He’s done it twice before. Now, the new CEO aims to repeat the success with Zaptec.

Kurt Østrem, the newly appointed CEO of Zaptec, speaks calmly, yet with an underlying passion, as he reflects on the choices that have led him here – the journey, as it's elegantly called.

A company town

He talks about his upbringing in Moi, a small town with just under 2000 inhabitants, an open landscape featuring both mountains and forests, just over an hour's drive from Stavanger – Norway's energy capital.

A small community where the value of grit, communal spirit, and the desire to create have built and sustained the livelihood of an entire local community. The NorDan Group, a highly recognised manufacturer of windows and doors, was founded in Moi in 1926. Today, they have about 2300 employees and a turnover of nearly 5 billion NOK. Kurt's father was also employed in this cornerstone company. It all happened there, right in his own backyard.

The Western Norwegian entrepreneurial drive

He speaks highly about the entrepreneurial spirit of Western Norway. Through several generations, enormous wealth has been created in this small part of the world. Kurt reflects that this happens because we have a practical approach to business development. There's also an element of city versus countryside – the central against the rural. Or, put another way, a distance to the country's capital, where life in a governmental department and near the biggest decisions also appears as a possible career path for young and ambitious people.

It's different on this side of the country. It's not unlikely that this detail has had significant ripple effects on how business is shaped and how creativity and attitudes are influenced.

Here in our region, we must stand on our own two feet. It's been that way for generations. Whether it was fishing, shipbuilding, canning, or the oil industry. There was a culture where less talk and more action were the norm, and the results often spoke for themselves. If the cornerstone company went under, there wasn't a single person within miles who wasn't affected. That was the reality. It tells you not to spend more than you have. And that you are responsible for the results yourself. No one is going to save you. But at the core, there's a huge desire to create. We are underdogs. But we’re comfortable with that. It drives us.

Kurt Østrem

An auditor's crossroads

Every story has its starting point, and for Kurt, it began with the seemingly mundane choice between general studies and business school. He chose the latter, which marked the beginning of years filled with a passionate interest in numbers, economics, and, ultimately, an auditor's precision and eye for detail. He worked as an auditor for large and small companies for five years. It was a period of learning. As he says, these years have been formative for how he thinks about business today. And a central part of the foundation that led Zaptec's board, after a long and thorough process, to conclude that Kurt Østrem is the right person to take Zaptec into a new phase. The next part of the framework we’ll get to now.

By chance, I received a request asking if I wanted to talk to someone running a relatively small retail chain called Europris. They had 20 stores but wanted a national expansion. I knew I was good with numbers. I knew I had an eye for seeing new opportunities. Now, I got to be an active part of a business. To shape it and set a new course. It was something that triggered me enormously. And something I had missed.


The art of growth

With Kurt on the team, they grew in the following years to become a giant, with close to 300 stores and several thousand employees. They had set a highly ambitious plan, which proved viable. It wasn't just the large cash flow and the rapid expansion that made the company successful; it also showed how they managed to change people's original perception of the stores.

"In the beginning, people were somewhat embarrassed to be seen in one of our stores. Some brought an extra shopping bag to hide our bag inside another bag. Because it was cheap, and you weren’t supposed to shop there. But we were like: 'We'll show you!' There was an underdog mentality, and we would show people that shopping at our stores was just darn smart. And that's how we worked strategically as well. Eventually, it became fully acceptable and a store everyone could go to without embarrassment. But that underdog thing, it's really powerful."

From retail to high-tech

Kurt joined Zaptec at an early stage in its history. In the beginning, it was about weighing different business ideas. Examining and analysing what was viable. It all started with developing a super-compact transformer, which was tested against everything from deep-water drilling, water purification, long-distance electricity transport, and – finally – charging electric vehicles. It first took off in 2017 with the launch of the Zaptec Pro charging station and a strategic decision to focus solely on electric vehicle charging. Since the beginning, Kurt has been a steady ally for several CEOs. Each in their way with a desire to leave a mark on the company.

