Andrew Bester (ING): ‘Never Served on Such a Diverse Board Before’

Andrew Bester (ING): ‘Never Served on Such a Diverse Board Before’
What is it like to enter the Netherlands and the Dutch Boardroom as a ‘global citizen’? How do foreign Executives acclimatize, how does the onboarding help, and how do they experience the (figurative) climate in our country? Andrew Bester, head of ING Wholesale Banking, kicks off a series on being at your best in the Dutch Boardroom. ‘You always have to tune in to where you work, but my international career has helped me to get used to that.’

South African-born Andrew Bester (also holding a British passport) views the world from an international perspective. He loves different cultures and world cities. Two years ago, he landed in Amsterdam, at ING headquarters, where he is head of the global business branch ING Wholesale Bank.
Bester’s watch band is ‘ING orange’. He proudly holds up his wrist. Bester has grown to like that color. ‘During King’s Day, we had some friends over. We walked around all-day wearing orange hats. We had a great day in Amsterdam, with fantastic food, in a great atmosphere.’

You worked all over the world - from London to Hong Kong. Now you work in Amsterdam. Is that different?
‘I like big cities. We had wonderful years in Hong Kong and in Singapore, I had a great time in London. Amsterdam fits very well on that list. People say Amsterdam is a village, but I disagree. It is a very lively, diverse metropolis. It is one of the nicest and most beautiful cities in the world and I find it a privilege to explore the city. The fact that the scale is a bit smaller only has advantages. I live 12 minutes from work. On a bad day in London, I was sometimes two hours away.’

What made you decide to come to ING two years ago?
‘There were three main reasons. First, I already knew the bank well as because of my previous positions I spent much time with William ‘Bill’ Connelly, one of my predecessors at ING Wholesale Banking. We both worked for other organizations but ran into each other regularly. He told me positive stories about ING. That gave me a good feeling about the ING brand and made me associate the brand with innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy. And, of course, with sustainability. That was a second important reason for me to choose this bank. ING has an international image of being a pioneer in the field of sustainability and I have found this subject increasingly important throughout my career. I have dealt with it extensively in my previous positions. A third important reason was strategic. I thought it would be interesting to help build the brand in the period after the Brexit. Moreover, I wanted to do something with my international experience. In my previous position, I was mainly involved in the United Kingdom, although I worked in a number of countries through my career. ING operates in more than 40 countries, with all kinds of different cultures. That appealed to me. You can learn from other cultures. I flourish in it.’

You have been in the position for two years now. How do you like it?
‘Very well. It has been great fun. For me it is important that I keep developing myself and that went well over the past period. It is exciting to implement a strategy together with colleagues in different places in the world, with different cultures. In the past two years we have already done much. But there is still much more to do. Much done, much more to do.’

Why did ING choose you, do you think?
‘I discussed this at length with our CEO, Steven van Rijswijk. He was looking for a diverse management team that could look at issues from different perspectives. What he was looking for in me was international experience at large international investment banks. There, too, I attempt to contribute to the discussions. Steven and I immediately had a good click. I share his vision and I felt I could add something to ING.
The work environment is very stimulating. I have never been on such a diverse Board as I am here. The Board members come from different parts of the world, have different backgrounds and bring different experiences. Steven makes sure there is an open conversation on all important topics that everyone can contribute to from their perspective. We sometimes have tough discussions, but always with respect for each other’s opinions. That is hugely stimulating.’

ING is a big international player, but it operates from the Netherlands. And of course, the Netherlands does have its own culture. How did you experience that culture and the fact that the bank in the Netherlands is regularly under the social magnifying glass?
‘Of course, some things in the Netherlands are slightly different from those in other parts of the world. But in my international career I have become used to putting my feelers out and adapting. You have to tune in to where you work. There are always issues that are unique to certain countries. In the United Kingdom, I was at Lloyds Banking Group at a specific time. Lloyds was seen as a kind of national treasure that had fallen on hard times. When I started there, the bank was in dire trouble. It was a challenging time, where you had to be mindful of the role such a bank plays in British society. I think banks have a strong social responsibility anyway. ING too needs to take responsibility in its Dutch home market. But in all honesty, I am not involved with the Netherlands specifically. In my position, I am more concerned with international responsibilities.’

There is much debate in the Netherlands about the role of companies within society. Proceedings have been initiated against Shell over CO2 reduction, pension funds are under pressure to stop investing in certain sectors, there is always a fuss about bonus policy.... How do you experience such discussions?
‘Those discussions have of course been going on for several years and are not necessarily strictly Dutch. In fact, in my previous position at Lloyds, I was also involved with them. I also largely subscribe to the underlying, sustainable idea. I am driven by the desire to move in a more sustainable direction. If you are a big player, like ING, you can make a huge impact. You can problematize it and focus on the tensions, but I do not see the tensions as much as the opportunities. Companies that are not working on sustainability will price themselves out of the market. If you do not pursue a sustainable agenda, the company will come under pressure and become less attractive to investors, for example. I always stress this when I speak to people from other companies. Those who do not participate will soon no longer have access to certain resources.’

