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Banking with a human touch (guest speech transcript)

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Some bankers took exception to my calling them some of them morally bankrupt and socially useless. I’m not surprised, as I used those phrases intentionally to be provocative. Equally, I wasn’t saying that all bankers are corrupt and useless, just some. Some big names, but not all.

Equally, I have said that some banks are doing good, and we are focusing on good banking in our forthcoming meetings with Triodos Bank, Ålandsbanken, Danske Bank, DNB, Nordea, SEB and S-Bank.

There are some banks doing good things and some banks not. The way of the world.

However, a fellow speaker in my Banking for Humanity stream was Esther Stegman, who heads up Business and Product Development for de Volksbank, a Dutch bank formed in 2013 and nationalised by the Government.

Here’s their story and a transcript of her speech:

Banking with a human touch as a way to contribute to a sustainable world and a financially healthy society

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on how we, at de Volksbank, contribute to a sustainable world and a financially healthy society through banking with a human touch.

Serving 3.2 million clients, de Volksbank is a family of four Dutch banking brands: ASN Bank, BLG Wonen, RegioBank and SNS.

ASN Bank focuses primarily on a sustainable world for the future and climate-inclusive banking; BLG Wonen aims at renewing the housing market and making it accessible to people who are often excluded; RegioBank aims at liveability in the neighborhood and SNS concentrates in particular on a healthy housekeeping book for financially resilient customers. Together we focus on both individual customers and the entire society. And jointly we contribute to banking with a human touch.

During the credit crunch, the state had to intervene. In 2013 we were nationalized and here’s what happened. Despite the drama, a sense of urgency and optimism took over. Our management went back to our roots and defined what we stood for in order to offer a bright perspective regardless of the situation. To make clear what the Netherlands as a society and the Dutch banking sector stood to lose if the state would allow this bank to collapse. They went as far back as 1817, when a few wise men set up the bank in between a harbour, a church and a pub. With a single deep purpose: so that people could save for a rainy day.

What does it have to do with today’s theme: banking for humanity? Everything!

In 2013 we realized that, if we are to have a future, we need to put people back where they belong. If anything, the financial crisis had made painfully clear that the financial sector is not isolated. That we play a fundamental role in the economy and in the (financial) life of people. Society and clients, especially when it comes to financial services to private individuals and small business companies, expect banks to be aware of this. They expect us also to take our responsibility; to act consistently and account for it. The nationalization put us face to face with the facts. And at the same time, it gave us the opportunity to critically review our role in society. What is our purpose, what should we contribute to our customers, society, our employees and our shareholders? Everywhere around us we see organizations asking this question: what is the real goal?

Putting people where they belong is, putting them at the heart of what we do. We are an impact-driven organization. Our financial services meet the needs of the client. In addition, we use our knowledge, our capital, our influence for a climate-neutral balance and contribute to a sustainable society through our concrete policies. In this way we are committed to increasing the financial knowledge of our clients. So that they can become financially healthy.

Fast forward again to the present time. And we strongly believe that banking is so much more than products, transactions and money matters. Banking is at its core a human affair whereby money is only a means, but the ultimate goals are: financially resilient customers and a sustainable society, now and always. That is why we don’t hit at short-term financial gain. We aim at the long term, and more specifically: at a long-term average return.

When you look closely, you’ll find our approach rather austere. We want to be a safe bank. And we want to avoid ever getting into financial problems again. Our risk profile and behaviour play a crucial role in this. We strive for both financial and non-financial, social returns. We impose clear limitations on merely making money with money. We take our responsibility in restoring and subsequently increasing confidence. De Volksbank, in short, chooses to be a healthy bank that offers financial services to consumers and small businesses.

The human dimension is central to this. Clients choose us because of our human touch. This is expressed in our customer relationships. We approach clients from the heart; regard them as equals; with whom we stand side by side; and on whose behalf we act based on mutual trust. Through this human-centred client relationship, we pay sincere attention to each other in good and in bad times; transparently, honestly and proactively.

Society increasingly demands that the financial sector optimizes more multidimensionally, and not just money. In fact we are the only bank out of the big 4 in the Netherlands, where the CEO – Maurice Oostendorp - openly declares: if you want to be the wolf of Wall Street, then we are not the bank for you!

So what does banking with a human touch actually look like on a day-to-day basis?

It starts with our internal decision-making model, which is based on the principle of shared value. We have four stakeholders: the client, employee, society and the shareholder. We determine specific value propositions for each stakeholder.

