Emanuel Proença: CEO at Prio Bio & Prio Supply
Emanuel Proença: CEO at Prio Bio & Prio Supply
By The Epic Talent Society
February 9, 2023
Emanuel Proença shares his insights into leadership and the skills he thinks will be critical for the future.
Who am I?
Studies: I studied Engineering and Industrial Management at IST. I did my MBA at INSEAD and went through Wharton. Before that, I attended the Lycée Français in Lisbon.

Talents: Perceiving and learning to understand others, but above all: listening.

Family: Happily married, father to 3 little girls.

Favorite Hero: My Dad!

The Movie of My Life: My own life! It’s an adventurous movie, a great movie.

A Quote: Do or do not, there is no try, Yoda

Favorite Book: Henry Kissinger, “The World Order”

Hobby: I used to be a Judo athlete, I loved overcoming the challenges, putting in the effort, and abiding to its implicit moral rules. Now my favorite hobby is spending time with my family, because time is the ultimate luxury.
Could you explain the context of your current role at Prio?
I’ve been at Prio for 7 years. I started as a board member, but with a relatively tough role in an area that was under serious strain: the fuel terminal. We needed to create a new business model around the terminal. Today I am the CEO of Prio Bio and Prio Supply, which are two of the three business units that compose the Prio Group.

The initial mission was to transform the business model of the terminal, which had lost its only customer and its profitability base. My job was to help transform Prio, which had spent its last five or six years at a standstill, with some financial difficulties, to gain a new spirit and grow and develop into a stronger operation.
How did you pull that off? What were the specific challenges you faced?
I initially worked very closely with the group’s CEO, other board members, and my unit heads. At the time, I think that was a critical part of the success we later enjoyed. I really enjoyed doing it together because we had many lively discussions, many brainstorming sessions, and thought deeply about the fundamentals of the business in order to decide what the team was going to do and anticipate how our main competitors were going to react. I remember that Pedro Morais Leitão and I would go for long walks to discuss our options. The time we invested contributed significantly to the ideas that helped propel. It was a very exciting period and part of the reason for the success of the last few years.

But I’d say the different businesses needed different approaches:

Our strategy to transform the terminal was to think of it as a piece of our business that could become a differentiating element and help us gain access to the international market. Instead of looking at the terminal not as a business in itself, we preferred to link it to our other businesses and make it a competitive advantage. I think we did a pretty good job of reformulating our way of working the region’s interland and setting up our way of access to the international market.

Simultaneously, we set up a trading team, redesigned the supply structure, set up relationships with large companies, and negotiated contracts: supply and purchase contracts for various products. We wanted to gain credibility and show that we could add something new to the market. We were no longer a terminal manager but rather a fuel product flow manager.

The terminal’s teams started to be enriched with sophisticated profiles and functions. The team got stronger. We also started to understand how much value there was in working more closely with the sister company that was just by, but with which there was little connection: Prio Bio, which has an ultra-sustainable biofuels production unit and is today a leader in its market.

On the other hand, at Prio Bio, we only needed to accelerate the path that was already underway with the previous team. That path was based on the understanding that the market was going to change fundamentally in the way it would produce and value biofuels.

What the previous team had realised was that we needed, in this bio-diesel factory, we needed to let go of palm oils and other food oils and migrate to the reuse of waste oils, adding value to them. Starting with a product that has negative value and building positive value into it resulted in a highly valued ecological product. By doing that we had the same product, coming from the circular economy and were recovering an arrosive product (which was a problem), thus adding value.

By doing this well, we would have a competitive advantage in the future, but to do so, we needed to change from being a very inward-looking organization to becoming proud and confident that we could do it. We needed to take more risks and believe that we could make a difference.

The result was amazing. We not only achieved absolutely extraordinary results at the factory, but also generated an appreciation for our products. We achieved this by combining our factory’s way of generating value with the differentiation that resulted from having the terminal. We built something that did not yet exist in the Portuguese market, which was a highly flexible logistics center tied to (and working very closely with) an ultra-sustainable biofuels production unit.

Combining the ultra-sustainable biofuels factory with the logistics, we were creating a new player with a differentiating element.

This symbiosis between the two units was only possible because we worked very well together, building greater trust within the whole team. That had a great influence on the purpose of what was being built, and I think it helped speed up the results and the work we were already doing.

This effort was done in parallel with reshaping our retail, as we had to invest in marketing to build the Prio brand. Prio had a very “regional network”. It was a very introverted brand, so we decided to brand it more as a futuristic, irreverent brand that would bring youth and positive energy to the system.

I remember very well that we promised never to say bad things about other competitors, but rather to elevate our speech. I think it helped a lot in building an internal culture, focusing on generating value, and affirming the brand. We also reformed the innovation unit as well as the gas unit, and we set up the first digital unit in our business. As a result, we set up the first mobile payment app, we set up a digital card project, we helped design an electric mobility app, which today is an independent company, and designed a very successful terminal strategy, all of which I am very proud of having helped build.

