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Thomas Jorberg: “I have accepted being a banker”


24 October 2022

By the end of 2022, Thomas Jorberg retires from GLS Bank, a pioneer of values-based banking in Germany, after 45 years of service and leadership in the values-based banking industry. We sat down with Thomas as he leaves GLS Bank at the time of his retirement for a special interview with the GABV.  

Thomas’ retirement coincides with an award as the European Banker of the Year 2021. But this is only one of many, during a career that has seen values-based banking develop from a tiny niche to become an influential movement in the financial sector. Other honours include the Future Award for responsible corporate governance in 2009; the B.A.U.M. Environmental Award for his high level of commitment to sustainable social development and a value-oriented approach to money in 2010; and the German Fairness Award for his corporate governance in 2011.

Over several decades, Thomas Jorberg has been at the heart of the growth and impact of values-based banking, not least as a co-founder and one of the first Board members of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV).

Thomas Jorberg first joined GLS in 1977, three years after the banks’ foundation, as a trainee. In 1986 he returned to GLS and has been working in the bank ever since. He became a member of the Board of Management in 1993 and a Spokesman for the Board of Management in 2003. He was a founding GABV Board Member from 2009 to 2019, including hosting the 2013 GABV Annual Meeting in Berlin.  

Thomas Jorberg at the RuhrCongress in Bochum, Germany

Beyond banking, Thomas Jorberg has been Chair of the Supervisory Board of Elektrizitätswerke (EWS) Schönau Genossenschaft since 2011 and a member of the Supervisory Board of Hannoversche Kassen, a social-ecological pension fund, since 2009. Since 2020, he has been a member, and since June 2021, Chair of the Board of Directors of Weleda AG, a manufacturer of natural cosmetics.  

Congratulations on your recent recognition as European Banker of the Year 2021 in the same year that you are retiring from GLS, after more than 35 years of service. How do you feel when you look back on your career?  

I had some incredible and interesting experiences. It was never boring, not even for a second. GLS Bank started with 12 employees when I was an apprentice. Today we have almost 900. It has always been an exciting development, both internally and societally. Internally we have become a new bank every few years. Societally we always tried to be in the place where we were needed the most. It was an incredibly exciting time! 

What advice would you give your younger self when you started working as GLS Bank’s CEO?  

Today we face completely different circumstances than 40 years ago. If I compare, then with now, the bank is a giant machine subject to many regulations and structures. But the bank itself is only an instrument. It is not the “thing” that is of real importance. The bank, its funds and all the structures that we have are the only an instrument to shape society, and that should always be kept in the forefront. This was much easier in earlier times because structures did not play a big role. We must make sure that the structures and systems around us do not change us. It must be the other way around. We should be the ones who shape the game.  

What has inspired you the most in your career? What challenges have you found along the journey? 

As I always say: “I have accepted being a banker”. What has inspired me the most is to be able to participate in and witness different social developments, whether in education, social institutions, renewable energies, ecological agriculture or others. On the one hand, it was great to see developments in detail in each area. On the other hand, it was nice to zoom out and have a view of the whole system. The nice part about being a banker is seeing developments in each different sector. However, a banker is forced to look at society in general. In every period we had challenges. In the 80s where the protest and ecological movement became big, for instance. That changed financing completely because of the scale of the work we had to do. We started to finance new and big enterprises and initiatives in renewable energy, farming and so on. That was a challenge! And we had our own challenges too. In 2003 we decided to buy “Ökobank”,  for example. That was a big step.  

“The nice part about being a banker is seeing developments in each different sector.”

Internationally we had to figure out: How do we position ourselves? Even if we are mainly represented in Germany, we encouraged the founding of the GABV. And that meant, we needed to be clear about how we wanted to network and participate with socially and environmentally focused banks worldwide. 

Until then we had our own, protected community. But that changed quickly. Social and ecological solutions are part of a global movement now. The transformation towards a climate-safe world must be our priority. It’s the stress test of everything we have done so far. Now, we must know every step of our way towards a sustainable economy. The biggest challenge is, personally speaking, to learn to let go. 

What has been GLS Bank’s greatest success over these years? What was the main mistake/learning during this time? 

Always keep in mind that there is no such thing as one big success; it is the whole of what we have achieved together with GLS Bank that matters. Nothing happened only because of me. I think that the biggest success is that the bank works as it does today. I think I have succeeded by always developing along with the industry and changing social challenges without losing the bank’s main mission. There were always points when I reached my limits. For example, when we took over the “Ökobank” business, I didn’t really take the employees with me. I didn’t have their trust. I realized that I first had to pay more attention to the people around me. That was a huge learning.  

