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Career Story: Thomas Bittner, Drees & Sommer GmbH

05/21/2018

MBA Energy Management Alumnus

What stages in your life have had the greatest impact on you and why?

In hindsight, two stages have had the greatest impact on me: my schooldays and the fact that I spent 10 years in Africa.

 

Due to my father's frequent work-related relocations, I attended a total of 8 schools. This was a challenge because it required me to quickly get my bearings in a new environment and familiarize myself with, for instance, a new school, a new class, new teachers and, of course, new schoolmates. But as a result of this experience, I find it relatively easy nowadays to both embrace change in my professional and private lives and adapt to the new circumstances. When you take a closer look, you more often than not realize that change also provides you with an opportunity for positive development.

 

I first got involved with Africa in June 2006 when a colleague of mine introduced my future workplace to me by showing me the cover of Time magazine, which read “The deathly Delta”. Back then, Nigeria's Niger delta was infamous for the kidnappings of expatriates working for oil and gas companies. These incidents did not always have a happy ending to them; sometimes, the kidnapped were killed. Our convoys also came under fire.  But at the time, I would never have dreamed of spending 10 years in Nigeria working on construction projects in the Niger delta for oil companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil or Shell.

 

This was an eventful and exciting time in my (professional) life that has really taught me a lot besides the “normal” construction-project business: It involved dealing with industrial strikes, engaging in collective bargaining with trade-union leaders and having heated discussions with the community boys of the Niger delta. You even had to think about and plan for audiences with the mayor or the king, and in this context that wee drop of cognac was the last thing to worry about, despite the oil and gas industry's “no-alcohol policy”.

 

Did you originally want to pursue a different career? If so, what made you change your plans?

There was a time when I wanted to become an industrial engineer. Even back then, I had a keen interest in bringing technology and business together. Eventually, however, I studied civil engineering and hit the ground running, having my sights set on working abroad one day.

 

How and why did you come to join Drees & Sommer (the company you currently work for)?

While still at university, I already worked for my current employer, “Drees & Sommer”. Usually, you would first deal with a few smaller projects. That said, I started with a large one, namely the “HighLight Munich Business Towers” comprising an ensemble of high-rise buildings (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highlight_Towers) with two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that it was worth almost 200 million did not scare me, and over the next 5 years I took on a wide variety of roles and responsibilities.

 

In 2006, I wanted to finally make my professional dream of working abroad a reality. I spent almost 10 years in Nigeria, where I was involved in a host of different projects. In 2015, however, the economic situation in Nigeria changed dramatically as a result of the then oil prices—so I decided it was time for another career move.

 

At the time, I had many interviews, both nationally and internationally, including even one for a job in New Zeeland. But then there was the decisive interview with my former employer Drees & Sommer. During my 10 years abroad, the company had always kept in touch with me. In the course of our further discussions, Drees & Sommer showed a keen interest in my experience and skills, and outlined very specific and plausible career-development perspectives to me, which convinced me to rejoin the team.

 

What has changed in your career as a result of your MBA degree? How did the program support you in reaching your career goals? What concrete career opportunities have opened up for you?

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to all members of WU Vienna's MBA Executive Team. Throughout the program, they were available at all times and always supportive and willing to help. You could not wish for a better executive academy. Having gained a lot of experience in the oil and gas industry, I was looking to develop my understanding of the wider energy sector, and, of course, I also wanted to round out my business skills with the MBA. The MBA Energy Management provided me with a perfect opportunity to do both. Distinguished lecturers from a variety of backgrounds such as research (Oxford Institute), organizations (OPEC) and the industry itself (EON, OMV, Shell, etc.) helped you explore the energy business from many different perspectives and acquire state-of-the-art specialist knowledge along the way. Moreover, the combination of pre-module and post-module assignments with group activities fostered and enhanced your teamwork and networking skills in an extremely good and smart way.

 

I graduated from the MBA program in fall 2016 shortly after rejoining Drees & Sommer in the summer of that year. In spring 2017, I was offered the position of deputy project head in the context of a major construction project worth roughly 1 billion, with the prospect of becoming the Drees & Sommer project lead.

 

Said construction project is FAIR (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research). The GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt has been operating a research facility since 1970. In the coming years, FAIR, a new international accelerator facility and one of the world's largest research projects, will be built at GSI.

 

“At FAIR matter that usually only exists in the depth of space will be produced in a lab for the first time. Scientists from all over the world will be able to gain new insights into the structure of matter and the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to the present.” (https://www.gsi.de/en/researchaccelerators/fair.htm)

 

Video about the construction project (in German):

Video of the current construction site:

I had been waiting for such an extraordinary opportunity. I bring relevant skills to this position: more than 15 years of professional experience, coupled with the know-how I have acquired in the course of my MBA studies, and now I had the chance to prove myself in the context of such a complex construction project.

