school A grade student, I was not accepted to the university as a full-time student. So I had to opt for a scheme that enabled me studying while working full time. At that time, the building of North Moravian Gas Company was located in the most modern building in Ostrava, having a radio in each office. I could feel the progressive environment, I liked the music being played there and so I started to work there as an administrative assistant, making my way eventually to the top. Then, after the turn of the millennium, I was responsible for the privatisation of Transgas with a much larger scope of involvement in international gas trade. Such international co-operation proved useful two years ago, when I initiated co-operation with other energy regulators from Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia). I must say that after the Velvet Revolution I was made an incredible offer to start a subsidiary of an international company in the then Czechoslovakia but in a different industry. The month salary equalled to an annual salary including incredible benefits, but I had to turn the offer down. I realised, and later I had to explain to the surprised management of that company, that I would not be able to smell “the odorant”, specifically “the smell” of substances added to gas so people can smell and recognise a dangerous leak. So I believe this story demonstrates my passion for and fascination with the specific gas industry that has lasted for more than four decades.
Your move from the private sector to the public sector represents another interesting aspect of your career journey which is in contrast to the more recurrent trend in the Czech Republic where politicians in particular tend to move in the other direction, from the public sphere to the private one. What was your motivation to join the civil sector that does not have the best reputation?
My overall aim is to set a transparent and fair environment to all players involved in the sector and protect customers. I can say that I was familiar with the energy environment from the other side, during liberalisation and privatisation I knew how the regulation was drafted and how it originated. At that time, I was not aware of the challenge brought by the subsidisation of the renewable resources. I was aware of the problems with photovoltaic energy power stations and I prevented the possible repetition of the problem with regards to gas biomethane. I believe that I stopped the uncontrollable subsidising of renewable resources at the right moment, given that the regulation is set for a 20-year time period and the financial consequences of such continuous support would be beyond any financial control. I am known for fighting the “mafia in the energy sector” that is very powerful and my determination to fight these groups is very strong. I have never heard any criticism from the government or from the experts. However, I have experienced how the energy mafia is able to exercise its pressure using certain media, state prosecutors, individual politicians. However, given my personality, these attempts come in vain. The more I fell under pressure, the more strengths I find to fight these unfair practices back.
In general, life stories of leaders can be divided into two categories. The ones enjoying life as a journey and the others having a particular life mission. In your story, I have seen both trends. Which characteristics suit you better?
You are right. During the first part of my career I see the journey pattern. However, I have always had a desire to create something that would remain even after I leave. The building in Ostrava, mentioned earlier that brought me to the gas industry, was ready for demolition 30 years later. However, I did not want to let it destroy and the headquarters to move elsewhere. So I fought for its reconstruction; the reconstruction was so successful that it received a special award and I managed to preserve something of a historic value. In various positions, I was always interested in implementing something new, be it the most modern IT systems or customer relationship management systems. Now, during my position at the ERU, I see my mission in setting up and protecting fair environment and vulnerable players.
You have been ranking in the Top 25 Czech Women in Business chart and you were awarded the Manager of the Year in 2002. How would you describe your leadership style?
I know that I am very demanding. I am harsh on myself so I have the tendency to be demanding on others. But whenever I was leaving, the employees were saying “the fairy-tale with Alenka is over”, despite my high performance oriented character and challenging discussions I used to have with my colleagues, given my vast experience in the industry combined with technical education background. Now, diversity seems to be a current issue, but it has been my natural tendency to have teams always comprised of three generations, the experienced ones, the young ones and those in between. I have built those teams and we achieved great results. When I started to work for Transgas, it used to be 2 bn. in debt. We immediately launched 13 projects to raise the value of the company prior to privatisation and analysts expected the best bids between 60-80 bn. CZK. The final sum obtained in privatisation was 134 bn. CZK which shows how well the company was prepared and how highly valued it was by the foreign investors.
Let us get from management back to energy, in particular to the controversial issue of renewable resources. Despite the growing support for green trends in society, you again go against the current in outlining the risks these resources present.
