We recently published an article explaining 'The Green Ribbon Of London', an initiative that we are extremely passionate about at EMFD. As part of that, we undertook a series of interviews with key figures that all share a common thread, they are all change makers and hold sustainability as a key driver in their work. Amongst those, we had the privilege of interviewing Lord Fink, who has kindly supported us and our project, for which we are grateful for. The full interview can be seen here, but below is the detailed transcription.
EM: Elizabeth Marsh
LF: Lord Fink
EM: Firstly, I'd like to welcome Lord Fink to our little series of interviews, and to say thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today - I really appreciate it. Lord Fink is fresh back from a trip and as he’s in quarantine we're doing the call over zoom.
We've got an interesting technological set-up here so if I end up looking at the wrong camera I apologise in advance. But just to introduce Lord Fink a little bit for those who may not be familiar with the name. When I first met you, you were CEO of Man Group plc which is the largest hedge fund company in the world, and you're an investor in several environmental businesses including the largest sustainable forestry business in Africa and a company that teaches people to trade in cryptocurrency.
You are also treasurer to the conservative party. I know I've picked three things almost at random from a very long list of your huge accomplishments, but perhaps you could just tell me a little bit more about your journey up to this point. I know we only have half an hour but it would be nice to get a little bit more insight into how you got here.
LF: Well, I think the true story is one of serendipity and good fortune. I went to university knowing I wanted to go into business. I had a science background and had thought about medicine but I was too squeamish. In those days biotech was not the industry it is today, and so I decided to go into business via a law degree having done science A levels. To keep options open, I also did accountancy and during that spell I visited many types of companies which led me to look at the companies that I enjoyed the most, which were really international companies.
I had a spell in both working for Mars and for Arthur Anderson and then I found myself working briefly at CityBank, where I discovered the Man Group. I helped finance the transaction at the Man Group which led me to meet most of their senior executives, and it was subsequent to that when I joined Man Group. That was really the beginning of my journey of serendipity.
EM: Amazing! And the thing that really struck me when I was working there doing the flowers, was the way in which you supported artists. And I know that, at the time, you were supporting a young musician. I think he had been chosen as ‘young pianist of the year’ and you sponsored his tour around the country to try and launch his career. And that really wasn't so much your bag, because your bag was more to do with carbon neutrality and actually getting Man Group carbon neutral at a time when no one else was really talking about it.
LF: Yes, I was fortunate enough just to be somebody who was reading. I kept my interest in science and I was quick to spot some of the early signs of global warming, mainly through an acquaintance with Prince Charles and reading about rainforests and the degradation of rainforests.
I quickly came to the conclusion, possibly too quickly in terms of investable trends, that if mankind kept growing in number and we kept burning up all the rainforests we could find, and extracting and burning all the oil, it was going to have really unpleasant consequences for our planet. And I'd sort of reached that conclusion, although frankly, it had been crystallized by Al Gore when he published 'An Inconvenient Truth', which summarised most of the ideas I'd seen based on basic science, but had been elevated into popular circles by his book and the support of a major American politician.
And I was very privileged in the Man as it sponsored, among other things, the business in the community award for the company who did the most to help reduce global warming. I was able to judge that prize and indeed present it at a business community award ceremony with Al Gore and Prince Charles co-presenting the prize, which was great. It was an incredible evening because I sat between the two of them. They both cared passionately about the planet, but truthfully, Prince Charles had cared about the rainforest and the planet probably well before Al Gore was aware of the science.
EM: It's just incredible isn't it that Prince Charles has the kind of foresight that many of us simply don’t have. For example, he has been championing the benefits of organic food over many years and in a way it reminds me of my Dad, who, as a GP back in the 70s told all his patients to stop eating corn flakes and eat proper cereals instead. He even made up his own cereal so that people could eat more healthily.
Everyone used to laugh at him and, of course, others like him who championed similar causes before they became popular. Now, we are beginning to realise that actually, people such as Prince Charles were being more far-sighted than many of us gave them credit for. Now, turning to the Covid crisis, whilst we all recognise the devastating effects that the virus has brought, I wonder whether you think that, ultimately, there will be some positive outcomes?