 

A year on, I have achieved what I wanted to achieve, and since April I have been in charge of our 30-strong Drees & Sommer on-site team in my capacity as project lead. We provide management and advisory services and support the project owner on the ground when it comes to dealing with a wide variety of traditional project-management tasks.

 

My personal skills and the theoretical background I acquired in the course of studying for my MBA degree have been extremely helpful in this regard. When working on such a project, it is crucial that you bring the necessary technical understanding and expertise to the job, but managing people well plays an even more important role. In this context too, I have been able to put many different aspects of, and insights resulting from, my MBA experience to good practical use.

 

What has been your biggest professional/personal success?

I achieved a big professional success when I took over an ExxonMobil construction project in the Niger delta after it had come to a standstill two months earlier. It was against this backdrop that I had to make an effort to meet people on their level (the team included expatriates as well as locals) so as to be able to make them recommit to the project objectives, which were still in place. The beginning was hard, and I had many personal talks in order to get the team up and running again.

 

Though we did not succeed in completing the project by the contractually agreed time, we managed to prove to ExxonMobil that, despite difficult community constellations in the Niger delta, we were able to deliver. ExxonMobil would have loved to see me manage other construction projects for them because the fact that I did not "hide behind excuses" but simply got things done - in spite of challenging circumstances on the ground - made me a reliable partner.

 

What are your goals for the coming year? Your goals in general? Is there still something you absolutely want to do?

Focusing on the FAIR construction project—from planning and the required calls for tender all the way to its realization—will be one of my top priorities in the coming years.

 

Being the Drees & Sommer FAIR project lead, I will make a career move to the position of Senior Project Partner in summer. So, for the next few years, the course is set.

 

During my many years in Africa, I have made plenty of contacts. I meet with them on a regular basis, and we discuss potential “business development cases” in Africa. When it comes to doing business with Africa, you need to keep the following in mind: Things will take time, so you have to be patient. Therefore, I keep networking with my contacts. Who knows, perhaps there will one day be a construction project, preferably an energy-related one, that I can realize with Drees & Sommer in Africa.

 

My third academic degree does not mark the end of my learning journey. There are still many topics I would like to know more about. Hence, I will definitely attend one training program or another at some point in the future. Also, it will be interesting to see what comes of the discussions I am having with Prof. Jonas Puck on this matter.

 

What do you consider a “great luxury”?

Quality time.

 

What was the last book/movie you really enjoyed?

The last book I really enjoyed was “Outliers. The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.

 

How would you characterize your philosophy of leadership?

For me, leading others means to first listen and then take action and set an example for them to follow.

 

I successfully put theory into practice by giving all colleagues the same chance to prove themselves and by providing support and advice where necessary, making it possible for them to reach the agreed targets. Given that I have excellent people skills and am a very diplomatic person, I strive to connect with the members of my team individually and make plenty of time for them. Their success is proof positive that my investment in time and patience is well worth it. Moreover, the many discussions I have allow me not only to broaden my horizons but, among other things, also to develop a good feel for when things go wrong, which, in turn, enables me to respond to situations more proactively.

 

Experience shows that employees are willing to give their all for the corporate objectives if they trust you and feel you are making an effort to meet them on their level.

 

How do you recharge your batteries when you are not pursuing your demanding career?

Many people have asked me this question, and I find it difficult to come up with a simple and concise answer.

 

I don't stop when I am not pursuing my career. I talk to people and exchange views and opinions with them. On occasion, I even coach individuals with a view to helping them achieve their professional goals, and if they succeed, I am all the more delighted.

 

As I occupy myself with something different, I may be better and faster able to forget about job-related issues for a while. Generally speaking, I always make a conscious effort to switch off and take time out after a hard day's work. Playing sports is also very helpful in this context.

 

Why would you recommend the MBA Energy Management of the WU Executive Academy?

What makes the WU Executive Academy's MBA Energy Management stand out is the fact that it allows you to acquire excellent specialist energy knowledge, coupled with a whole wealth of business know-how.

Wordrap

My motto in life:
„Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.“ From the TV-series Suits
I can laugh about:
Don't take everything so seriously - we are all just humans.
Mistakes I am most likely willing to forgive:
Mistakes that are communicated openly, honestly and immediately because then you will best and most quickly be able to do something about them.
I would spend my last money on:
Given that I have an MBA degree under my belt, the most sensible thing to do would be to invest it in a good business idea, I guess. If I had not enough money left for that, I would buy some good red wine and a cigar. Generally speaking, though, I subscribe to Henry Ford's philosophy: It's what you don't spend that makes you rich.
In 20 years I will:
Pass on my experience to others.

Read more interesting career stories of our students and alumni here.

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