Visionary leadership in the renewable energy industry

Milena Videnova, of energy company Axpo Bulgaria, wins the 2023 Business Woman of the Year award in the Renewable Energy Industry. Videnova is a successful female leader in a male-dominated field who always encourages women to unleash their incredible potential

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Milena Videnova of Axpo Bulgaria has everything necessary to succeed in the complex and competitive energy industry. She has proven this with the results achieved in the almost two years since she joined Axpo Bulgaria, a subsidiary of the Swiss-holding Axpo Group.

Videnova is smart, ambitious and efficient. Being a female leader in a male-dominated field is not new to her. She has a strong track record of working in different managerial positions, with over 21 years’ experience in the banking, insurance and financial sectors.

Starting her career as an analyst at the Investment Bank of Brandenburg (a subsidiary of WEST LB), it quickly became obvious that Videnova had much more passion to develop and grow. She went on to hold different managerial positions in Raiffeisenbank Bulgaria (a subsidiary of the Austrian Raiffeisen Zentralbank), UniCredit Bulbank and the Austrian Hypo NOE Investmentbank.

Before joining Axpo, Videnova spent a significant part of her career at Coface Bulgaria, where she was Country Manager for almost seven years. During that time, the company became a market leader in credit insurance.


A result-orientated leader
Videnova joined Axpo Bulgaria in 2020. Having to lead the company during turbulent times, her success and the results speak for themselves. What impressed the judging panel of the 2023 European CEO Awards was her clear and consistent goal-setting and high efficiency.

Turning back to August 2020, when Videnova joined the company, she recalls the first goals she set for herself.

“Our Bulgarian team manages energy logistics in Europe and many back-office functions for the group. My first goal was to expand these and to optimise and automate certain processes that would allow us to gain more clients and services.”

However, Videnova had more strategic goals for Axpo Bulgaria’s development, including turning the company into a trade hub. “When I arrived, we only had a couple of salespeople, just three licences, and there were almost no active deals. Now we are managing over 30 electricity and natural gas licences and operating in 15 European markets,” she explains.

The third goal she set for herself initially was to achieve sustainable profits. And, for the second year in a row now, Axpo Bulgaria is profitable from wholesale trade. Looking to the future, Axpo Bulgaria aims to enter additional markets and diversify more.


Navigating through the green transition in an Eastern European country
What makes Videnova’s situation even more challenging is that she heads up Axpo’s subsidiary in Bulgaria – a country trying to transition from the conventional and more polluting energy carriers to greener and more environmentally-friendly solutions.

At the same time, many local stakeholders support the usage of lignite in Bulgaria’s energy mix. Some of the arguments in favour of this are that lignite is a local resource, and it makes the country independent from external factors. Not to mention the social price that will be paid in case of a fast coal phase-out.

Nevertheless, Videnova believes in the green transition. “Bulgaria has enough natural resources for a healthy green energy mix. To achieve this, however, we will also need more efficient administration and e-government. That will help get the funding to the people who need it. Otherwise, we are going to pay a very high price for the delay,” she says.

According to Videnova, Bulgaria should continue diversifying its energy sources, accelerating renewable energy projects, and building and maintaining existing facilities, including nuclear. In turn, the social price will eventually go down.


Axpo can support Bulgaria in its greener energy future
Videnova thinks that the Axpo Group can also support Bulgaria in its efforts toward a greener energy future. The company develops, expands, and perfects alternative energy sources in Europe and across the world through sustainable energy solutions, power purchase agreements, and the creation of state-of-the-art energy technologies.

When a leader has created and developed a strong and performing team, everything is possible

Videnova points out that Axpo is owned by Swiss cantons and cantonal utility companies, and has over 100 years of history. Together with its partners, it is Switzerland’s largest producer of renewable energy from hydropower, biomass, and nuclear sources. Abroad, Axpo focuses on solar and wind energy. The company has a portfolio of wind farms and is active across the entire solar energy value chain. In fact, Axpo aims to develop 10GW of solar energy and 3GW of onshore wind energy across Europe by 2030.

The company is also an energy trader. For example, Axpo Bulgaria sells guarantees of origin and CO2 emissions, and long-term green energy stocks. The company also offers solutions to producers of renewable energy.

Furthermore, less than two years ago, the group created a special unit for hydrogen production and battery installation in Western Europe. Videnova explains: “This unit has the potential to change the market as it will make storage and trade easier.”


Empowering people to unleash their true potential
Central to Axpo achieving its goals and vision for the future are its people. And Videnova knows that well. She admits that it was initially quite challenging to find and retain the talent the company needs, but is now something at which Axpo Bulgaria excels. The company’s team already consists of more than 100 professionals, and the attrition rate in 2021 and 2022 was under five percent.

Videnova also knows that innovation is another crucial aspect for a company’s success. As such, she encourages a creative environment that allows the company’s talent to thrive. “Now, each employee has the opportunity to present their ideas to a digital board and see them materialised, if approved. There is lots of space for innovation in our field, such as processing large databases and algorithmic trade,” she says.


But is it easy to be a female leader in the energy industry?
When we look at the ease with which Videnova talks about her and her team’s achievements at Axpo Bulgaria, it’s easy to miss the true scale of what it takes to be a female leader in a male-dominated field.

“I have overcome many different challenges in more than 20 years of corporate experience, especially as a female leader. For several different business assignments, even at the assessment stage, I had to deliver far better results than my male peers. I have often been underestimated, especially in the beginning, and this gave me an added incentive to succeed and helped me to outperform,” she admits.

In her role as CEO of Axpo Bulgaria, she meets many challenges, with those mentioned above being only a few. The list includes the constantly and rapidly changing regulations. Videnova explains that such high geopolitical risks make it difficult to anticipate the future: “My team’s daily challenge is to manage the different regulatory frameworks set by governments in the markets where we are active, and they do this very successfully.”

Videnova is not afraid of all the challenges, as she perceives them as part of life. She shares that it is more about having the right attitude, passion, and a positive approach. “I am a pragmatic optimist, always ready to celebrate success and learn from any failure,” she explains.


Videnova follows Axpo’s four leadership principles
Thinking about her strongest qualities, Videnova mentions her ability to network and grow businesses. She adds her ability to build and nurture good relationships with external partners, the company’s stakeholders, and team members. “When a leader has created and developed a strong and performing team, everything is possible,” she emphasises.

Perseverance and discipline are also crucial in achieving sustainable business results. In addition, a high level of agility is required to respond to the rapidly changing environment. Milena concludes that she truly believes in Axpo’s four leadership principles and lives them every day:

  • First, be a leader: lead by example, take ownership, and add value;
  • Second, make it happen: work as a team, create solutions and opportunities, and act entrepreneurially to deliver results;
  • Third, create the future: focus on impact, experiment and innovate, and exceed customer expectations;
  • Fourth, care about people: communicate actively, candidly, and respectfully, embrace feedback to grow, and lead with empathy.

Milena Videnova’s message to women is to never give up and believe that having both a career and a family is indeed possible. “The world is changing, and women have incredible potential. Please, do not underestimate yourselves even when others underestimate you. Push to be better, each day, every day,” she concludes.