· 6 min read · Features

Interview with Robert Ritchie, head of HR global retail at Gazprom Energy

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Sandwiched between a gambler in a ritzy casino and a Chinese paddy-field worker in the opening credits of UK satirical TV show, Have I Got News For You, is a cartoon of a furtive, fur hat-wearing Russian turning off a pipeline in the Ukraine.

For those who remember the freezing central and eastern Europe of 2006, the sketch will be familiar as a reference to a dispute over prices between Gazprom, the world's largest gas producer, and the government of the Ukraine. It ended in the decision to turn off the pipeline, resulting in a shortage of gas in Europe and frantic talk about energy security across countries heavily dependent on Russia.

This was believed at the time to be 'fuelled' by the Kremlin in response to the Ukraine government's western leanings. Gazprom is still 50.1% owned by the Russian state and its former chairman is none other than outgoing Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Fast-forward six years to a typical faceless office in Manchester's financial district and you would be hard pushed to believe its occupant has any connection with the company behind this incident. Yet the building, overlooking Granada Studio's Coronation Street set, is the unlikely home to the firm's fast-growing retail arm, Gazprom Energy, the UK-based retail arm of Russia's biggest firm.

For Robert Ritchie, Gazprom Energy's head of HR, global retail, the reality gap between a Russian firm holding Europe to ransom and the modern retail business headquartered in Manchester today is as wide as the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany, the longest sub-sea pipeline in the world at 1,222km (759 miles), in which Gazprom is the major shareholder. But Ritchie concedes that for some people the mere mention of Gazprom will elicit the response, 'Oh yes, the Russians'.

"I did an interesting exercise just a few weeks ago, where I asked a random set of employees what they hear people saying about us," he reveals.

"The wider external view was 'they're the ones who cut us off' and other such stories from the news. But all the local people talked about our apprenticeships and what a good place to work it is, while our employees mentioned getting skills they never thought they would obtain, the great training and our adaptability to change. These were positive words and stories - a complete disconnect with those outside perceptions."

Still, overcoming these perceptions may not be the biggest challenge for the person tasked with attracting the best talent to the business. For - despite holding company OAO Gazprom having gas, oil, state television and finance interests, to name but a few of its several hundred subsidiary or affiliated businesses, and despite it owning the world's largest natural gas reserves, being responsible for 17% of global gas production, operating 158,200km of gas trunk lines, supplying 25% of European gas and being named the most profitable company in the world by Forbes - many people in the UK haven't even heard of it.

For Ritchie, changing this is now more important than ever, as Gazprom Energy, which sells gas and electricity to commercial customers, has plans - and they are big.

"We are very acquisitive and hungry for growth. We want to be the commercial heart of Gazprom. We want to be global and in three years will be in areas we don't yet know. At the moment, we are in the European landscape, but could we be in Australia or the US? There will be definitely be more acquisitions and organic development in more countries," Ritchie explains.

Luckily for him, Gazprom Energy may not have the most recognised employer brand in the UK market, but its reputation is unblemished, with the company's business-to-business customers praising its quality service, dependability and efficiency. And while it is yet to get anywhere near the size of any of the Big Six energy firms, the can-do and collaborative culture in evidence at the Manchester head office is attracting interest from graduates keen to get a foothold in a growing and dynamic business that counts Burger King, Odeon Cinemas and Chelsea Football Club among its customers.

"Our competition is the Big Six, but our flexible packages make us different," explains Ritchie. "We offer a more flexible range of services and give customers a wider choice. We are structured around people who have an appetite for change and growth, so we can move and adapt quickly and offer multi-skilling and cross-training to our people."

Next month, eight undergraduates start a 12-month paid placement in the head office - in marketing, finance, IT and trading. They will be assigned a mentor and will work on real projects with great responsibility. Last year, the scheme was run solely with Manchester Metropolitan University. This year, it is nationwide.

Then there is the apprenticeship scheme. So far, the company has put 15 apprentices through the programme, with four securing permanent roles. "Again, they do real work, not just filing," explains Ritchie, "and will progress through the company if given a permanent role. The father of one of our apprentices contacted me recently to say he had seen a phenomenal change in her behaviour and life skills. She now knows where she wants to go in her career and life."

