Working late on a Friday in 2008, Wenche Agerup suddenly looked up and found herself alone in the office. Outside, the sun beat down on the sparkling glass and chrome of the Perth, Australia skyline. The office seemed extraordinarily hot and quiet.
“It turned out the building’s air conditioning was shut off at 5pm every Friday, and wouldn’t be turned on again until 7am on Monday,” she says. “They told me, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. Go home!’”
As a longtime executive in Norway’s competitive financial and legal sector, Wenche wasn’t used to such laid-back business hours. She grew up in Sandefjord, Norway. In the traditional model, Wenche’s father worked as a lawyer, while her mother stayed home to take care of Wenche and her brother.
“I was bound to be a lawyer,” she says. “Most children of lawyers went into law then. My brother became a lawyer, too.”
Wenche excelled in school. She also discovered an interest in politics and gave up playing the clarinet to give her more time to volunteer with Unge Høyres Landsforbund, the Young Conservatives group in Norway.
“I was quite active in politics during my high school years,” she says. “There were a lot of things to fight for, and I like to argue and find different viewpoints.”
In pursuit of the law
After graduating in 1983, Wenche moved to Oslo. She spent a year working in the Young Conservatives office before entering university. The University of Oslo Law School is located smack in the centre of the capital, a set of three neoclassical buildings in a shade of butter yellow that complements the nearby Norwegian Royal Palace. Wenche enjoyed her time as a law student, but remembers how isolating it could be.
“At that time, there were so many students pursuing law. We actually went to the movie theatre at Klingenberg and had a lecture with one professor and one thousand students. It was not like you raised your hand at the end of the lecture to have a discussion.”
All coursework built toward a single annual exam, which solely determined a student’s job options. Wenche did well on the exams each year and scored summer jobs with two renowned Norwegian law firms. After finishing the program at UiO in 1989, she was ready for something new.
“In order to do well in Norway, you need to understand the world around you,” says Wenche. “I definitely wanted to study abroad.”
Wenche was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and admitted to the MBA program at Babson College at Wellesley University in Massachusetts. Her boyfriend, Karl-Christian, whom she’d met while working with the Young Conservatives, was studying at MIT. They ventured to Boston as newlyweds. There, Wenche got a taste of the American university ethos: participation was mandatory, there were group projects and an emphasis on teamwork. Fortunately, she did well in this new environment, too.
“I loved Boston. I had never had Mexican food before. The Border Cafe at Harvard Square served fajitas and margaritas and Corona. That was cheap, good food,” she says. After completing their programs, both Wenche and Karl-Christian had job commitments back in Oslo.
“We moved back to Norway, and I learned to make homemade tortillas.”
Back to Norway
Wenche was hired as an associate by Thommessen, Krefting, Greve & Lund. Early on, she assisted with a large project divesting one part of a large Norwegian company. The Thommessen team worked closely with in-house lawyers for the company acquiring the business unit. When the project came to a close, the two teams celebrated with a dinner, and Wenche had a revelation.
“I had been so occupied with the whole rationale for the transaction. Then I realised we were just leaving all that behind us and would be starting on a completely new project the next day,” she says. Her blue eyes narrow. For the in-house attorneys, meanwhile, the hard work had just begun. They had to integrate the new business and capture all the value identified in the process. Wenche was disappointed not to be part of that.
Wenche’s first child was born in 1993. While on parental leave, she received a call from someone developing an in-house legal department at Hafslund Nycomed, a large Norwegian pharmaceutical company. Wenche took the job and immediately felt the difference. She had an intimate connection to the success of the company and was accountable for achieving results.
The Hydro years
After her twin daughters were born in 1995, Wenche worked for Nycomed through its merger with a British company. Then in 1998, she accepted a position with Norsk Hydro, an enormous conglomerate with units covering more than twenty industries. Wenche moved up through several positions at Hydro. She admired a company policy that encouraged would-be executives to get operational experience and learn how things run from the plant perspective. In 2006, she was appointed Plant Manager of the Årdal Metal Plant.
“It was extremely rewarding. You could see the consequences of your decisions immediately. If you decided to do something you could just implement it. That’s much harder at the corporate level, where your success is often measured on someone else’s ability to execute what you put forward.”
The Australian wild west
Hydro then offered Wenche the chance to run an international R&D project. The company wanted to scope out the rich natural resources of The Kimberley—a rugged landscape in Australia’s northwest corner—and spec the infrastructure for bauxite extraction. Wenche and her family moved to Perth in 2008.
“It was a bit like the Wild West,” she says of Western Australia. Culture shock hit Wenche hardest in terms of gender diversity in the workplace. She was frequently the only woman in the room. Karl-Christian had taken a leave of absence from work and was the one taking care of their three daughters.
“We sat down with the principal at the beginning of the year, and she looked at my husband and said, ‘So, what brought you to Perth?’ And he said, ‘My wife.’ She apologised! It was interesting having three daughters and taking for granted the way things are in Norway. It was good for our girls to see the difference, too.”
Time for some Telecom
The family returned to Norway after two years, and in 2015, Telenor entered the picture. Wenche had long admired Telenor, both for its professional reputation and its international success.
“I didn’t know that much about telecom,” she admits. “But that was another benefit of my time at Hydro. I was involved with ten or fifteen different industries throughout my sixteen years there. I wasn’t worried about entering a new industry.”
As EVP and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Wenche oversees Telenor’s internal and external communications, with a particular eye on holistic efficiency and consistency.
“It’s been a fascinating transition,” says Wenche. “I had a lot of thoughts about what I wanted to do when I came here, but the reality is that we were in a very difficult situation when I arrived. I came into a situation where I had to learn the company by doing.”
In 2016, two of Wenche’s daughters competed in Rio as part of the Norwegian Olympic sailing team. Her oldest daughter has returned from studying abroad to work as an electrical engineer in Norway.
Wenche turns to look out the windows of the Telenor office in Fornebu. She skims her eyes fast over the blue-grey fjord, calmly surveying the future. “I look forward to supporting my team, getting to know the broader Telenor and contributing to its success,” she says. “I’m ready to help deliver on our ambitious targets.”
Written by Audrey Camp