We digitised. In the digital project, we did some really cool things. We believe the world is already digitizing, and it won’t stop at the intangibles of our business; it will also reach the tangibles like transportables and heavy goods. The sector will be entirely disrupted by digital, and therefore, we have to be the ones to disrupt it.

I think we have an advantage in disrupting because of our positive irreverence. The desire to do more and better has worked very well for us, and the other companies in our market are very big. They do have more resources and strong financials, but we have the irreverence and the will to disrupt. I believe that if we do “more and better” for the market, we will lead because that’s where we are now. Plus, we are faster and more agile.

What were the company’s achievements?
In our several businesses the results increased differently:
Prio’s Retail Business:
The retail business climbed from 80/90 stations to 250; this is especially relevant because we improved our locations, which had a disproportionate effect on sales, client perception, and brand positioning.

From a business perspective, the terminal business, which started out as a 6 Million Euros Revenue business with 1 Million Euros of EBITDA shot to 1,7 Billion Euros in Revenue and generates approximately 20/25 Million Euros of EBITDA.
Prio Bio’s Business:
Prio Bio’s revenue performance didn’t vary so dramatically, but profit-wise it rose from 6-8 Million Euros in EBITDA to values in the region of 20-25 Million Euros. That still is 3-4x more in a short period of time.

I’m particularly happy that Prio now delivers value to most of its stakeholders, starting with its clients: Prio is now able to bring a better price to the consumer, a more consumer-friendly and inspirational brand, and do more business, generating more value for our shareholder and ultimately more investment capacity for new projects.

What did you learn as a leader?

I previously worked in strategic consulting, and I respect the wonderful work that consultants do, but it’s fundamentally different from being a manager.

There’s a lot of experience value in practical implementation, and there’s a lot of value in understanding the science behind it. It’s not an exact science, but it’s possible to learn even if it takes time to get there.

Within the three experiences I had after consulting, but especially at Prio, I gained a lot of humility and learned to value the human factor, the implementation factor, and the importance of motivation. I understand the value of execution, which is never solved by power points alone.

Are there any skills that you think will be absolutely critical for the future?

As you might know, I’m lucky enough to see a lot of cool things in the entrepreneurial ecosystem because of my wife’s business. Many of the startups work in unique ways and in a completely different work environment.

I think that purpose has multiple effects on people, but we’re all motivated by the will to build something different together. It’s a powerful idea, if you can link one thing to the other: a highly motivated group of people with a really solid purpose that people can believe in. That is dangerously powerful.

So I think the skill of getting the right group of people to work together with a purpose is almost magic, regardless of whether you are working in a 100% digital venture or in a clearly physical brick-and-mortar industry. I particularly believe in groups that include people with that level of humility that can even look like insecurity at point, but very frequently goes together with tremendous capacity to overachieve – if the group is comprised of that kind of “material”, and encompasses both a diverse skillset and clear ideas on what it can do to change its small part of the world for the better, then you have something very powerful at hands, and something that you really should cherish and nurture with everything that you can.
Where do you think this skill can be learned? At schools?
I think that you can only learn this by feeling and going through the different professional situations. I’ve learned a lot over time. I’ve had situations in which I was very confrontational, perhaps brutal, in the way I expressed myself in meetings, especially when times are hard and the only thing that seems to matter is money). Going through these harsh experiences helps you reflect and draw conclusions about what really matters, what fails, and what works. I think one learns most from practical experience, above all, and as diversely as possible.

It’s really nice to see that people who have gone through diverse experiences and high rotations often say or think that, after a few years, everything fell into place and kind of makes sense. That is not just “out of” luck. Things make sense because in each experience you are learning something new and drawing new lessons, and at a certain point you become a leader and a more inspiring person.

I believe that diverse, practical experience helps you become a more complete and inspiring professional and helps you learn, if you take some time to reflect upon the past and learn the lessons of the present. I think we need to accept that we will never always get it right; we will make mistakes and have to have the humility to accept them. The goal is to get things right more often than wrong… and to be humble so as to accept and correct when you’re wrong.
If you weren’t a CEO what would you like to be?
LOL, a Hippie! I am fully aware that I am at the beginning of a path and I still have a lot to do and learn, and I am lucky to be accompanied by fantastic people; that’s what makes the journey even more fun. I am grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given up to now. Leadership is a never ending school of practice, it is a challenge every day and (sometimes) also extremely rewarding. Practicing it at a group with the dynamism that Prio has had in the recent past is a blessing. I hope that I’ll be given more opportunities to work alongside great professionals, and to contribute to building things my children can one day be proud of.
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