These are both routes into a company that is recruiting 30 people for the Manchester head office and which is bucking the trend in northwest England - which suffered the biggest increase in unemployment of any UK region in the final quarter of last year. In 2011, Gazprom Energy's head office headcount alone grew by nearly 80%, to a total of 140 people. Not bad for a company that joined the Gazprom 'family' six years ago, when it acquired Pennine Natural Gas, a small firm founded by the now Gazprom Energy managing director, Jon Feingold. Then named Gazprom Marketing & Trading Retail (it rebranded as Energy last year), the company was Gazprom's first retail brand outside Russia and sat under wholly-owned subsidiary, Gazprom Marketing & Trading (GM&T), which was established in 1999 and headquartered in London, with offices in Paris, Berlin, Houston, Singapore and Zug, Switzerland.

In the years since, Gazprom Energy has moved into gas in Ireland, set up operations in the Netherlands and France and entered the German market with the acquisition of power supplier, Envacom. Across the business, there are now 190 staff and it supplies to more than 119,000 sites.

"We may only be six years old, but there is such a history in those few short years. Each month, we develop new ways of doing things and fresh ideas," says Ritchie.

"As the only retail business within the organisation, we need people who can adapt to a fast-moving, changing, dynamic situation. We share our values and culture with the wider GM&T business. Vitaly [Vasiliev, CEO of GM&T] describes it as being like dolphins: agile, robust and working in teams."

With a vision to be the best in class of global energy suppliers and a mission to maximise the value of the supply offer by delivering energy to customers through competitive and innovative products, this 'dolphin' approach underpins the people strategy.

"We are going through a lot of internal change, moving from a commodity-based gas and power model to a regional, geographical-based set-up. People who once worked in one or the other will now have a combined role across territories. Such change needs a strong, collaborative working style and we recruit for these behaviours," says Ritchie. The firm has four core values: team spirit and teamwork; outstanding communication; innovation and ability to think outside the box; and a passion for excellence, growth and learning.

"I have worked in so many organisations where values are written on the walls or handouts and that's all. Here, you walk through the door and see things happening against these values. I see people being creative and collaborative," Ritchie adds.

It is apparent that Ritchie, who comes from a generalist background, having worked in both the private and public sectors and internationally, is himself engaged in the business. He calls his role his 'dream job', with its global aspect and emphasis on change, growth and an innovative culture.

Just as important is the business's view of HR.

"It is not about tea and sympathy, nor treated as an add-on or old personnel function," he says. "HR is very much at the heart of the business and we believe it sits with everyone in the business, not just with me."

He describes HR's role as one of a commercial trusted adviser, consistently providing the business with the tools and frameworks to create a high-performing culture. The five pillars on which this is built are: attracting and retaining world class talent; developing high- performing people who live the values; management development; leadership development; and promoting/developing good practice.

Ritchie's own targets are based on his contribution to commercial outputs, for example, how a new talent management framework will achieve growth in different territories and how work he is doing on leadership will help sales figures and growth.

With stretching targets, a strategy to expand market share from 2% to 10% in the UK and an ambition to move into the residential market some day, it is an exciting time to be HR director at Gazprom Energy. From organisational development (there's a project around decision-making underway) through to identifying what leadership means at Gazprom; from talent spotting to succession planning (the company is identifying people who will need to speak German at some stage in the future and will be teaching them the language), Ritchie has his work cut out for him, but obviously relishes the challenge. So whom does he look to for inspiration?

"I used to work for Selfridges and really admire it. It is fast moving, creative, commercial and an incredibly strong brand. My eyes light up, because it is such an amazing business and I have a good story to tell about it.

"That is what I want for Gazprom. I want people to talk passionately about us."

Parent company Gazprom may be facing challenges in the shape of the new shale gas boom in the US, an EU policy aimed at separating energy production from distribution and a Russian strategy that lets domestic users pay a fraction of the price of foreign customers (meaning it loses significant money in its homeland) but, with its dynamic people and innovative approach to the energy market, its retail operation offers a shining light at the end of the pipeline tunnel.