Svetoslav Ivanov, CEO, Overgas, for CEO Magazine: Step On the Gas

Overgas CEO Svetoslav Ivanov knows how natural gas can speed up Bulgaria’s journey to net zero and bring stability to an industry rocked by geopolitical uncertainty.

When Overgas was formed by six entrepreneurial engineers in 1991, one of them Sasho Dontchev, who is nowadays a majority shareholder and the President of Overgas. Its mission was to make natural gas available to as many Bulgarians as possible. They knew it wouldn’t be an easy task, as the country didn’t even have a gas distribution network so, apart from a few huge industrial giants, the fuel wasn’t available to anyone.

“Literally no homes, restaurants, kindergartens, hotels or any other places had access to it,” Overgas CEO Svetoslav Ivanov tells The CEO Magazine.

“The problem was financial sources of investment and high political risk at the time. We had every other precondition of a successful rollout, such as skilled and experienced workers. And, of course, the demand was there.”
“I’ve had very rich experiences in the battlefield over the years and it helps me set a good leadership example to all the teams that I have the privilege to work with.”

It certainly was. Overgas is now the biggest natural gas company in Bulgaria with distribution companies in more than 30 Bulgarian cities, including the capital, Sofia. It has connected more than 100,000 households and 5,000 businesses. It holds licenses for a territory of over 18,100 square kilometers containing some three million people.

“And, you know what, in all that time, our mission hasn’t changed,” Ivanov notes. “We’re still growing the business and making natural gas the greenest fossil fuel.”

Cleaner Energy

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the difficulty of the task at hand.

“More than 60 percent of the population uses electricity, and half of it is generated using lignite coal, which is the dirtiest fossil energy source. If you calculate the impact of replacing it with natural gas, then Bulgaria would immediately be very close to carbon neutrality,” Ivanov says.

Lignite, also known as ‘brown coal’, is a cheap energy source, but causes more carbon emissions per metric ton than any other fossil fuel – four times that of natural gas. In 2022, it accounted for 98 percent of the 36 million annual metric tons of coal production.
Ivanov joined Overgas in 1994, three years after its launch.

“I still remember my first day, 25 April 1994 – that day I met the doyen of gasification in Bulgaria, the visionary Sasho Dontchev. That was one of three very important things that happened in my life that year: my first daughter was born on July 4 and Bulgaria came fourth in the football world cup!”

After working his way up through the company, he was appointed CEO responsible for gas distribution in 2017 and later for gas trading in 2021.

“Before I joined, 50 percent of the business was sold to a Russian company called Gazprom, then and now the largest gas producer in the world. It was a successful partnership and we signed our first contract to supply gas to the Bulgarian market in 1995. It involved building a gas network totaling 2,600 kilometers from scratch,” Ivanov explains.

At the end of 2015, the Bulgarian shareholders commenced negotiations to buy back Gazprom’s shares and this process was finalized in early 2021. Gazprom sold its interest in the company and later, an American investor became a partner.

Accelerating Gasification

Today, Ivanov chairs the Bulgarian Natural Gas Association and is a driving force behind the National Program for Accelerated Gasification. He has published a number of influential studies about factors affecting the sector and is a lifelong advocate for more sustainable practices and reducing government influence to improve business conditions.

He knows that natural gas should be contributing much more to the national economy given that a geological survey last year estimated that there are 13 billion cubic meters of it onshore, close to the Black Sea coast territory alone – over four times the total consumed by Bulgarians every year.

“It’s one thing to just tell people to do something, but so much better if you can show them that something they thought was impossible can be done.”

It could become critical as, until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country imported 90 percent of its gas through the Turk Stream pipeline from Russia, which is a route that has now been shut down. Overgas has been working with Liberty Petroleum and other American gas producers to find solutions to the disruption and tackle the sector’s heavy monopolization to secure a more competitive market for consumers.

The future is far from certain, but Ivanov knows he has the right people to fulfill the mission that began a third of a century ago.

“I’ve had very rich experiences in the battlefield over the years and it helps me set a good leadership example to all the teams that I have the privilege to work with,” he says.

“It’s one thing to just tell people to do something, but so much better if you can show them that something they thought was impossible can be done and they should not be afraid to try it. Mistakes are not a big deal; they are another word for ‘experience’ and part of human life.”

“When I was a kid, it was never my dream to become a business manager,” Ivanov says. “My aim all my life has been to set a good example for my kids.

“I have four children who are well brought up and well educated and I’ll be happy if I leave behind four useful members of our society. I teach them to follow my example in finding a job that makes them happy, because that’s how you become successful in life.”