LF: Yes, I think there will be positive outcomes arising from Covid in that it will force people to think about working in different ways.
It's a horrible disease that has damaged many lives, the elderly and the sick among them, but also students who've had their education disrupted and employees and business people who've lost their jobs or had their businesses damaged. However, I think there are potentially some positives. For example, for many years businessmen have talked about reducing the number of business meetings and the travelling they undertake and using more video conferencing instead. Well now we have had to resort to devices like Zoom that we're talking on today, and there are many others launched by Microsoft and others that have taken off. I think the default position when dealing with people, going forward, will be greater use of video conferences whilst face-to-face meetings and travel may well be relegated to developing new business relationships.
I think there are other things, such as a move towards more electronic banking which people were a bit wary of. Online shopping has already been driven quite hard, so I don't believe that there'll be any dramatic changes in behaviour and creating things that weren't there, but I think a huge number of trends will be amplified, many of them positive, but some of them not so good.
Where certain industries such as the cruise industry is concerned, unless we can build incredible safety mechanisms into it, I think people are going to be very reluctant to take a long cruise in the future given the way the virus seems to move around ships. I also think the care home industry will have to really work on their hygiene and protection practices, otherwise people will be much more reluctant to put their loved ones into a care home.
I also think there's a large number of things which have been done, but curiously, they've excited less journalistic interest than one would have thought. Journalists just seem to focus on recording events as they actually happen, and critiquing the government etc. As a businessman, I'm fascinated by the future trends that will come from this.
EM: Yes, it's funny talking about certain aspects of safety in different environments, and as you can see by the mini jungle behind me, we've been approached by companies that want to create a safe environment for their staff to come back to work in. But I also think that they want to avoid an overly sterile environment which, when it comes to mental resilience, can be quite challenging.
In some of our venues we've created troughs with planters that they've used to partition different areas when devising a one-way system for example, and it just creates a nicer, softer kind of social distancing rather than the sort we’re used to of late. Just driving in today and noticing people walking on the street with masks on, I felt as though we had entered a new kind of alien era resembling the beginning of a horror film. I found it all very dehumanising and it’s only in the last couple of days that I suddenly realised how huge it will be for all of us going back into the workplace.
I do think that we need to embrace nature, not only from the point of view of sustainability, but also in terms of creating an environment where we can relax a little bit whilst maintaining the rules and keeping a certain distance from each other. But as we all know, we're wired to do the opposite. I do agree with you, however, that there are going to be some very different trends and it'll be interesting to see which ones hold out and which ones we drift back to.
I would like to ask a question about the government's aim to reduce carbon emissions. If the aim is to reduce emissions to net zero, and considering that there are going to be difficult times ahead, would you say that the government is really committed to its aim?
LF: I believe that the government is convinced by the science surrounding this issue, and that the first countries that find a way of developing the technologies to reach zero carbon emissions will probably create the industries of the future.
And it does make sense when you imagine all the money that's locked up today in the hydrocarbon industry, the oil industry, the gas industry and making electricity from fossil fuels, and when you think of the billions of pounds needed to be deployed into solar wind on the renewables plus the improvement in insulation. I'm invested in a house builder who builds homes that are so airtight you have to pump air in.
If you bring in air in a controlled way in a very well-sealed building, you can capture about 80-90 percent of the air, which means you can keep a house warm with much less energy and/or keep a house cool with much less energy. And I believe that the first companies that embrace that science and capture it, will have the jobs and the exports of tomorrow. So I'm a believer in it because I think it's right for our children.
We cannot leave them a planet that's on an accelerating pathway to destruction, but it's also a sensible economic strategy to go ahead and dare to be first. So I very much believe that the government is passionate about it and I personally think it's the right thing for the government to do.
EM: I mean the thing that strikes me, is that investment in green energy has been sort of proven over time, and that investment in infrastructure is a great way to kick-start a sluggish economy and that we're really going to need that in the next few years.
So it seems to me a no-brainer from an economical point of view, like why would they not do that because they'll be creating jobs, and they'll be creating opportunities for people who are just about seeing doors closing in their faces.
