Interview with Idar Kreutzer, Managing Director of Finance Norway

Christian Jepsen-Norwegian Refugee Council-11In Norway Idar Kreutzer is a very well-known name and perhaps he enjoys more respect than anybody else in the Norwegian business world. He is for many the man most people would like to work for and to have as their boss. Not only is he known for being a brilliant economist from the prestigious Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), but he was the CEO of Norway’s biggest insurance company for twelve years. He is also a humanist who thinks about the well-being of his staff, and always tries to foresee the consequences of his decisions on the daily life of people. Today, he is the managing director of Finance Norway, the organization uniting all of the Norwegian financial institutions, and in addition he holds elected positions in several of Norway’s biggest companies –‒ the Post, Hydro, Statoil, Orkla. He is also the chairman of the board of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and sits on the board of the University of Oslo. We had the opportunity to meet him in Oslo after he had returned from a field trip to South Sudan, together with Jan Egeland, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Q: You are one of Norway’s most influential businessmen. Could you tell us what you are doing in Finance Norway?
Finance Norway is an industry organization representing all the Norwegian banks and insurance companies ‒‒ in all 220 businesses employing about 50,000 people and have 5,300 billion Norwegian kroner in total assets. A large part of the Norwegian financial system is represented here.
We are working in three major areas. One is the role of the financial sector in society and the confidence it enjoys. You could say that it maintains a dialogue between industry and Norwegian society. The second issue concerns the rules and the regulatory frameworks for the industry nationally and on a European level. The third is what we would call value-added cooperation, such as ensuring for instance the payment services in Norway. We therefore have a significant responsibility to guarantee that it is functioning well.
Q: How would you describe people’s confidence today in banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis?
There is no doubt that the financial crisis has contributed to a loss of confidence in the financial sector in general, and this is a challenge with which we work very hard. What we do see is that there are large differences between some of the most well known international scandals and what we experience in the everyday life of the financial sector in Norway. In Norway the banks came through the financial crisis without major losses. There were no significant negative consequences for banks or their customers. In addition, we see that, on the one hand, confidence in the industry has gone down, but credibility in the individual bank or insurance company, where the individual customer may have a personal relationship, has been increasing during the same period. We have emphasized that the relationship between the customer and the company should be satisfactory, with the result that we have one of the highest client satisfaction rates in Europe. This is the way it should be.
Q: You said that the Norwegian banks have not suffered directly from the financial crisis, but have there been consequences nevertheless?
Yes, and to give one example it is in the development of rules and regulations. Those that apply to Norwegian banks are currently being established primarily in Brussels and are being drawn up as a result of European experience during the financial crisis. The new regulation has important consequences for the Norwegian financial services sector. We support the initiatives to strengthen the capital ratio of the banking sector, but are focusing on securing a level playing field. We are skeptical to some of the proposed structural reforms, like splitting the banking business models. Market making is an integral part of core banking activities in countries like Norway. These are areas where there are comprehensive discussions and we participate actively in these discussions.
Q: Given your very demanding duties, and your positions in many important companies, how do you manage your time?
My grandmother always said: “If you want something done, go to see a busy person.” What I think she meant was that those who have much to do probably will be forced to be more disciplined and better organized. I try to use my time well and set clear priorities. In addition, I work with a lot of excellent people, who continue to make my professional life easy.
Q: You have much responsibility for people’s welfare. How do you deal with that when you know that the decisions you are taking can have a major impact on people’s lives?
I think it starts with being very aware of the role you play, and understand the consequences of important decisions.  You have to spend the time it takes to understand the problem, and analyze possible solutions. Then, if your responsibility is to make decisions, you have to make up your mind and decide. It is also important to try to understand the context, and put things in their right perspective.
I am well aware of the fact that my decisions may have negative consequences, and that people may be affected. To me it is very important that I know that I have done everything I can do to understand the relevant facts, and that the decision we make is the best we can do given the situation and the available information.
Q: You have just returned from a field trip to South Sudan with the Norwegian Refugee Council. Why did you accept to go there?
It is all part of the topics that we’ve just talked about. As the chairman of the board for the NRC, I, along with the other members of the board, have a considerable responsibility for the working conditions for the 4,000 NRC employees working in twenty-five countries. I am concerned about these colleagues and it is important that they should know that we who sit on the board are familiar with their working conditions, what challenges they face and under what conditions they need to carry out their job in the field. This is the primary objective when we or other members of the board go on field trips. The second objective is to develop our understanding of one specific situation ‒‒ a conflict or a problem. In South Sudan it is a very complex situation which is developing rapidly. It is important for us to set the right priorities, make the right choices and to do that, we need to understand the conflict as best as possible.