There are two points to this argument. The first one is that I do not like to see renewable resources as an opportunity for one particular group to get profitable business with subsidies at the expense of others concerned, particularly consumers. The other side of this is the decision made on the EU level to go and support such policies and I will keep challenging this decision. I believe the decision was made without any previous consideration about the overall impact. I compare it to the situation when an innovation is being introduced to production without any additional technical changes. Yes, I see renewable resources as a new possibility of acquiring energy but we need to have exactly allocated finances together with technical background. I support innovation but only when it has clearly defined limits. I am convinced that unprecedented support of renewable resources will negatively impact the development in energy sector in next 20 years. The overall amount of energy from stable resources has been declining, the purchase price is declining but at the same time, due to subsidies, the energy price for the consumer is rising.
Not very many people realise the risk associated with the renewable energy due to insufficient technical solutions with power grids. With the decline of energy coming from Germany, the Czech Republic is in the danger of blackout, even though our distributional network is perfectly fine. And then we are getting closer to scenarios that some people can consider from the realm of sci-fi, but in fact are very real. How many days can our society function without electrical energy? The experts say that chaos will come after three days, total collapse after seven. Just imagine the amount of people immediately stuck in elevators, chaos on roads, hospitals without electricity, market failure due to malfunctioning banking systems and ATM machines, and so on. The current system needs to be more technically advanced as well as backed up and possible investments will be enormous. It is also worth mentioning that the more clever and sophisticated systems, the bigger risk of possible cyberattacks.
How do you cope with being under constant pressure?
My grandmother used to repeat the Czech proverb that “a man gets used to anything, even to gallows”. And I realised that this is truth. My father died when I was only 12 years old and I have two younger siblings that I had to take care of. I have already mentioned that I was not allowed to study, so since rather early age I got used to facing somewhat hostile conditions. On the other hand, I learned how not to give up easily. I have always loved what I was doing and work is actually also a hobby of mine and so I get the energy back. Whenever I come to work on Monday, I look if the police are present. If they are not present, I go and work as usual. After the police visits, I usually do not sleep for a couple of days. After I received the first accusation, I felt really desperate because I have not done anything wrong, which is the feeling I would not wish to anyone. Eventually, I got used to this feeling. I must say that even outside of work, I spend a lot of time discussing many accusation-related issues with lawyers. After a couple of days, I get back my drive and energy to fight the injustice and accusations I am facing. I have a dog, called Aiki. His character, as a mini-schnauzer, quite mirrors my personality. I also enjoy playing golf to relax. Last but not least, I would like to mention a group of friends that have remained around me supporting me for more than three decades.
Very many companies nowadays support women in leadership positions to get more balanced teams that are known to perform better. How difficult has it been to be a woman in the men´s world of gas industry?
I definitely agree that everything was more difficult for me due to the fact that I was a woman.
There were only few women in gas industry and usually they were not often taken seriously. My technical background and expertise proved to be an advantage, since I could prove that I could join and contribute to a debate. However I could see several differences in my style: I did not joined the rest of men either at soccer game or at the pub and I was very open in my communication. The biggest problem that has quite shocked me was, nevertheless, the pay gap. Even in top company positions, my salary resembled the one of Cinderella in comparison to my male colleagues. And this is the major inequality and injustice, everything else up to women to fight and solve. My mentoring advice for women is to never give up. However, as studies show, when women are hard and persistent, they are often labelled as being hysterical or difficult. It is true that efficiency does not support women being liked.
You have been very active in supporting a lot of charity organisations, but you have been quite discreet about it which is another trend that is against the mainstream approach in the Czech Republic.
It is my belief that this should not be a topic of my discussions. My personal motto is that from the money I gain, one third money should be enjoyed and spent, one third invested and one third given away. I have continuously supported a house for sight-impaired people in Opava since 1992; I also support charities for handicapped children engaged in hippotherapy, and I was the Chairwoman of Livia and Václav Klaus Foundation for two terms. I also have supported a charity for senior citizens since this is a group that is not being paid attention to. I believe that my life goal to leave a legacy is also reflected in charities I chose to support.
By Linda Štucbartová