Interview with Ekaterina Kouznetsova of NIBC Offshore Energy

Ekaterina, could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Ekaterina Kouznetsova, my early childhood was spent in Novosibirsk (then USSR) in Siberia. I later moved to Saint-Petersburg where I attained my secondary education. At 17 I moved to Amsterdam with my family and went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Hogeschool voor Economische Studies. In the last year of my education I was offered an internship in a boutique trade commodity finance bank with strong focus on Central and Eastern Europe. This was an opportunity to leverage my cultural background and business education while developing professional experience. After the internship I was offered a full-time position, thereby starting my career in banking.

I have spent 6 years in corporate lending and structured commodity finance across various sectors. Keen to continue building my expertise and knowledge, I pursued a part-time Master in Finance from University of Amsterdam several years into the job. These were challenging days (and nights!) with both heavy job and studying demands (business was booming and university assignments had tight deadlines). 18-hour days became common. Nevertheless, the discipline I was forced to apply and the theoretical plus practical skills I developed during this period made sacrifice in leisure and social life hugely worthwhile. Moreover, because of my years-long contributions to the bank, my employer financially supported the cost of the education which, for me, constituted an important demonstration of their appreciation of my work and value as an employee.

Head office is the place to work if being a change agent is one’s ambition!

Following graduation I moved to a larger organization, seeking more opportunities for growth than available at a small bank. Over two years at BNP Paribas in Amsterdam I covered multinational companies operating in The Netherlands. Here I learned a valuable lesson: Despite the bank being one of world’s premier so-called Tier-1 financial institutions, I realized that for me it was too big to make a visible impact that I require to find job satisfaction. Moreover, the Amsterdam branch where I worked was too remote from the Paris and Brussels-based management team, where decision-making is done, thus influence to effect change is much more limited. Head office is the place to work if being a change agent is one’s ambition! As a result of my early experiences at both a small and very large institution I have come to understand my preference for smaller and specialized organizations, which are more personable and influencing positive change more achievable. I therefore welcomed the opportunity at NIBC when it presented itself in 2016, especially interesting to me by its mid-size, sector expertise and flat organization. Three years hence, I am very satisfied with my decision to join the bank, where I am responsible for portfolio management within Offshore Energy.

Can you tell us more about the Offshore Energy department?

Offshore Energy is one of the 8 corporate sectors covered by NIBC. We finance companies across the entire offshore energy value chain, from seismic acquisition to drilling, construction and maintenance, production and eventually decommissioning. The mission of our sector is dual: on the one hand we continue to support the fossil fuels exploration and production in line with the global growing demand, but we also aim to support our clients in the transition towards clean energy and renewables, in particular offshore wind energy. Our clients are mostly based in Northwestern Europe, but we finance projects around the world  in the US, South America, Middle East, Asia.

You have studied, lived and worked across the world. How does that influence your human capital?

Having spent my childhood and primary schooling years in Russia, as well as now having been in The Netherlands for 17 years, I’m very aware of cultural diversity. Personal travel to the United States, an exchange program in Paris as well as leisure travel across Europe and Asia, advanced this appreciation. These experiences, as well as experience in international organizations, encourage me to be adaptable to diverse cultures and ways of working. This is important because organizations are becoming increasing more international as they expand overseas, enter new markets or develop global partnerships. With understanding of and respect for other cultures, one is able to be more effective to develop global solutions to some universal problems.

"Having spent my childhood and primary schooling years in Russia, as well as now having been in The Netherlands for 17 years, I’m very aware of cultural diversity."

How did you experience the transition from student life to full-time working?

I haven’t really felt the transition in terms of increased intensity or longer hours. I have worked throughout my entire bachelor’s program, while also learning Dutch in the evenings, so the amount of hours didn’t change. But I do remember being very excited when I got my first contract for a full-time position. Despite having had many part-time jobs, the first real job is like a beginning of a new chapter. You get a new kind of energy, steep learning curve, a greater sense of responsibility and commitment.

What do you like most about your work? And are there some negative sides?

What I love most about my work are the people. We spend such a big part of our life in the office, being around people with good energy is incredibly important. I have been lucky to work in fantastic teams throughout my career and have both developed a broad professional network as well as close personal friendships. I also like some of the unique experiences I have had thanks to my work. One of the fondest moments of my career at NIBC was a visit to a drilling rig in Norway. It has just arrived from Asia and was getting fitted for work in the harsh environment of the Barents sea. We visited it in a small fjord on a nice summer day, but I could only imagine what it must be like to work on such a rig in the middle of the winter amidst meter high waves! If I have to think about negative sides, I make an effort to stay optimistic and not focus on the negative and if it bothers me– well, that’s an opportunity to either change the circumstances or change my attitude.