What we offer to clients, must have economic value (measured in terms of growth in the number of customers and customer satisfaction, among other things).

The co-workers must be able to confidently contribute to the goal of the company, they must be able to develop. Another objective is that they experience sincere attention from managers and other colleagues and also offer it in return.

For society, we strive for financial resilience and a climate-neutral balance as a contribution to sustainability.

Finally, the shareholder, receives a healthy return from an efficient company, which no longer offers bonuses and also contributes to the diversity of the Dutch banking landscape.

Our shared value ambition is translated into concrete, objectively measurable goals that we are accountable for. Based on the impact that we experience on all our stakeholders, we derive the responsibility to look for an optimization of the total shared value. In other words, none of the stakeholders aims to maximize its value alone. It is our conviction that this would happen at the expense of another stakeholder and - more importantly - at the expense of the total.

Naturally, our shared value ambition is not without consequences. And we subsequently bear those. Is a decision consistent with our purpose, but does it cost money? Then we cover the costs elsewhere so that we can implement the decision. Concretely, it looks like this: we give Internet and mobile banking workshops to elderly clients. And offer a special program “The Client Wants to Live in Peace” (Klant wil rustig blijven wonen, in Dutch) for clients with an interest-only mortgage. We are also famous for being the first bank in the Netherlands to stop transferring files to debt collection agencies when clients find themselves in financial difficulties. Why? Because we want to stand next to our client, in good and bad times.

How does this resonate with current developments and trends within the banking sector in particular and society at large? Let’s take a closer look at our approach towards data and privacy.

A couple of years ago, we formulated our stance on data in what we call our data vision. In short, it boils down to this. The clients are and remain in charge of their data. Yes, we understand and appreciate the value of data and how data can boost business. The figures speak for themselves. When correctly used, data can lead to sales increase, efficiency in business and so on. Yet we use data otherwise. Primarily to the benefit of our clients and not as another means to just make money. Consequently we wouldn’t develop business models with third parties based on our clients’ data.

As for privacy, we adopt a similar approach. We don’t believe in so-called free services, for which the clients eventually end up paying with their privacy.

As big techs steadily enter the banking scene, we stand firmly behind our clients’ privacy. In fact, well before PSD2 came into effect, we had started working with the Privacy First foundation on a PSD2 code of conduct. We go even a step further. Because our clients must first opt for a main switch before they start sharing payment data with a third party in payments. Also, together with Schluss, a startup, we’ve been working on a digital safe for personal data for clients. So you see, we take consistent and consequent responsibility for our ambition. If a possible decision is not in line with our purpose, but it does yield a profit, then the logical conclusion is that we do not implement that decision. This approach is what sets us apart from others; and what allows us to keep a consistent eye on the long-term interests of our stakeholders in particular, and society at large.

Does this all sound like some fantasy non-governmental organization? Bankers without borders, or something like that? I think not! We are and remain a solid business in the first place.

What does our shared value ambition demand from us and from our environment? A number of things. To begin with: boldness, trust and a long breath. It is therefore important that all stakeholders “invest” in de Volksbank in one way or another.

The client invests his or her trust by giving insight into the financial household, by sharing privacy. Let’s call this ‘emotional capital’. Our employees, intrinsically motivated for banking with a human touch, invest, among other things, their energy and commitment. Their ‘human capital’, so to speak. Society invests social capital and entrusts us with economic functions (such as money creation, risk transformation) and certain tasks (such as monitoring money laundering and transactions that finance terrorism). Fourthly, the shareholder invests financial capital in the company.

So, when all stakeholders - each in their own way - invest in a bank, that stands for the human touch, we draw two conclusions from that.

First of all, the dialogue between the various stakeholders must be facilitated. And secondly, all stakeholders must have a say in the relevant decisions. It is our desire to consistently translate the internal decision-making process based on shared value into our governance model. Day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the management, under the supervision of the supervisory board, which now consists of three women and two men.

The subjects on which traditionally only the shareholder decides - such as strategy, mergers and acquisitions, appointments, remuneration, articles of association - are placed in a model where there is shared control. In this way we propose an alternative to a call from various sections of society and politics. Namely, to bring a different balance to the way in which organizations take the interests of different stakeholders into account when managing their business.

In conclusion, our inspiration for a suitable governance model stems from our vision of banking with a human touch. From the shared value ambition. And from our 200 year-history and our vision of the future. Also, for the remainder of this event, I sincerely hope that our inspiration opens doors to a genuine dialogue on banking for humanity. Or as we at de Volksbank like to put it: banking with a human touch.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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