Nataly Katan: “I keep telling people to think of the day after tomorrow”

First in a series of interviews with innovators in Dutch corporates. Next is: Hugo Raaijmakers. He is Global Head of Innovation Management at ING. Follow us and learn from their daily challenges.

Interview: Christel Don, Photography: Frank Poppelaars.
Editor-in-chief: Hike One. | Also available in Dutch.

Nataly Katan, Innovation Manager at Vopak

It makes sense to call Nataly Katan (31) an innovation manager on a mission. In the eighteen months since she took up her position at Vopak, the tank storage company, she has been working hard to get her colleagues to think about the day after tomorrow. “I can be a real preacher,” she says with a smile. “It’s my job to get as many colleagues as possible to feel committed to our innovation projects.” Katan believes that this is what being an innovation manager is all about. It goes a step beyond just managing projects.

“I’m actually trying to change a mindset, on the floor as well as at the top.”

So while on any given day, Katan can be found walking across the terminal in her coveralls and safety shoes to experience the problems her colleagues encounter, the next day will find her explaining to the management what benefits Vopak has reaped from a specific experiment. “It’s a challenge to make tangible what we achieve and how the company benefits,” she explains. “So I use a range of communication methods, from a video or infographic on the intranet to short presentations during meeting. This way, everyone sees what is happening and people start to think that if we managed to do something here, they will send me to Singapore to tell our people at the terminal there about it, too.”

Sense of urgency

Katan feels that her age is never a problem. ‘When you are young, people forgive you when you do things differently.” So is it never a challenge to communicate that sense of urgency to colleagues who are much older? “You mean in the sense of them saying: what do you know, little girl, you only just got here? That’s why we also have engagement leaders, senior colleagues who filled a high management position at one point, on the innovation team. They know all about what goes on at the terminal. They convince their older peers and management colleagues of the importance of innovation projects. If any friction occurs, I don’t talk to them on my own. I let the engagement leaders explain what’s happening or we do it together.”

A quick summary of what Vopak does. The company, which was established over 400 years ago, mainly stores oil, chemicals and gas in big white tanks in 66 ports around the world. Their customers include the big oil and chemical companies. “In fact we have the same business model as a hotel,” explains Katan. “We let out capacity. A customer rents one of our tanks and then brings in or picks up their cargo by ship, pipeline, railway, or truck. The product is introduced into the tank via a dock or landing stage.”

Building our own software

Logically, daily operations and safety around the storage tanks are incredibly important to the company. When asked how innovation is expressed at Vopak, however, Katan discusses the steps they are taking in the digital arena, such as building their own software. “A team of 150 people is working to develop our own ERP system, among other things, so we do not have to depend on external parties anymore and can implement changes more quickly.” She thinks it takes courage to make such a decision.

“We are a listed company with centuries of experience with storage and transshipment, this decision shows that we want to move forward.”

Vopak has to, of course, because they are right in the middle of the energy transition. “Oil and gas won’t be around forever, even though we don’t know how fast these changes will be coming,” says Katan. “So we are focusing on making our organization more agile, in order to respond quickly to market dynamics. We have lean consultants who examine how processes can be optimized. And when we hire new people, we always make sure they are open to change.”

Separate innovation department

Two years ago, the company established a separate eight-person innovation department, to which Katan belongs. Within that team, she is responsible for three themes: planning, energy management and commerce. There are several ongoing proofs of concept; possible solutions to challenges submitted to the team by customers, in every theme. Katan is the link in all these projects, talking to customers to map problems, searching for suppliers or start-ups that can find solutions, helping to build prototypes, and having them tested to get feedback.

“The biggest challenge can be the moment that we have a working proof of concept,” she explains. “Imagine we created a successful prototype for a challenge at a Botlek terminal. Such a terminal may not have time to implement the solution due to other daily priorities. That’s one of the moments at which an innovation project can be delayed endlessly,” says Katan. What helps is that there is now an innovation budget so that discounts can be offered to departments that are willing to be the first to implement a prototype. “So I can say to a terminal: let’s get that business case on paper together, so we can get it to the jury before the deadline and you get that discount.” She affirms that such discounts also help to achieve the sense of urgency and stimulate innovation. The jury comprises members from different Vopak departments. “Among other things, they look at whether a solution is scalable; whether a problem exists in just the one terminal or rather can be used in Singapore or Savannah as well.”

Investing in the long term

Daily operations do tend to get in the way of the company’s long-term vision, says Katan. And she gets it, because every hour of delay experienced by a ship at the quay costs the company thousands of euros. “Even so, it is important to rise above the problem in those daily discussions and remember that you need to invest to experience the long-term benefits,” she says. “If we decide to buy an additional pump, for instance, we can pump harder and it will be done more quickly. It’s clear how that saves us money, of course. But if we decide to develop a new software application, the benefits are much more indirect and less easily quantified. This is while we use the same decision-making criteria for things like buying a new pump and for building a new software application. I think we need to talk about that,” she laughs.

So are big companies as capable of innovation as startups? “Yes, if they really want to be,” says Katan. “We have the manpower, money and knowledge, so we can certainly keep up with fast, agile startups.” She believes that anything can be achieved if you work hard enough. Even when she was still studying, she got frustrated by the idea that successful innovation depends on timing or chance. “How do you know what the right timing is, and how do you create good luck? It goes against everything I believe in — which is that if you want something, you need to take a risk and do it.”

In conclusion, does anything ever surprise her? “Absolutely! The sheer quantity of paper that is still being circulated in our industry. Take the paperwork that has to be completed with captains. They are carbon copies in pink, white and yellow.” Some locations around the world now work with tablets, but this was Vopak’s initiative and not because the industry was working towards a new standard. “Regardless, I love to work in a market where people like to innovate but don’t really know how.” Laughing out loud: “That gives me, the innovation manager, space to innovate because people are easily impressed.”


Nataly Katan

Current position: Innovation Manager at Vopak since May 2016 and IT Manager at Vopak since December 2017
Education: Bachelor’s degree in International Business Administration, Master’s in Innovation Management (2011), both at Erasmus University in Rotterdam
Previous employers (selection): Innovation consultant for Deloitte (2012–2015), Project Manager at Amsterdam Port Authority (2015–2016)
Favorite innovation book: Exponential organisations by Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest et al.
Essential gadget: Wake-up light
Impressive innovation: 3D printer for tissues and organs

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