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CEO of Tata Steel: ‘We have a debt of honour as a company’

Alumnus Hans van den Berg has never been that preoccupied with his career. But since he became CEO of Tata Steel Netherlands a year and a half ago, he has stood on the frontline, in the eye of the storm. He continues to believe in connection and debate. And in knowledge that will make the transition to green steel possible.

Hans van den Berg (1962) likes visiting Leiden. Now the CEO of Tata Steel Netherlands, he started working at what was then Koninklijke Hoogovens soon after he graduated with a physics degree, and carried on living in Leiden for a long time before moving to Beverwijk. That’s where he lives now, near the big smoke of Tata that is the cause of all the commotion. Although he doesn’t think smoke is that good of a metaphor. The problems caused by Tata aren’t just the smoke but the smell and noise too. He definitely doesn’t want to sweep that under the carpet.

If it were only smoke, it would have been much easier for Tata to get its act together. Now, on the huge site where 20 mills churn out steel, the business is effectively being rebuilt. In a much less time than it took to come about. Green steel will be rolling out of the mills in 2030. Categorically, says Van den Berg. ‘The year 2030. We have to and we will do. We’ve got the research and development power onsite. An awful lot of smart people work at Tata and they are going to make it happen.’

Difference to the area

It’s an enormous challenge. Because blast furnaces that run on hydrogen don’t yet exist. ‘We have to invent them ourselves.’ And even then, Tata still won’t be in the clear. ‘We’re going for green steel in a clean environment. A cleaner environment will be easier to achieve. We’ve already made great strides and are making improvements but the local community won’t notice this much yet. I understand that. We will be taking more big steps this year and in 2025 that really will make that difference to the local area.’ An 18-metre-high dust screen will be erected around raw material stores on the Tata site, and a fabric filter fitted on the most polluting mill.

Hans van den Berg: ‘We did too little for too long.’

A denitrogenation plant will be added to this in 2025. And yes, Van den Berg continues in one breath, we should have taken action sooner. ‘We did too little for too long.’

Why is that? ‘Eh, busy with the steel. Busy saving Hoogovens. Thinking we were already doing a lot.’ He paints a picture of Tata with its workforce of 9,000. Where sons, aunts and grandads work on powerful technology. With its own academy, clubs and associations. ‘Everyone in Wijk aan Zee and the surrounding communities was proud of Tata until a few years ago. It really is a society within a society. The downside is that we can be really inward-looking.’

So blinkers and, he adds, ear plugs too to some extent. ‘We were already doing all sorts to make Hoogovens cleaner. So if there were complaints or critical questions, we would present our reports with the figures... It didn’t occur to us, a company of techies, that this isn’t what worried people want to hear.’ An app from his sister saying, ‘more victim playing again from Tata’, when Van den Berg responded to a National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) report helped him see things differently. ‘I really started listening. It’s about the local residents’ underlying concerns, not about emission figures but about their children’s health and their concerns about the climate.’

Annetje Ottow: ‘Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote: “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” As a garden and nature lover through and through, I fully subscribe to that. When I come home after work my hands preferably go straight in the soil.

The dossier in this Leidraad is about biodiversity and that topic is right up my street. We may not be original: biodiversity has probably never received so much attention. But this attention is justified, given the rate at which we are losing plants, trees, animals and insects. In our dossier we want to show that biodiversity is the subject of research across the entire university. Research that we also put into practice, for example by providing knowledge to politicians and businesses.

But not only that: we also want to be a good environmental steward. Wherever we can, we give greenery and life a chance. And we deliberately choose the most urbanised places. The Bio Science Park is a good example of that. Together with my fellow board member Martijn Ridderbos and alderman Fleur Spijker, I recently opened the largest combined sedum and solar panel roof in the Benelux, on our Snellius building. We give biodiversity space, even in places you might not expect.

In that light the interview with our alumnus Hans van den Berg, the boss at Tata Steel, is an interesting read. Tata Steel is one of the companies that are under fire for their effects on the climate and human and animal health. How do you lead an enormous industry through much-needed change? How do you deal with what can be considerable dilemmas? How do you make a difference as the boss?

I’ve noticed how you can feel overwhelmed by all the news about the state of our environment. For me, it helps to be active outdoors. The simple, physical contact with the earth. Nothing better at the end of the day than to smell the earth and find the motivation to set to work once again the next day on biodiversity in our world.’

Earth on fire

This led to another answer, literally and figuratively: green steel in a clean environment, and as soon as possible. But, Van den Berg knows this better than anyone, the road there isn’t without its bumps. On the day of the interview, the ‘Kappen met Kolen’ (‘Quit Coal’) campaign group that is linked to Extinction Rebellion has blocked one of Tata’s gates. Offensive remarks by Tata employees in closed WhatsApp and Facebook groups just days before didn’t help the cause.

The company took firm measures with the employees in question. ‘This really shouldn’t happen. I get the agitation among our employees. And their frustration because they are working hard to close these coal ovens. But you shouldn’t say such things about a group of peace-loving people. They are normal people who are extremely concerned about our planet. And rightly so! We are letting the earth burn. Things really do need to change.’

‘Society is addicted to steel. You won’t change that by closing Tata.’

