In the first five minutes of interviewing Peter Blom, the Chairman and CEO of Triodos Bank, it becomes clear that this 57 year-old Dutchman is no ordinary banker.
In fact, despite Peter’s fairly conservative looking appearance and steady career path – 33 years with the same firm – he has lost none of his idealism. And his lofty ideas of ‘saving the world’, age seventeen, may well be on the road to realisation. But we are talking about the CEO of a solid, successful bank, not an NGO.
For the bank and for Blom, there is sense that their vision of a more sustainable and transparent banking system is on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream. Triodos Bank has exploded in size since the financial crisis of 2008 – now boasting almost 500,000 customers in five countries – and Blom’s ideas of profit as a by-product of a healthy operation, rather than the ultimate goal are, at last, being taken seriously by the world of international banking.
“The financial crisis has been an accelerator for sustainable banking. People are starting to ask what sort of banks do they want as a person and as a society? They are starting to take responsibility for the way their money is invested and this type of bottom-up movement is now becoming stronger and stronger. Bankers are also more interested in what they can put back to society, maybe not in the City or Wall Street, where they are dealing with the virtual world, but where they deal with customers, bankers understand what we are trying to do and want incorporate our ideas into the way they do business”.
Blom was raised to be a radical. His parents co-founded a Steiner School, which he attended until the age of 14 and brought him up with a strong sense of social responsibility. By the age of 15 or 16, he was reading philosophers such as Kropotkin and Marx and set up a high-school shop selling products from the developing world. To his surprise, his efforts to help others were also profitable – he earned several hundred guilders selling Fair-trade coffee – and his entrepreneurial spirit was ignited.
He went onto study economics at Vrije University in Amsterdam and it was here he came across a fledging initiative called the Triodos Foundation, based on Rudolph Steiner’s theory of a threefold social order. It was the perfect combination of a social initiative and entrepreneurial possibility to give Blom a vision of his future. When Triodos Bank launched in 1980, Blom became the youngest of the bank’s first five employees. He became Managing Director in 1989 and took on his current role of Chairman and CEO in 1997.
Today, Triodos deals only with what Blom calls the ‘real economy’ – projects and businesses they can see and meet the people who run them. They only lend to enterprises that benefit society, ranging from green technology and fair-trade businesses to community health clinics and organic farms. A link on their website takes you through to a Google maps page which shows every organisation they finance. Customers can see exactly where there money is going.
Blom draws many parallels between the worlds of banking and food production. In both, he says, it is diversity that makes the system strong and resilient. “Banking should not be a monoculture. We need different types of institutions for different requirements. Then if one goes wrong, they don’t all go wrong. Also, banks should be able to adjust to the circumstances they find themselves in. We have branches in five different countries and they all have tailored approaches”.
Blom’s connections to agriculture and food production aren’t just from behind a desk. In his only other job, he founded and helped to run one of the first organic food co-ops in the Netherlands. He still shops for organic produce every Saturday, and clearly gets a thrill from seeing businesses he has financed on the shelves. With 12 agricultural scientists, he established the Organic Food and Agricultural Council of the Netherlands, which helps to build a mainstream understanding of the relationship between food, health and agriculture.
The Council’s first report has just been well received by government and may go on to shape future agricultural policy. “I am constantly looking for the openings in the mainstream to get across these forward looking ideas,” he says.
True-Cost Accounting is one of the ideas Blom is keen to explore, but he’s aware of its complications. “How can you define true cost? What is a fair price? These are all questions that are difficult to answer but it’s time we moved on from linear thinking that doesn’t consider the other costs of industrialised agriculture. We need systems thinking that embraces how interconnected we have become if we are going to build a more equitable, environmentally responsible and sustainable future”.
As a CEO, he sees a difference in the young people he employs today. “They’re not interested in sitting in my chair one day. They want to earn a reasonably good living but they come to work not just for their career but the interaction, and for the experience. And they connect directly to the bigger themes. To join an organisation – even Triodos Bank – is a means to an end. There’s a different ambition in the next generation and that gives me hope for the future”.
In a decade when the banking world has been demonised and held responsible for many of our global financial problems, it is refreshing to meet a man with the courage and insight of Peter Blom. A few more of him and we might start thinking bankers could make the world a better place – now that is a radical idea!
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