So if people are able to adapt, that would create those opportunities. I was intrigued to see about your afforestation programme in Africa and the support you've given it, and I just wondered if there was a specific reason for that or where that came from, and how did you get involved with that?
LF: It's a very interesting one. I had visited parts of Africa and I'd looked at the way rainforest begins to degrade. In fact, it started off bizarrely when I knew that as I would be sitting next to Prince Charles who knew a lot about rainforests, I'd have to do some sort of numerical equivalent to work out how it made sense to fix the problem.
At the time, I researched that each hectare of rainforest land when turned into commercial land was worth about 500 dollars, much less than in the west, because it's poorer quality land and in the wrong place. Yet even at the then prevailing carbon prices, if you ignored everything else that is good about the rainforest, the carbon value of the trees on the land was worth over fifty thousand dollars.
So people who were burning down rainforests were actually burning down an asset worth fifty thousand dollars in order to create an asset worth about five hundred dollars. So there's a hundred to one negative payback, but of course there was no value allocated to the living rainforest and so nobody had the economic concept to preserve it. And one of the things I pushed for and tried to do, was to put in a mechanism that makes the rainforest worth more alive than dead.
But the problem begins once you clear a level of rainforest, either because you want to create farmland or to put a mine in or build a road, the tree canopy is then broken, the weather dries up and the rainforest just begins to die back. So it's just a never-ending problem, and of course animal species and other things that live in the rainforest die back with them.
Now a lot of people live in the rainforest or around the rainforest and of course they need incomes. So what the company I'm investing with new forest capital seeks to do, is to plant fast-growing pine and eucalyptus trees next to the rainforest which grow so fast in rainforest conditions that in five or six years time it will protect the tree canopy enough to allow the rainforest to actually regenerate.
We also gave, as a company, ten percent of our rainforest to the people who live in the rainforest so they could have a share of the first ‘thinnings’ for free firewood, and a share of the second thinnings to make telegraph poles and then a share of the furniture when we cut down probably 30-40 of the mature trees.
But the idea is to help both the community and protect the rainforest around it. More than that, there is a return on the wood because the wood grows so fast you actually end up with an economic return as well, so it's a real win-win-win for the community, for the planet and for the investors.
EM: It's funny because win-win-win is a sort of theme that's been running through all of these interviews so far, and it seems to me that if there's a change of attitude needed in society it is that, it's let's move away from the win/lose mentality to the win-win-win mentality. Which brings me neatly back to one of the reasons I was impressed with Man Group Plc - not only were you one of the first to embrace sustainability, but also philanthropy and a different approach to your staff when dealing with your team.
I really had a sense of how they felt cared for, and felt part of a community, not just someone who was turning up to do their job which was quite unusual at that time, and I think it's becoming more prevalent now. It seems to me that the way forward is that companies can no longer see their staff as being kind of part of the baggage, but that actually, they're part of their asset structure. They're part of their community and feel a sense of community with buy-in. How do you feel about that? Do you feel that we're moving in the right direction and do you think more needs to be done?
LF: I think generally we’re moving in the right direction. If I look at the passage of the last 40 years when graduates like me were just looking to get a job and a living, and some of the top graduates today have quite a lot of choice, and they also have a lot of information. And when they looked at the Man website we found that they spent as much time looking at the sustainability part of the website in the philanthropic part, than they did about directors' pay etc. And so it was clear that both our potential future staff and actual staff really valued it.
So we did encourage a lot of mutual schemes with staff: we would do staff matching of philanthropic donations; we'd give staff time off to volunteer and we’d match them in their volunteering time. Then we would run a couple of macro programs with thematics such as the Man Booker Prize, because we thought literature was one of the real assets of the English language. We also believed in supporting maths.
Funnily enough, there was a concept of maths with music, and the piano Man series you talked about I think came from that thematic, that there's something about music because of the various Fibonacci ratios it uses, people who are very good at music tend to also be good at maths and vice versa.