Also, I had the pleasure to work with people who had incredible power to visualise. They made the impossible possible. I remember especially Ibrahim Abouleish, from Sekem in Egypt, who created a vision in the desert. He created not only ecological agriculture but a whole sustainable economy universe in Egypt. Or I remember the Sladeks-family. They are known as the electricity rebels from the Black Forest who have turned an anti-nuclear movement into one of the largest alternative electricity suppliers in Germany – and there are many more. Meetings with people like that inspired me the most. In this case, I also need to mention Wilhelm Ernst Barkhoff, the founder of GLS Bank. 

Is there anything still pending in GLS, or do you feel you have accomplished most of your goals? 

The reply to this question is ambivalent. On the one hand, I will leave thinking that I’ve tried my best.  I’ve succeeded in a lot of things. On the other hand, I also have the feeling that things are just getting started. To my mind: Yes, I can now let go quite well, because a lot has been created. I think GLS Bank is also positioned in such a way that it can meet the coming challenges. Nevertheless, I would clearly like to be part of the future as well. I would be lying if I said anything different. But I also see other challenges for me personally in the next stage of life and I know that I will be effective somewhere else. 

What were your highest hopes for the values-based banking movement when you joined the GABV? And what is the reality? 

For me, from the very beginning, the focus was to meet and connect people and get in touch with colleagues who were working on the same goals under completely different conditions in completely different countries and regions, from Bangladesh, USA and Canada to South America and Australia. The GABV was, and is, the platform for people to meet and exchange ideas about mission-driven banking – especially for those who do not have the opportunity to get in touch with others in their own country. This is especially true for countries in Asia or South America, which do not have so many chances to exchange visions about sustainable financing.

So, in this respect, our movement provides an opportunity for an extraordinary exchange of experience and an incredible expansion of one’s own perspectives. This is true for me, but also, for many people who attended GABV events, conferences and programmes like the Leadership Academy, and much more. Another hope was to make clear that the members of GABV are not just acting alone in specific countries like Germany or the Netherlands. There is a worldwide values-based banking movement in the finance sector which is successful. I would say we succeeded in these aspirations. 

Thomas Jorberg, at GLS Bank

“Generally speaking, that is the whole purpose of the GABV; to be able to see how others do it and then translate it into your own situation.”

How did you define priorities on where to focus as a values-based bank when there are so many urgent societal needs?

I always take enough time to focus on the whole issue: economic issues, questions of content and perceptions. I need to put into context what I do, where I am and where the bank is right now. It is important to have continuity but also to react to the situation at the time and decide what needs to be prioritized. I have always done that during the whole development of GLS Bank. As a Board member, you don’t have to be involved in everything all the time. The organisation must run on its own. But you always must keep an eye on the whole picture to prioritize in every situation where strategy comes into play. 

What are the main challenges and opportunities for values-based banks?  

Every bank nowadays claims to be values-oriented. That is kind of good. But what are the challenges of a “real” values-oriented bank then? What challenges do GABV banks have today? If they want to remain leaders in the field of sustainability, they must develop. They must focus even more on their quality and standards. They must strengthen their values in order to remain at the top. That is a huge challenge, especially for a bank of the size of GLS Bank. Sometimes this means not doing some things and not following a trend. 

GLS is evolving banking. What would you recommend other GABV members focus on to follow in its footsteps?  

One thing I could suggest is to look at how others make a difference. You can check how GLS Bank is doing things. But then you must translate that into your own context. It is very flattering for us if we are copied, but that is not really a solution that would work in other cultures like Africa, Asia or North America. Generally speaking, that is the whole purpose of the GABV: to be able to see how others do it and then translate it into your own situation.

What advice would you give to a young mission-driven banker starting their career today, given the uncertainties and challenges in the current economic, political, and social landscape? 

Today we live in a complicated, uncertain and rapidly changing world. So, it’s even more important to find one’s own guiding principle within a company. This guideline or compass can take away the fear that you must find security within yourself. I would advise others to tut you’re their own work and you’re their own development always in context and see what is needed. Observe what society needs. Ask what does my work environment need? But never forget to ask yourself: What do I want for myself? More than ever, you must find this certainty within yourself. That applies to individual guidelines as well as to those of the company. 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of GLS or the Banking on Values movement? Why? 

If one has witnessed real development, one automatically becomes an optimist. I think we will go through a deeper crisis than we have now. But I think we can emerge more positively from it. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to transform towards an economy which protects the climate, nature and all species. There will be no way that only what is sustainable grows and everything else falls away. But the resilience of a GLS bank is clearly better than the resilience of all other conventional banks. 

What are your plans for the future? Will you remain involved with GLS or values-based banking? 

I have already accepted other tasks. I am also Chair of the Board of Directors of Weleda, a company with 2,500 thousand employees and a global presence, which is also in transition. I will have another challenge for the next few years. Additionally, I am a member of the supervisory Board of “Elektrizitätswerke Schönau” in the energy sector. There are still many tasks for me left. Apart from that, I’m also looking forward. I will certainly not stop thinking about social, economic and financial market issues and contribute to them. But right now, I haven’t planned how that will be. I’ll let it come to me.

Co-produced in collaboration with GLS Bank

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