Since the company's beginning in 1996, ABO Wind has grown steadily. Along with the number of employees, the range of services has also grown over time: in addition to Wind Farm Development and Operational Management, now solar energy, battery storage and hydrogen now complement the business. The diverse in-house expertise makes ABO Wind a comprehensive player in the clean energy transition.
ABO Wind‘s journey began 25 years ago. The tiny company has grown into one with more than 700 employees in 16 countries. But what was it like in the beginning, working from the attic, accompanied by modem noise and countless Pasta Fridays? 13 employees talk about their early days at the company and what has changed over the last 25 years.
Could your story be repeated today?
Matthias Bockholt: I don‘t think so. When we started, the words climate targets and energy transition did not even exist in most people’s minds. And then we came along with our knitted sweaters. We acted out of full conviction, we had picked the right topic at the right time and, of course, we also had a portion of luck. That would definitely be harder today than back then.
Jochen Ahn: When we first started, everyone in the industry was considered a lunatic.
Matthias Bockholt: When, in 1989, I was looking for a supervisor for my diploma thesis on photovoltaics, I was laughed at as a tree-hugger and sent home. This mindset persisted in the Ministry of the Environment, where Jochen and I worked until the foundation of ABO Wind. And these were mainly Green activists!
Jochen Ahn: Exactly. That clearly shows the courage we had. “You‘ll never make money with that” was one of the most frequent phrases we were told back then. And that‘s how it was at first.
Matthias Bockholt: In the first year, we lived off savings. In the second year, we had to borrow 15,000 German Marks from my parents. It wasn‘t until the third year that we could afford rent and a small salary.
Jochen Ahn: In the beginning, Matthias (Hollmann) and I worked from my attic. On twelve square metres, with my children playing in the hallway.
Matthias Bockholt: When we started our business, your third child had just been born. And you had bought a house that needed renovation. The pressure on you was much higher than on me. My girlfriend was receiving the maximum allowance of German student grants at the time. Nevertheless, we sometimes had to fill our food pantry on abandoned fields.
Harald Warzel: My job interview took place in the so-called “broom closet”, which was also a meeting room. I remember sitting there, wedged between the wall and the table. After the interview I had a calf cramp.
Petra Driese-Gessner: In the beginning I had to work from home because there was no place for me in the office.
Jörg Nithammer: It was similar for me. At first, I worked as a freelancer from home. It was not until six months later that a workstation was available at the office.
Markus Wetter: Yes, we had to expand quickly. In my first three days at ABO Wind I had to organise the move.
Andreas Höllinger: I avoided that and preferred to start a month later.
Stefan Schuck: I still remember looking for the "office" when I drove to the company’s headquarters for the first time. There was only a tiny sign on the mailbox in front of Jochen‘s home. For the job interview was wearing a blazer and a tie. Matthias (Bockholt) told me later that they almost turned me down because of that.
Harald Warzel: I was also afraid that it wouldn‘t work out. After all, I didn‘t know how to knit. And then Matthias was sitting there in a home-knitted sweater.
What about the know-how in the early days?
Jochen Ahn: In the beginning we did everything by ourselves. Just two or three of us planned and implemented our first wind farms. That would be unthinkable today, the dimensions are completely different.
Gregor Budinger: When I joined in 1998, my know-how was essentially based on the construction and installation of small wind turbines with a maximum capacity of 10 kilowatts. It was the first time in my life that I heard the word operational management, and I had not worked as a construction coordinator before.
Urta Steinhäuser: Despite my professional experience, countless questions were new to me at first. Fortunately, the authorities usually knew even less about the specifics of wind energy.
Christopher Kopp: I agree. When I started doing wind assessments, I had no idea about the subject. After all, there was no training or course of study in this field. The people who start today are significantly better qualified.
Jochen Ahn: Back then, the two most important factors for hiring new staff were: Are the candidates nice, and do they want to push the energy transition forward like we do?
How did you acquire the knowledge?
Petra Driese-Gessner: In the first years, we were constantly improvising.
Christopher Kopp: We learned everything by ourselves or from our colleagues. Matthias (Bockholt) explained a lot to me and later I took a few software classes. Today, the technical possibilities are completely different. Back then, we couldn’t rely on hardly any existing wind data for our site assessments. Accordingly, we were sometimes quite off the mark.
Gregor Budinger: The most important tools were then, as now, keeping an open eye and a clear mind.
Urta Steinhäuser: I am a trained bank clerk and landscape architect. At first, I had no idea about wind energy. But I learned a lot from Jochen. He had a great talent for making complete calculations on a piece of paper: costs, revenues, sales price, margin. And he was almost always right. I adopted this method. That gave me a lot of confidence.
What made you join ABO Wind in the first place?
Urta Steinhäuser: I had been politically active against nuclear energy. With renewables, I was able to continue my commitment.
