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World – Santander Brasil and the $8 Billion “Noble” Prize

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Two days before the news of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, a socially and environmentally responsible bank in Brazil received its own prize on the world stage. Santander Brasil garnered $8.05 billion of new capital in the world’s largest initial public offering of 2009 (and a record IPO in Brazil).

I’m calling this business deal the “noble prize” because this company has a noble purpose. It aspires to serve society. Eleven years ago, Santander Brasil’s core unit, Banco Real, created a business strategy focused on social and environmental responsibility — to be “a new bank for a new society.”

This responsibility strategy brought numerous benefits. Banco Real spurred innovation (e.g., new lending products for environmental upgrades to cars or buildings, micro-finance in poor communities, new ways of screening and working with large customers to help them meet higher environmental standards). There were numerous firsts, such as the first carbon credit trading in the region and the first World Bank loan fund in the hands of a private bank in Brazil. Employees were inspired and empowered to identify projects and products embodying the bank’s commitments, from recycling and getting rid of costly waste to “diversity day” in which everyone could come to work dressed to reflect their identity. Banco Real’s principles helped it to operate efficiently with high levels of service and prudent risk management. Banco Real earned customer loyalty and attracted new customers. In June 2008, Banco Real was named the Sustainable Bank of the Year by the Financial Times and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, edging out 129 institutions from 54 countries.

I first came to know the bank in 2004 after being invited to peak to its customer forum in Sao Paulo. I was taken with its strong sense of social purpose. Even then, before the global financial crisis, banks were not exactly considered paragons of virtue, and Banco Real was still proving itself on every dimension. I placed a bet on the importance of values and leadership when I included the bank in 2005 in the research that eventually culminated in my new book, SuperCorp.

I was also captivated by the bank’s leadership. CEO Fabio Barbosa, who heads Santander Brasil, grew Banco Real and now Santander from undistinguished middle-of-the-pack to one of the three largest private banks in Brazil, with generally the strongest profit growth and brand appeal. Friendly and approachable, he is a shrewd banker who denies any charitable impulse. He thinks that “doing the right things right,” as he puts it, will be rewarded in the marketplace.

Some secrets of Banco Real’s success can guide other enterprises, small as well as large, toward high performance cultures deriving from a noble purpose.

Values and principles on the top management agenda. Initially, Barbosa and his top team conducted weekly brainstorming sessions to define the strategy. They challenged themselves to think creatively about mission, management model and brand, with occasional external consultants to provoke them. They looked outward at the problems and evolution of their country and discussed their own values. Talk roamed over many topics, from the physical environment to problems of poverty to employment policies.
Self-scrutiny and rapid change to embody the values. A self-evaluation based on social responsibility parameters developed by the Ethos Institute helped the bank to identify environmental risks, such as is sponsorship of Formula-1 races, outdoor displays in environmental protection areas, and the state of the pond supplying water for the head-office. Leaders were open and responsive to criticism. They symbolized commitment to values by making rapid changes that became widely-told stories.
Spurring innovation by education about values and societal needs. Banco Real invested in abundant educational programs for large portions of the work force. The bank invited NGOs to lead sessions on topics that stretched thinking, such as climate change or the credit problems afflicting the poor. Managers were educated in how to operate with values, meet high standards, and encourage employee initiative. Employees were given access to numerous on-line courses. Fresh thinking was encouraged.
New ways of working with suppliers and customers. Big thing are more achievable when done through partnerships, especially for smaller enterprises. At Banco Real, managers developed new tools to assess environmental and social performance that could be used with customers and suppliers. Suppliers of all sizes, from IBM to bicycle messengers, were convened and engaged in conversation about meeting higher standards. New alliances formed as a result, such as a group of suppliers that brought new technology to schools serving disadvantaged children.
Banco Real proves an important point. While the debate still rages about shareholder value versus social responsibility, Banco Real shows that this is a false choice. The tough-minded international investors who flocked to the $8 billion IPO (and caused the bank to float more shares) are betting that the banking group can sustain strong financial performance. But to Fabio Barbosa, the most important element is sustaining and spreading the culture.

A sense of purpose is a powerful tool, one that matters for people, companies, and society. Businesses with a noble purpose can be SuperCorps winning the big prizes. That augurs well for the future of the world.


October 15, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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