• Hartmann says Brazil remains a land of opportunities for Engie
  • Thermal power in Europe is not Engie's future, Hartmann says

The calm Judith Hartmann finds atop 6,000-meter (20,000-feet) Andean peaks is proving useful as Engie’s finance chief helps the French utility negotiate Europe’s deepest energy-market slump.

Engie is shifting from the fossil fuels most exposed to falling prices to renewable energies and efficiency services that offer more predictable revenue streams. As the company embarks on a plan to sell 15 billion euros ($17 billion) of assets and cut costs by 1 billion euros by 2018, the 46-year-old Austrian chief financial officer can draw on other mountaineering skills.

“Perseverance, hanging in there, believing that you can do it, taking responsibility for you own life but also for the people that you’re climbing with,” Hartman said in an interview looking across Paris from the 35th floor of Engie’s headquarters in the business district of La Defense. “This is not a fire sale. If we feel this is a cycle and we have to wait for a better price, we can.”

The independent power producer, which last month announced the sale of 5.5 billion euros of assets in the U.S. and Asia, will also reduce its exposure to oil and gas exploration when commodity prices rebound, said Hartmann, who took over the CFO role one year ago after holding the same position at German media group Bertelsmann SE. The utility is comfortable with its list of targeted divestments, she said.

Growth Opportunities

“When the sector is difficult, I’m convinced that as a CFO, you have even more opportunities to make an impact,” said Hartmann, who has worked in seven countries, including in Brazil and the U.S. during a 12-year stint at General Electric Co.  “There are still going to be a lot of opportunities for us to grow.”

While Hartmann ruled out taking a stake in a Electricite de France SA’s venture to build atomic reactors in the U.K., Engie has to take decisions on its own British and Turkish nuclear power projects. Brazil remains a land of opportunity, even amid the nation’s worsening political and economic crisis, said Hartmann, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the Vienna University.

“The GDP decline doesn’t mean electricity consumption doesn’t go up,” she said, adding that Engie may invest in additional gas and power infrastructure in the country, possibly with partners for its Tractebel Energia SA unit. “Brazil is a very good place for us.”

“Brexit” Question

Hartmann, who speaks Spanish and “a little bit” of Italian and Portuguese, in addition to French, English and German, said the potential departure of the U.K. from the European Union is “bad,” although it wouldn’t affect Engie directly.

“Our financing is done locally,” she said. “I don’t see this as a burning issue for us, if it weren’t for the potential impact on the European economy.”

As Hartmann looks forward to spending some time over the summer climbing in Italy and Austria, where family legend has her starting hiking at the age of three, she also hopes for a little more stability in the energy market.

“When you look at what we’ve worked on over the past few months, it’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work too.”

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