As the new president of the IE Alumni Association, Fernando Barnuevo (IMBA1985) hopes members will be proud of having belonged to IE and that they will continue as part of the institution as alumni, with a permanent vocation for learning and enterprise. From his position as managing director of the merchant bank Kleinwort Benson, he insists on an approach that is always customer-focused, where success is invariably defined accordingly.
What are the main reasons that led you to accept the presidency of the IE Alumni Association?
As you grow, you realise that you receive much more in life when you give. You receive the satisfaction of a job well done, respectful affection and, above all, the pride of putting others first. You put that vocation for service into practice in a very special way when you are at the fore of an association in which the main aim is basically to help others. For me, as a member of the banking world in which everything has a financial consideration, it is a motive of honour and happiness to be able to do something for others without expecting anything in exchange.
In the mid-term, what are the main challenges you wish to deal with?
The Association has to make sure its members are proud of having belonged to IE as students and of forming part of the institution as alumni. Ultimately, success will be measured by the capacity for creating a “pride of belonging” that nourishes a professional support network in which we all feel we are owners of IE’s success. Undoubtedly, that success or failure is everyone’s responsibility.
In an environment as competitive as the financial world, are more lessons learned from success or from failure?
The capacity for failing without falling into despair or succeeding without arrogance is an absolute triumph. The great lesson lies in that balance. One learns from the humility of undergoing both situations without forgetting who you really are. Personally, I have made many mistakes and I still have a lot to learn.
What do you see as your greatest professional success… and your greatest disappointment?
I always have believed that I am responsible for failure and that the team is responsible for success. My teams always found it difficult to understand that, as group leader, I was there to help them rather than for them to help me. And my success as a department manager was when I was no longer necessary because the group had learned to work truly as a group, and the leader was no longer necessary.
However, to answer your question, as a Spaniard working in the United States, I found it very satisfying to become President of Leadership Morgan Chase, which was the cultural “integration” vehicle of JPM and Chase after the merger. It was a difficult moment for the bank, with in-house tension and surrounded by an economic crisis. From my position, I was able to help generate a spirit of consensus between very different groups and cultures. As far as disappointment is concerned, I have missed being able to maintain that infective spirit of passion one finds in many small enterprises, focused on the customer, which defines success accordingly.
My greatest triumph and the one that gives me greatest pride has been to have a family with five children who love each other, support each other and define their happiness by the sadness of the one who is having the worst time of things.
Throughout your professional career, what or who have your main references been?
I think references have to be values, not people; values such as humility, teamwork, respect, the capacity for listening, communication and even fear. One has to be afraid of failure, but not of getting back up and starting again. I am an American and Spanish citizen. The former conditions the way I think; the latter conditions the way I feel.
As a banker, what qualities do you think should be required of the people around you?
You must always put your customer’s needs first, as well as those of your managers and shareholders… The problems in the banking world have arisen because, as managers, we put ourselves first and our customers last. In order of priority, in the banking business, the customer’s success must be the target, then the shareholder and then the manager. This creates a virtuous circle that generates shareholder value in the long-term. I mustn’t do anything that does not benefit my customer, which will undoubtedly benefit the shareholder and, therefore, it will be good for me as the manager. Of course, there will be errors of judgement, but never errors of principle. A banker is the custodian of others’ dreams and financial requirements. His greatest asset is his reputation. Prudence, patience, discipline and humility are important values in banking.
From your position as managing director of the English merchant bank Kleinwort Benson, how do you see the current situation of the Spanish financial sector?
The cases of malpractice that have been revealed are exceptions that confirm a rule: Spain has a banking sector that is very professional, very competitive and a world reference. I am particularly intrigued by the “social capitalism” model that inspired the creation of savings banks 200 years ago. In the new banking reform, we have the chance to correct errors that were committed without sacrificing that spirit, but improving the structure and performance. The responsible capitalism model, committed to charity work, close to customers, without political interference and well-implemented, generates important social and economic value. I believe in a financial model that stimulates responsible wealth in the long-term rather than speculation. You can describe it as “the head of a bank with the heart of a savings bank”.
That only works if the execution is disciplined and exemplary.
What is a financier doing as an artist?
They are two complementary facets. An artist’s qualities include creativity, doing what one likes, passion, not being afraid of being different and the search for aesthetic beauty. A good banker must be focused completely on his customers, which is his art, without fear of creativity (because the search for different solutions for complex problems is on-going) and aware that the most important thing is not the money he makes, but rather the reputation he leaves behind as a legacy after doing things well. I have always thought that art and banking can be joined together seamlessly because a good banker has many facets of an artist and a good artist has much to teach a banker.