Thinking like a CEO

As the newly appointed CEO, Kurt quickly admits that moving from CFO to CEO comes with a price. It requires a change in mindset. But in our conversation, he’s very open and honest about what is required to master the transition. It also becomes clear that he looks forward to thinking long-term, not just short-term, as has been the case when he stepped into the – let's call it restricted – role of interim leader, during other times the company has made changes in management. And at the same time, there is much learning in observation. There are choices made in Zaptec that Kurt would have solved differently if he had been in charge. Without wanting to point out specific events. But this time, it is Kurt's turn to stand at the helm. He describes several points on his agenda as key actions for Zaptec's future success.

"We are going to continue to grow. I have no belief that success means stabilising at today's level, polishing the margins, and saying that we are 'happy' with that. Right now, we are strategically positioning ourselves in Europe to strike with full force as soon as the market turns. Because it will – with 100% certainty. It's inevitable. We continue to build while others are laying down their tools. The other part of the equation is expanding the ecosystem around the charging itself. We are exploring several exciting directions. However, a central element I want to highlight is that we couldn't have done it the other way around. We start with patented charging technology. We start by becoming experts on the core task, which is essential to solve Europe's need for charging – even with limitations in the power grid and capacity. And then, we build on the necessary pieces to expand the service further. But our unique expertise and patented charging solution is the foundation."

For the first time in the conversation, Kurt's hands fly from side to side, gesturing. It's obvious that business operations and future projects get his blood pumping.

... Of course, it can be a bit frustrating. Right now, we hold two thoughts in mind at once. We are gearing up to strike with full force, but we are trying to do it in a way that doesn’t require us to take on enormous debt. As many companies do. Call it ‘living within our means’. Or down-to-earth practicality. And here in Norway, people might not see the big picture. But when I talk to people on my journeys out in Europe, people connected to the car industry and the entire ecosystem around it, they are completely shocked when I say that we had a 94% increase in turnover from 2022 to 2023. We’re gaining market shares. And that we are gearing up for further growth. The short-term macroeconomic challenges make others gun-shy. Or, many are simply on their knees. But that's what makes Zaptec's position so unique. Here we are.


Merchant spirit – and owning a hydroelectric power plant

Several projects in Kurt's life show signs of a true merchant spirit. In addition to Europris, he built up another retail chain, later bought by another company to great acclaim. It turned out to be a recipe that could be recreated.

He is also excitingly close to a central element in the electric car revolution – power production. From his farm in Moi, Kurt and several farmers and landowners in the area saw the opportunity to start their own power production. Kurt was heavily involved when the necessary concessions were given, and plans were set in motion, and now he stands as a co-owner in a fully operational hydroelectric power plant, a form of power community which supplies the region with renewable and green electricity.

"It's a special feeling when I'm home in Moi. You have wind farms on the mountain ridges and hydroelectric power almost right in your own backyard. It's this power that we at Zaptec will help manage. To steer. And optimize. We will facilitate a greener car fleet. It feels somewhat sacred. But having this closeness to the energy we are helping to put out in the system feels meaningful."

What can Zaptec employees expect from Kurt? And what can you expect from Zaptec?

As Zaptec's new CEO, he aims to provide the best possible conditions for the technologists, the product department, the marketing department, the developers, the salespeople, and every single employee to drive the company forward. He himself emphasises the importance of taking on the role of a team builder.

I'm not a one-man show. And I'm definitely not rigid; I want to be available to everyone at Zaptec. I listen and make changes if I see that the input I get is sensible. It's part of the legacy I bring to be responsible for the results and understand that input from the 'local community' in Zaptec has enormous value. But I am demanding. A good idea is only good if it can be implemented and improves something. But the employees should know I'm a leader to whom one can talk. And then it's my job to create the best conditions for Zaptec to become a giant.


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