"We spend such a big part of our life in the office, being around people with good energy is incredibly important."

How did your land your job at the Offshore Energy department?

Very easy, actually. It was a vacancy on NIBC website that I reacted to. Serendipity, you might say. I had two interviews with different people within the team and could appreciate the professionalism of the team members I spoke to, but also their friendly and welcoming attitude. Interestingly, I ended up receiving two job offers that week – one from a Japanese bank in Amsterdam (where I live) to cover Dutch multinational corporates and another one from NIBC to work in the Offshore Energy team. It was an easy choice, really. NIBC culture and the way of working, the size of the organization were a perfect fit for my personal preferences and professional ambitions.

NIBC has recently gone public. How does that affect your working environment?

Not really. NIBC has already been an issuer in the debt capital markets and - being a financial institution - we are already quite heavily regulated by the Dutch Central Bank and other authorities. Offshore Energy has received attention from equity analysts because the sector has undergone through a major downturn and, I would say, industrial transformation when the oil prices dropped in 2014. The sector has been facing many challenges but encouragingly we are finally seeing first recovery signs in some sectors. Such an unprecedented downturn has meant that we needed to remain attentive to all changes and trends in the sector and with our clients. In addition we have to be very clear in the communication of our strategy and vision for the sector, especially in the public domain.

NIBC is a smaller player on the market compared to the big 3 in the Netherlands. How do you attract the best and brightest students? What makes NIBC attractive?

I have worked for a bank that was too small for my ambitions and for a bank that was too big to make a meaningful difference. This is what’s great about NIBC – it combines the best of both worlds. NIBC is big enough to offer interesting opportunities, especially to students, who can grow not only “vertically” (getting into more senior roles within the same team), but also broaden their knowledge across different business lines of the bank. Because the teams are small, your voice is heard, irrespective of whether you are an Analyst or a Director and you can really make immediate impact.

This year NIBC Young will also participate in the “Race of the Classics” and sail one of 24 boats from Rotterdam to England.

NIBC offers a special program for talented analysts, which has been customized to personal development depending on the educational background. Finally, there are a lot of interesting and fun initiatives within the bank such as NIBC Young. The association organizes great events, client visits and workshops, but also supports local community projects. This year NIBC Young will also participate in the “Race of the Classics” and sail one of 24 boats from Rotterdam to England.

What does the average working day at NIBC look like? Do you work 24/7 as in not uncommon in London or is there time for normal weekends too?

One of the nice aspects of working for NIBC and in particular for our team is how diverse the work is: each new day is unlike the other. Because we have international clients and other stakeholders one day you may find yourself on a plane to UK or Norway, or another day simultaneously coordinating a call with US and Singapore based parties at once (time zones can be a challenge!) or still another day in a credit committee with a new business proposition.

The bank supports flexible way of working and you can work from anywhere as long as you deliver.

We have a high performance, ambitious team and organization so it is not unusual for people to work in the evenings or weekends, but when there are no urgent matters, we also take the time to rebalance. The bank supports flexible way of working and you can work from anywhere as long as you deliver. For me as a parent of two, flexibility is very important.

Many students wonder what kind of working environment they will encounter when they enter the job market or a specific company. What can you tell us about NIBC corporate culture? Who are the people working for NIBC?

NIBC’s corporate culture is based on three core values: professional, inventive and entrepreneurial. The people who work for NIBC are diverse, but we share the critical success factors of commitment to subject matter, a “Think Yes” mentality as well as a creative mindset. Creativity and banking are not immediately associated, but inventiveness, flexibility and open mindset are required to make a difference to our clients and to differ from our peers.

The final question, what would you recommend students for a successful career?

Don’t rush. Explore and try different things. Eliminate things that do not fit your personal passions, skill sets and ambitions. This advice applies to the obvious areas, like career choices fitting for one’s background, but also to less evident areas, like the region in which you choose to live. Educate yourself by speaking to other graduates, companies, and attending recruitment events. As a young graduate you still have all the time to experiment and make adjustments along the way. Just because you get offered an internship or your first job doesn’t mean this is the right career path for you. Don’t be afraid to make changes along the way, even if they might appear drastic or scary. There’s always time enough to change.

"Don’t be afraid to make changes along the way, even if they might appear drastic or scary."