On your artistic side, what do you find most provocative and what most satisfying?
Approaching means of expression that are completely unknown to me. For example, I have just bought a trombone and I have also bought a large block of marble from Murcia to try and make a sculpture. Interestingly, the sculptor, painter or musician cannot make any mistakes in the execution in the same way that a banker cannot make a mistake in a financial transaction. Everything that implies different expression is a challenge and always fascinates me. For example, I started to play the shakuhachi (the Japanese meditation flute), an instrument that is profoundly complex but, at the same time, very simple. I haven’t been able to do it! With regard to the most satisfying, I have discovered that happiness is the antechamber to doing things. In life, the enthusiasm about doing something is worth as much as actually doing it. That is something my children teach me every day.
What do you draw inspiration from?
What most inspires me is observing others. Especially when one observes those who suffer, you realise how privileged you are and that, in the end, your happiness can be less important than that of others. So, it is when you put yourself in your customer’s shoes that you work best for him. If you really feel that situation inside, you will be more capable of creating a financial solution that helps him overcome the problem or optimise a business opportunity.
Africa taught me a lot. My wife and I took our children to Ethiopia for five months so that they could really see how lucky they were. And we all learned a great deal from the missionaries and NGOs that were there because they knew that success is defined by the success of others. While we were there, we learned to distinguish between what you really need and what you simply want. It is good not to confuse need with want.
But, on a practical level, how did you manage to “take the plunge” and go off to Ethiopia for five months with your wife and five children to set up a school for leprosy victims with your own money?
The most important thing was not to give our money, but rather our time. I was also aware that, at the time, I was failing as a father. By giving my children all the facilities and conveniences in life, I was depriving them of the strength obtained from suffering and sacrifice, which are key to dealing with unexpected adversity. We lived very well in New York, but when you can’t experience “need”, because you have everything, you have every chance of having a serious problem when you encounter the first difficulties of life. In fact, what one needs is very little: love, friends and health. When life challenges you with material difficulties you have to remember that money cannot buy any of those three things. Consumerism is not bad, since it creates economic vitality and wealth, but you must be aware that it can limit your happiness and enslave you to abundance. I have learned from my own excesses.
And you still have time to play the flute, clarinet and the shakuhachi… Honestly, how do you do it?
It’s very important to know how to organise your time and differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. And there is always time; it is a matter of priority. Now, I have a lot of work since we have just bought Kleinwort Benson and we are in an active phase of making large investments in the Spanish financial sector.
How can university education benefit from the world of art and greater knowledge of humanities?
The banking business can be summarised by risk management: a risk that is managed to provide customers with financial solutions. And that is why they pay me, to understand your financial needs and provide a solution with an element of risk (which is always there) in which you invariably feel comfortable. The problem is that measuring the risk is always very different for everybody. And as banks have moved away from their customers a great deal, we have taken risk decisions that have ultimately been very damaging. Indeed, I don’t think there has been any malice, but rather, as I mentioned earlier, the system has failed to put the customer first.
In art, when you stand before a blank canvas, a stone that needs to be sculpted or a piano that has to be played, the first reaction is fear. In other words, how do I deal with this risk? Winston Churchill, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who was a good painter, said that he had two options: dealing with the war map, which terrifies me, or with the blank canvas, which also terrifies me, but I know that, with the canvas, I can get things wrong and start again. And that capacity for dealing with the risk of art and managing failure yourself is fantastic training for the financial world.
Artistic creation lets you deal with the risk of failure without hurting anyone or anything but your own pride. And that generates a lot of personal discipline and humility.
What is most important for you, happiness or freedom?
For me, happiness is the free expression of your maximum effort, regardless of the result. I think it is important to know that the essential part of life is the journey towards one’s interior, where nobody controls you and where you are free to be yourself. And, on that journey, you can discover an endless array of incredible things. It is a happy journey in the freedom of being yourself.
What is your greatest professional and personal dream?
To create a financial institution whose success is defined by the success of its customers, that generates wealth for shareholders in the long-term; and that is managed on the basis of demanding criteria for human, professional and social excellence. And for the IE Alumni Association to be a reference for the IE Community… a meeting point for all, where ideas are generated for new businesses and business opportunities with strong professional and educational support, and the pride of membership. In short, for us to be an educational and business reference for Spain. On the personal level, I would like my children to be themselves, with no restrictions, no fear and with the support of two parents who are constantly learning from them.
This interview was first published on ideas.ie.edu, the IE Alumni Association News.