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CIO interview: Morten Holm Christiansen, Haldor Topsoe

There’s no point digitising if there is no benefit to the customer, says the Danish chemicals giant’s head of IT

After successfully creating commercial value through digitisation at some major Nordic companies, Morten Holm Christiansen has been tasked with doing the same at Danish chemical industry giant Halder Topsoe.

Having joined the company in November 2021, Christiansen is directing Copenhagen-headquartered Topsoe’s digital transformation at a time when the company is also going through a major business change.

For more than 80 years, Topsoe has provided the energy industry with the catalyst technology used to refine fossil fuels. This includes providing catalyst technology, the substances that make chemical processes work much faster during refining, and designing the processing facilities.

Under the right conditions, a catalyst dissolves bindings between molecules and atoms in a feedstock, such as crude oil or natural gas, when it is refined.

Over the decades, Topsoe has grown to 2,500 employees with revenue of €1bn. It has design and sales offices in 20 countries with an IT team of 150, mainly in Denmark and India.

But with governments across the world legislating to ensure that renewable and green energy will be the fuels of the future, Topsoe has created a whole new business where it is applying its expertise and products to serve green energy suppliers. These emerging companies will apply catalyst technology to create energy through feedstock such as soya beans, rapeseed, used cooking oil, food waste and all other biomass that is scrap.

Digitisation with purpose

At the same time as the company is building its green energy-focused business, it is, like companies in every sector, developing digital technologies to be applied to existing and new products and services.

With governments across the world legislating to ensure that renewable and green energy will be the fuels of the future, Topsoe has created a new business where it is applying its expertise and products to serve green energy suppliers

When Christiansen joined Topsoe last November, it already had a digital transformation strategy, but it had achieved limited success.

“When I arrived, we went through the whole portfolio of digitisation initiatives and ran workshops with the business to try to identify how we could apply the latest technologies to do things in a smarter way,” he says.

“The first thing to do was to understand what digitisation could do for our end customers. Then we looked at other industries.”

Following a review, a number of existing projects were stopped because, according to Christiansen, “there was no commercial case for them”.

For example, Topsoe was trying to digitise the way it makes proposals to customers, but there was too much variation so it couldn’t be standardised.

Another digitisation project that was scrapped was a production monitoring facility. It was advanced technologically, but was applied to fossil-based refineries, which Christiansen said would have limited benefit for customers.

“Brilliant product, but hasn’t taken off because we could only optimise a tiny part,” he says. “We were offering them something that is only a bit better than what they already do well after years of experience.” There was also competition with internal departments within customers’ businesses, so there was a lot of resistance.

Christiansen says Topsoe’s early digitisation efforts included typical missteps. “What had happened here, which I have seen in other companies, is you have CEOs coming together, they hear things and think they should be doing it, even though they don’t really know what it means.”

When he decided to scrap the majority of projects, the response from the workforce was mixed. “The staff hated it, but at the same time they were aware that they were doing a lot of great stuff but no one was using it. They wanted to be creating things that people would use,” he says.

List of commercial successes

Christiansen already had a successful track record in turning digital opportunities into commercial value.

He began his career in IT in the early 1990s when he joined Accenture on completion of a masters in economics. After three years in IT, he joined pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, where he spent 19 years and did 10 different jobs, largely in the company’s IT and finance departments.

But it is his time at Danish shipping giant Maersk and retailer Coop Danmark that boosted his reputation for creating digitisation projects with commercial value.

Christiansen moved to Maersk in 2013, where he was initially responsible for finance-related IT and leading a big SAP implementation. After a few years, responsibility for digitisation was added to his portfolio. It was at this time that he took on a project to digitise the mainly paper-based processes around international trade.

He led a joint project between IBM and Maersk, known as TradeLens, to digitise the exchange of commercial information and documents for global trade. It began by looking into global trade with the hypothesis that you could save trillions if everything was electronic instead of on paper.

“We asked, ‘What if all this information was available to all stakeholders?’, and the board got excited,” he says. TradeLens, which uses blockchain technology, was born in 2016 and is now “becoming the standard in sharing information and documents in global trade”, according to Christiansen.

His next role was head of IT and digitisation at retailer Coop Danmark, which has 1,100 grocery stores in Denmark. He again ran a large SAP project, but his work on the Coop app, which is used by 600,000 Danes every week, is one which again cemented his success in commercialising digitisation projects. It was such a success that a separate company was carved out of the IT department to market the Coop app to other businesses.

When Christiansen was approached by Topsoe last year, in regard to a chief digital officer role, it was looking to digitise but had not made any progress, so it wanted someone with a track record of getting real commercial value out of digitisation.

He ended up getting the job with a significant add-on. “During the conversation, they also realised I had a CIO background. They created a combined job of CDO and CIO,” he says.

Cleaning up IT

Since joining Topsoe, Christiansen has not just been busy reviewing digital projects, but also wearing his CIO hat and “cleaning up” IT.

His first task was to make the IT function “business-oriented and secure”. When he arrived, Christiansen found a straightforward IT department geared towards IT, but not business-focused.

“The biggest challenge was to make sure the IT became supportive of the business instead of getting in the way”

Morten Holm Christiansen, Halder Topsoe

“They had all the things they should have, but the problem with this is the business hates it,” he says. “The biggest challenge was to make sure the IT became supportive of the business instead of getting in the way.”

Christiansen set about connecting the IT department to the business, focusing IT on the business and building business relationships.

His second major task was to address IT security at Topsoe, which he described as “very bad as a result of years of under-investment”.

“I commissioned an assessment and, as expected, we came out pretty bad. So we made a huge investment in security to bring it to another level through a large IT security programme,” he says.

Supporting green ambitions

Christiansen has also been working on what is potentially his biggest challenge – how digital technology can support the business as it transforms into a green energy specialist.

The company estimates that around 200 new facilities processing green energy will be built globally in the next seven years. “Energy businesses don’t have a choice because of legislation, so there will be big take-up,” he says.

“We have the best chemists in the world, and we have people who understand catalytic processes. However, we have been applying it to customers in the fossil fuels segment, where it doesn’t make a big difference. If we redirect this expertise to renewables suppliers, it does.”

He says the opportunity in the sector is huge because all the customers in renewables are new. “None of them have been doing this for 100 years. They need the monitoring and advisory we can supply to them.”

In the digital transformation department, Christiansen is leading a project to create a digital twin for processing facilities. There will be thousands of monitors and sensors in a facility with all the data run into the cloud, where Topsoe will run its software and apply advanced monitoring and artificial intelligence (AI) on a digital twin. “For example, our engineers can help the customers optimise and adjust their facilities.”

Another project is applying the same kind of thinking to “Power-to-X”. This is the process of taking an electrical current produced by a renewable source to create other energy that can be stored for later use.

For example, the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can be burned as a fuel directly or used to create other fuels. The process, known as electrolysis, is not new but has never been scaled.

“We will have enough green electrical power to create green e-fuels,” says Christiansen. “You can put electrical power directly into an electric car, but you can’t in an ocean-going ship, so you need to convert the energy into something else.”

The Topsoe digital project aims to enable companies to monitor and optimise production processes.

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