So we looked at supporting things in that area, and we also tried to create a pleasant work environment using plants, which was where we met. And truthfully, I think while the plants contributed towards a nice environment, some of the research I've seen about people who plant flower walls next to roads have discovered that plants do take an enormous number of toxins out of the environment, and so people who live next to a lot of plants, all things being equal, are healthier than people living in a totally you know artificial world.
EM: There's actually a scientist in Barcelona who has measured lifespan in terms of distance measured in metres from vegetation. So literally, you count the number of metres from vegetation in your living and working environment, and you can kind of add them on to your lifespan at the end, which is I think quite funny.
I think it's a really intriguing concept and it's true that plants have been proven to increase creative productivity - certainly they reduce workplace stress by up to thirty percent, and the air purification factor is up to 85 percent, which I'm absolutely astounded by.
I hadn't realised it was so much even as a florist, so I do think they're really crucial. And so I'm talking to various sorts of people in this sector, and I came up with this idea which was to create a ribbon of vegetation across London so that animals could cross London without having to cross a main road.
I took the idea originally from the corridors of vegetation that the conservationists used in India when they were trying to protect the tigers, and they wanted to link up the national parks. And I thought, well you know, our wildlife here is becoming increasingly endangered and actually, we need to start thinking about our own wildlife in those terms.
I also really like the idea of a brush stroke of a ribbon of vegetation across London which is deemed to be such an urban place, and the sort of the place where nature doesn't belong and actually say - ‘well, maybe we need to change that; we need to change our vision of London and of all cities instead of being this bastion of urbanism’, maybe it flows more with its surroundings and actually nature doesn't stop at the beginning of the city and start again at the other side, but actually just flows through it.
It's something that I really hope I can bring to some kind of reality even if we just do it as an exhibition. I was talking to the events manager at the Saatchi gallery and we talked about maybe we could put one on for children to come in and help to create this ribbon of vegetation, and we could have sculptures of the animals that you place in amongst them and we could have this throughout different art galleries within London.
But I just think that for me, it's important that at this moment in time we still have a choice, and I think if we don't make that choice and make it in quite an affirmative way then we might not have that choice for much longer. I think that nature is incredibly resilient and clearly some of the endeavours that you've achieved have demonstrated that, but at the same time if we don't do anything then nothing will happen.
And as we said earlier, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. So I don't want to put you on the spot but at the same time, is your vision for the future an optimistic one, or a pessimistic one? Do you think we've had it or do you think we're going to get through this?
LF: No, I'm by nature an optimist, and when people see problems I normally try and look at opportunities, so I think we are going to see cities change. I think we will see a reduction in office space as people do more working from home. I do hope that we use some of the technology that I've seen in other places where walls can be ecological walls that have planting done through the wall, and you can literally, particularly in warmer countries, have walls of plants and flowers that make life more beautiful and seem to suck some of the pollutants out of the air.
I think that the next round of the climate summit to be held in Glasgow, delayed till next year, will produce some binding cuts because by then we'll have a change in the US presidency which may result in somebody who cares more about the environment.
And I believe that people in China and India who've historically needed to have a bit longer because of the state of their economy, they're beginning to suffer impossible temperatures which is damaging lives and lifespans in their countries, so they have a vested interest in joining us.
And I think that we'll be pushing less of an open door, and I also believe that some of the viruses we are seeing, and Covid is the latest one but there's been a stream of them coming out of the East mainly, they are a sign that we're doing things in certain areas of the world which are sort of against nature.
I won't pick on specific countries and specific farming practices, but to say that I've seen conditions which if you were to design conditions which would be like natural germ weapon labs, the farming conditions would not be far from that. And I think those practices will just have to stop. I am an optimist and I believe that this virus has been a wake-up call to people.
If you had told me about a virus that could kill less than half a percent of the population, and would mainly kill the old and people with disability and would actually grind economies to a halt, most people up front would have said: ‘you're mad - you'll just take the pain and take the hit’, but truthfully as a society we care too much about our role towards the sick to do that, and I think that shows our humanity and I believe that humanity will be changed and new policies emerging going forward.
EM: Amazing, Lord Fink - believe it or not we've been talking for half an hour. I so appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me. It has been a real pleasure - thank you so much.LF: Thank you - lovely to speak to you guys.