He has had a few meetings with the campaign group. Good discussions and he follows their reasoning to a certain point, that point being closing Tata. ‘They think steel should be produced elsewhere. That’s where it stops for me. We use a kilo of steel per inhabitant per day in the Netherlands. Society is addicted to steel. You won’t change that by closing Tata. If you close IJmuiden, it will be produced elsewhere with at least 20 per cent more CO2. You can’t just outsource problems like that anymore. We’ve more than used up our carbon credit. We have a moral duty to the rest of the world to step up to the plate. That’s how I see it. A debt of honour, as a company, a country and the Western world.’

And no that doesn’t feel like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It is difficult, he admits, but he is driven by ambition. ‘What we are doing, making sure that green steel can be produced, is really significant to the whole world. So it’s not just that I have to do it but that I get to do it.’

He would never have thought of that until not so long ago. He is a real Hoogovens man, like his father before him was a real Phillips man. ‘There are clear parallels. My father’s job at Phillips, as plant manager, which makes you the boss of one of the plants, is in my eyes also the best job at Tata. Working with that technology every day, solving problems and making sure the technology and production improve. Because you can get better every day. That’s the feeling there.’

‘I consider my career as a series of incidents.’

Grit and determination

After his PhD on superconductivity, he spent seven months working on policy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Interesting but he missed the hardware. So when his temporary contract ran out, he applied for a job at the big Dutch companies. KLM and ASML weren’t interested but Hoogovens was. ‘So I thought: “I’m going to gain experience there before I try Philips or Shell.” That was 34 years ago.’

Tata always offered plenty of opportunities and challenges. ‘I’ve climbed much higher than I ever would have imagined. I consider my career as a series of incidents. I’ve never consciously worked on my career. My boss sometimes questioned this. Whether I was doing well because everyone was knocking on his door but had never seen me. Yes, I thought, I rolled from one fascinating job into the next. My take is that you do every job as if it were your last. This meant that I never had great ambitions and the associated fear of making the wrong move.’

Nor is he the type to act impulsively. ‘You can’t always act straight away in our sector. You have to think and do calculations first. And I’m conflict averse.’ That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get his way. He often does but then in other ways. ‘Through substance, by seeing connections and sheer grit.’

Breathtaking beauty

Looking back at his time in Leiden, Van den Berg notes that his PhD in particular was a learning experience. ‘If you have a specific goal in mind, lay a course and are deeply motivated, it’s a matter of starting and carrying on. Every single day. Whether it’s a PhD or the transformation to a green steel company, it takes time but comes closer and becomes reality if you keep going for it every single day.’

Carrying on when the going gets tough also typifies his university friends, members of De Leidsche Flesch. They entered Schuttevaerrace, a 48-hour sailing, cycling and running race, as a team at the age of around 50. ‘We dropped out the first time and made the finish the second time − don’t ask how. Until, after a few more years, we found ourselves standing there with a trophy in our hands.’ And that was not because they had suddenly become fantastic athletes in their later years, he laughs. ‘But because of grit and determination. That we don’t quit in the face of adversity.’

He looks back fondly on his studies. ‘I’d do it again in a heartbeat.’ Particularly today. ‘It’s enviable to see how young people give shape to their studies now. Take my sons, all three are students, one in Leiden. They do a minor at one university and then spend time studying abroad. They try things out like a startup or their own business. It’s fantastic.’ He would definitely choose physics again. ‘Physics is breathtakingly beautiful. If I can’t sleep at night, I sometimes watch YouTube videos about physics where a professor explains the theory of relativity or the like so wonderfully. That’s such an achievement of our time.’

Protest or join us

He’s realised he’s changing. Discussing the sustainability transition with protestors and other critics at festivals like Springtij is part of this. And he’s not the only one. Society is changing rapidly and he can understand how people find it hard to keep up. He also struggles with the polarisation in society. ‘Some people think the protestors at our gates are idiots. I don’t.’

That’s what affects him so much about Wijk aan Zee. It’s a beautiful village, he says, a bit of an artist’s colony too. And for long he was proud of Tata. But that has changed. This is taking some getting used to for many Tata employees, that they can no longer proudly talk about their work at birthday parties. He understands it all. ‘But the intensity of it. That in the supermarket, where the real discussions take place, there are arguments about Tata. I have real difficulty with that. It really hurts sometimes.’

‘We’re no longer welcome at career events at some universities. It’s incomprehensible.’

Lately, he chooses his words carefully, he thinks he has noticed that change is afoot. He hears people say they don’t want to lose each other. And he sees initiatives to ‘bring people together’. A play is in the making, for instance, about a Tata family with a father who is proud of the company and a son who has very different ideas. He hopes this will make it easier to discuss sensitive issues.

Universities also have a responsibility but he thinks they tend to avoid it at the moment. ‘We’re no longer welcome at career events at some universities. It’s incomprehensible. For me, universities are the top of the pyramid. They stand for a critical mind, research, fact-finding and debate. If such an institution blocks parts of the business community, it’s really concerning.’

Being blocked like that does not mean that Tata is totally out of favour with the young. ‘I always say to students: either protest or join us, but do your bit either way! And fortunately we are seeing the latter at our company. Lots of talented people are coming to Tata of all places to help with the transition and make green steel.’

This article was previously featured in Leidraad alumni magazine.

Text: Marijn Kramp

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