Is it possible for ING to say ‘no’ to potential customers for sustainability reasons?
‘The customers of ING Wholesale Banking are all weighed on the ESG criteria. We want to know from all our customers where they stand and what their ambitions are. That data has implications for the relationship we have with the customer. We of course are willing to help clients, to engage with them. But if the customer does not sufficiently match the ambitions that we deem necessary, it can ultimately mean that we end the customer relationship.
By the way, most customers are very ambitious. You only occasionally meet a treasurer or a CFO who only looks at the financial part of the story. I am happy to discuss this with them. I explain why we find it of high importance and give advice. Usually, these conversations are successful. Only occasionally they are not. It then is no disaster, as ultimately these are customers with whom we would rather not work in the long term, with whom we literally and figuratively do not want to enter a sustainable relationship.’

Do you have an example of such a conversation?
‘About six months after I joined ING, we had such a conversation with a large German multinational. We did not feel comfortable with the transition they were going through, felt they were not taking a robust enough approach, that it was not thought through. In the end, we dissolved that relationship. In this business, occasionally you must have the courage to say ‘no’ clearly. We do not take such a decision lightly, by the way; we do not make it overnight. With all our clients we do assessments, we work with checks and balances. If clients do not score well enough on something, we have a discussion. And of course, we also have discussions in our own Board. Financing a green future always involves complex dilemmas. Look at the energy transition. We are happy to support that, but at the same time we want people to be warm in winter. Or we want companies to keep access to energy. We have a social role to play there too.’

This is not always understood in public opinion. People are quick to think you are doing too little or that you are greenwashing. Do you feel you are doing enough with ING?
‘At ING, everyone takes the sustainability agenda very seriously. I do not notice any cynicism about it. There is nobody who thinks we are doing this just for the stage. It is authentic - the depth of the Board’s discussions about the dilemmas proves that. Sustainability really is at the heart of the bank. And I am proud of that. Colleagues at other large international banks also see what we are doing. They see us as leaders, as pioneers. We are also open to sharing our best practices with fellow banks, and of course we learn from them as well.
Banks have been trying to move society forward for centuries. That responsibility goes beyond a generation: we have a multi-generational responsibility. Of course, thinking about that responsibility is always evolving: 50 years ago, we thought differently about it than we do now, and in 50 years’ time it will undoubtedly be looked at differently again than in 2023. What matters is that you develop yourself, stay up to date and follow and finance the right developments. Banks play a crucial role in this. I enjoy contributing to that. With the Board we try to identify the real issues of the future and act accordingly. Sometimes we need to deal with issues  are not popular in public opinion, such as investing in fossil energy. We want a green future, but we must also make considered decisions.’

You mentioned the checks and balances you perform with your customers. Do you have an example of that?
‘Our track record on that is particularly good. We mapped the nine most polluting sectors a few years ago and came up with a pathway on how we would like to green those sectors, how to reduce carbon emissions. Think of the cement industry, for example, or the shipping sector. We engage with the sectors on this. We agree on detailed targets together and carefully measure whether we are keeping to the agreements. We report on this annually and transparently. The publications are available for everyone to read on our website. In this we are leading the way worldwide. No other bank in the world does this.’

Where does your passion for sustainability come from?
‘That has everything to do with the development I went through during my career. Earlier in my career, during the 2008 financial crisis, I experienced the financial meltdown quite closely and saw what the effects of an unsustainable, short-term strategy could be on the banking world. I saw what did not work. Now, fortunately, I can participate as a director to improve the banking world, to be part of the solution. That is why I go to work every day with a smile: we are making this sector one step better every day.’

You have been living and working in the Netherlands for two years now. How is your Dutch really?
(Laughs) ‘Ek verstaan ‘n bietjie. Ek verstaan wat jy sê. Afrikaans is my second language.’ (Continues in English). ‘So that is convenient. I never thought, when I left South Africa in 1992, that the language would be of assistance to me again.  I can read Dutch quite well and understand it fairly well. It depends a bit on the accent. Brabantish, Limburgish and especially Flemish are easier than the accents from the north and east. I should actually spend more time to learn to speak Dutch well. But yes, the Dutch are amazingly multilingual. People generally simply speak English to me.’

What place do you consider your home?
‘I am primarily a global citizen, a citizen of the world. I travel a lot, and currently stay mostly in my home in London and here in Amsterdam. Both of those feel like home. I feel comfortable here and I would quite like to integrate more here. At the same time, I still feel South African. I am proud of my South African heritage. I also still have a house on the coast in South Africa. That too feels like home. I am not so sure where I will spend my old age later, someday. That could be anywhere, but probably among people and not on a tropical island.’

Interview by Mark van Weegen, board advisor. He is interviewing in connection to A Meeting of Minds, a program for non-Dutch executives at Dutch companies. This article was published in Management Scope 06 2023.

This article was last changed on 27-06-2023