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Oliver Iltisberger of ABB: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability…

Oliver Iltisberger of ABB: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability And The Environment

An Interview With Penny Bauder

Define the PURPOSE of what you do and choose your jobs according to what you feel passionate about.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oliver Iltisberger.

Oliver was appointed Managing Director for ABB’s Smart Buildings business in July 2018 and Division President Smart Buildings in July 2020.

In this position, he has full accountability for the performance of the global Smart Buildings business in ABB, which includes a broad portfolio of market leading home and building automation solutions as well as the portfolio for energy distribution systems and products.

Previously, as Executive Vice President and member of the Executive Committee, Oliver led the Asia Pacific and then the Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA) region of Landis+Gyr, a publicly listed global leader for Smart Metering and Smart Grid Solutions. In 2010 he became one of the founding members and the first President of the IDIS Smart Meter Association.

Earlier in his career, Oliver worked in the Automation & Drives division of Siemens, heading sales, product management and marketing functions within the Low Voltage Power Distribution business.

During his career, Oliver has lived and worked in Germany, South Africa, Singapore, Australia and Switzerland. He has obtained a joint master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration from the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany and an executive training at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business.

ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a leading global technology company that energizes the transformation of society and industry to achieve a more productive, sustainable future. By connecting software to its electrification, robotics, automation and motion portfolio, ABB pushes the boundaries of technology to drive performance to new levels. With a history of excellence stretching back more than 130 years, ABB’s success is driven by about 110,000 talented employees in over 100 countries. www.abb.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in small town in Hessen, Germany as a second child. My father founded and ran a small direct marketing business utilizing what you would call today a data center to manage customer information. This was in the 1970s…

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We are on a mission to make buildings smart, safe and more secure, with optimized space and improved energy efficiency whilst reducing carbon emissions and increasing productivity.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I joined ABB just over three years ago, when the Company’s plans to embed sustainability through the very fabric of the organization were still at an early stage. This was enormously attractive to me as a potential employee and I am very excited to be a leader in a business that is leading by example. My passion comes from the demonstrable potential for us to have a huge impact on climate change and carbon emissions.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

While many businesses are tackling ‘sustainability’ as a macro trend, we are designing the future of our business around all aspects of sustainability — from our products to our company culture and our networks. We’re not just selling technology that addresses issues such as climate change and manufacturing circularity etc. And this wholesale business strategy came from the top down within our organization, as well as from the bottom up. The passion in our company is palpable at all levels, so there was no specific trigger for me. The momentum was already very compelling.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new sustainability initiative. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

As mentioned before, the momentum in the company for sustainability was already there and it was a team effort to take it to the next level. The major considerations were:: –

  1. A laser focus on our audiences and stakeholders, and being guided by our customers and employees every step of the way. Sustainability programs are not simply about the application of technology to produce specified outcomes. They are as much about people, technical literacy, collaboration and processes too. Without the right collective mind set, the tools for meaningful change are rendered useless.
  2. Being in a position to inspire others with our own action, unhindered by what’s gone before. We decided to be our own customer first and have set targets for our global operations to be net carbon neutral by 2030. We are using the learnings from our own business to inspire our customers, and our ecosystem to follow in our footsteps.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Soon after I started working for ABB I was invited to join a global conference in person in China, talking about sustainable and smart buildings. I didn’t know it would be broadcasted via one of the very popular web channels in China at the same time. This was the first time I had an audience of more than 1’000’000 listeners — online.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I started my career as a management trainee for a large industrial conglomerate and made the mistake of choosing to work in controlling in my first job. I realized very quickly that this was not for me and moved over to the ‘engineering side’ of the business working in product management. The lesson is that you should always try to pick a job that you feel passionate about…

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I had a mentor in my very first job. He taught me to always be pro-active, get involved in projects no one wants to run and be courageous when taking decisions. I have tried to apply this advice throughout my career.

Are there things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The mission towards net-zero carbon is a global imperative and commercial buildings are on the frontline in the battle against climate change. In fact, the world’s buildings generate 40 percent of global carbon emissions. Yet it is relatively simple and economically attractive to utilize existing technologies to address the challenge for buildings and infrastructure.

Whether retrofitting older buildings or designing new ones, making them ‘smarter’ can have a huge impact. A ‘smart building’ employs a range of interconnected technologies to optimize everything from water use, energy management, air conditioning, access, automation, lighting, remote monitoring and communication networks, while simultaneously creating a more amenable working environment.

The concept of smart buildings is nothing new, of course. As you no doubt know, architects and developers have installed separate systems to control lighting, heating and ventilation for decades.

Now, however, web-based platforms are taking smart buildings to the next level by allowing the facility systems to integrate seamlessly with each other, delivering a single, definite view of how efficiently and effectively a building operates. Armed with this invaluable data, managers can take steps to avoid waste and improve use — cutting emissions and making savings at the same time.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Yes, part of ABB’s own ‘Mission to Zero’ strategy, our Lüdenscheid plant in Germany is a real-life example of how the energy transition can succeed sustainably through digital energy management.

ABB transformed the facility into the company’s first carbon-neutral production site by deploying energy-efficient technologies into one smart system, which is digitally networked and controllable.

Solar technology generates up to 100 percent of the factory’s requirements, enough to supply 340 private households. When used with the site’s cogeneration plant, Lüdenscheid can generate 14 percent more energy than needed; this surplus is sold back into the public grid, meaning the site is energy positive.

The flagship facility at our Busch-Jaeger subsidiary saves up to 630t of CO2 a year and makes a long-term contribution to improving the environment for local people and the wider community.

In the next year, we aim to open 10 more Mission to Zero sites around the world to encourage positive, transformational change within our own business operations and in society as a whole.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Define the PURPOSE of what you do and choose your jobs according to what you feel passionate about.
  2. Think outside-in with the customer in mind versus inside-out — always.
  3. If a decision needs to be taken, be courageous and take it fast.
  4. Care: for people, for environment and yourself.
  5. Stay humble.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

What a great question. Although, I believe the root of meaningful change in less about ‘teaching’ and more about collaborating. In practice, this will involve large, global organizations like mine making disproportionately large investments with smaller entities to support innovation. For example, working with young people and universities who are not only proficient with new technologies, but will no doubt be instrumental in designing the future of jobs and the workplace.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Luck is a legitimate management tool, bad luck is not…

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It would have been Nelson Mandela, I don’t think it needs an explanation.

How can our readers follow you online?


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Oliver Iltisberger of ABB: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.