Markus Wetter: I was also an active member of the anti-nuclear movement. I still remember an advertisement by RWE in a newspaper: “ In the long term, renewables can‘t cover more than 4% of our electricity needs”. That spurred me on. Today we produce almost 50 per cent from renewables. And it feels great to have contributed to that.
Jörg Nithammer: That was also an important aspect for me. We were all highly motivated and had the same big goal. I was previously working for the Environmental Agency in Mainz and had already been involved with wind energy, but only on paper. Implementing such projects was very tempting for me.
Harald Warzel: I had previously constructed turnkey buildings for ten years: Industrial plants, terraced houses, printing plants. I was simply fed up with the work and the working atmosphere. ABO Wind was young, dynamic and different. But I would never have thought that I would be celebrating my 20th anniversary at ABO Wind.
What fascinated you?
Urta Steinhäuser: Acquiring knowledge on a wide range of topics – from planning to contract law, wind energy technology, grid connection or financing. Making a real contribution to the energy transition. And doing so in a cooperative, appreciative atmosphere.
Petra Driese-Gessner: I thought it was great that we could make a difference. We planned something, which was most of the time actually built.
Bernhard Höfner: And we could constantly learn new things – that was a great combination. I climbed the top of a wind turbine on my first day.
Harald Warzel: Each project was different. Later I often worked on several projects at the same time, which was exciting. And above all, it was the working atmosphere at ABO Wind – you won‘t find that anywhere else.
What else does ABO Wind stand for?
Urta Steinhäuser: Fast, collaborative teamwork with a clear goal in mind. And the motto has always been: If you do something, you will make mistakes – anything is better than doing nothing.
Jörg Nithammer: In the beginning, the atmosphere was quite familiar. With today‘s size it is different, but we still support and motivate each other.
Were there also difficult times?
Andreas Höllinger: Yes. In 2003 and 2004, the whole industry was under pressure. We had to lay off employees. But then we were able to sell wind farms to a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank. By the standards of that time, they examined our projects extremely thoroughly. Looking back, that was a decisive moment. We learned a lot in the process. With this know-how, we were later able to sell projects to foreign investors.
Matthias Hollmann: A large part of our success was related to legislation. At some point, we finally had longer-term planning security – and this also made the industry more interesting to banks.
Jochen Ahn: But the big turning point for renewables was the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima in 2011. That was a gamechanger in Germany.
Jörg Nithammer: I think before that, we only had two employees in the German project development team. Then the team grew quickly. Today we are over 50 planners for wind and repowering in Germany alone. Gregor Budinger: Later, with “Fridays for Future” another jolt went through society. Today, many young people are looking for a job like the one we have been doing for 20 years. That feels good.
What else do you remember?
Harald Warzel: The countless spaghetti meals.
Stefan Schuck: That‘s right. We had Pasta Friday every week. That was Christopher‘s idea. It felt a bit like we were college flatmates.
Christopher Kopp: In the Heidesheim office, we always had pasta for everyone, and I brought that tradition with me to Wiesbaden when I moved. Now I‘m back in Heidesheim and I am still the organiser of the cooking circle.
Urta Steinhäuser: The hikes at the company outings. To see how long the train of hikers is getting. And the joy with which we meet each other.
Matthias Bockholt: I remember our first wind energy fair in Husum. On the cattle market grounds, the dirt was pushed out below and the exposition stands were put up on top. Everyone there was our age and passionate about wind energy. In the evening, the whole industry sat together around the bonfire, barefoot, drinking beer out of bottles.
Matthias Hollmann: At the time, we were impressed by the large number of wind turbines in the north. In our region, there were hardly any.
Jörg Nithammer: The development over the years has been impressive, both the technological one and that of ABO Wind. Our company outings or later the Global Meetings were no longer attended by 20 people, but by 400.
Bernhard Höfner: Once the rented restaurant burnt down completely the night before our company outing. At that time, we were able to get a replacement at short notice – that would be impossible today, of course, given our size.
Speaking of celebrations: What is it like today when you tell people at a party where you work?
Petra Driese-Gessner: Here in the Rheingau region, reactions are very mixed. The polarisation has intensified due to discussions regarding species protection. But I am proud to be working on the energy transition. I stand by that, even if I have to listen to stupid comments. I can still refute one or two prejudices.
Jochen Ahn: In the past we were rather laughed at, today it‘s all much more serious.
Matthias Bockholt: It‘s completely different among my children‘s friends. They have grown up with renewable energy and are much more open-minded. I come from a rather conservative household myself. At first, my parents railed against Green politicians. Then, shortly before my father died, he told me that the last time he voted, he voted for the Green Party for the first time. It took a long time. But the struggle was worth it. And we want to keep our pioneer spirit. That‘s why we always focus on new topics, for example on hydrogen or battery storage.