Q: What has this trip given to you on a personal level?
On a rational level, I have gained a much better understanding about what is happening. I was very impressed with the work that our colleagues are doing in the field and they deserve our respect. I think that they manage to achieve fantastic results under very difficult working conditions.
We had the possibility of meeting with all the partners in the conflict covering all the different sides. We met refugees, members of the government, UN organizations, other agencies and NGOs. It has been confirmed that it is a difficult situation and we are going to increase our efforts there. It’s a race against time because the rainy season arrives soon and then everything becomes very much harder, including transport and infrastructure.
On a personal level, I see our fortunate situation in Norway in a very clear perspective. I also admire the hope and determination I experience in the people we meet, who have fled from their homes, and live under very difficult conditions. I am also grateful for being able to help, for everything I learn, and for the excellent people I have the opportunity to work with.
Q: Have you been on other trips?
Two years ago I went to Goma, in DRC, and visited our staff in the Kivu region. It is perhaps the most unstable region in Congo, and this is linked to the fact that the region is bordering Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. We know that many of the major trafficking roads of Congo’s valuable raw materials go through this region. The values that we are talking about here are so significant that fighting for control of these routes is motivating a large number of rebel groups. There are currently more than forty different rebel groups all funded primarily through trade with these raw materials. For the population this creates a completely impossible situation causing millions to flee. It is very sad because Congo is a very rich and fertile country. If there had been peace, stability and security in the country, if the people could cultivate the land, utilize the resources and share the revenue in a reasonable manner it would be a prosperous and wealthy country.
Instead what we see is war and conflict, where people cannot go out and work in the fields for fear of being killed, kidnapped or forced to become soldiers. The civilians do not get any benefit from the great resources that are being taken out of the Congo.
We have 270 employees in this region in the Congo and they do a fantastic job. I am very impressed with what they achieve under such difficult working conditions.
Q: Was there any personal interest or motivation that made you accept to be Chairman of the Board of the Norwegian Refugee Council?
Yes, there was indeed. The NRC is, in my opinion, one of the most international and professional organizations in Norway. Its activities are organized out of Norway, where the headquarters is based, but the NRC have 4,000 employees who are working specifically to help people in the field. It is a great organization which has grown considerably in recent years.
My key motivation was to be able to use my experience from business in a non-profit organization. I have been very fortunate, and this is an opportunity to give something back. The NRC helps millions of the most vulnerable people in the world, and to me personally it is very meaningful and a privilege to be a part of the team.
Q: One has the impression that NRC is not a very well known organization in Norway.
Yes, it is fair to say that NRC is better known internationally than in Norway. The reason is perhaps that we do not work in Norway, but are active in 25 of the most conflict torn countries on the planet. When I was in South Sudan recently, other NGOs characterized the NRC as a humanitarian power-house.
Another reason we do not have such a high profile in Norway is that we are not a membership-based organization, such as the Red Cross for instance, where the membership gives people a kind of ownership of the organization. The funding for the NRC comes from international donors and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry’s contribution represents around 30% of total revenues.
The remaining funds come from a large number of international donors, of which ECHO is among the most important. We see that the donors have clear humanitarian goals and objectives. We have the expertise and are carrying out the job on the ground.
When it comes to our profile in Norway, our secretary general, Mr Jan Egeland, has a clear ambition to increase the understanding of the important work NRC does, and he is doing a very good job.
Q: Norway has a long tradition in refugee work, mainly thanks to Nansen and his efforts. Do you think this has contributed to a strong commitment for refugees in Norway?
I think that the Norwegian tradition does play an important role. If you look at the background of the NRC, it was established as early as in 1946. Different Norwegian humanitarian organizations joined forces and transferred their expertise into a special unit that would help European refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) after the Second World War. We worked in Europe in the first years and built up a competence and expertise which was later applied in other crises and disasters elsewhere.
Today there are 45 million refugees and IDPs in the. There is no doubt that helping refugees and IDPs near to their original homes has many positive effects. It is the most effective way to provide assistance, and it provides the best circumstances for repatriation and their return when this is possible.
We have a large number of humanitarian organizations in Norway, and the general public supports their work through donations and voluntary work. This links back to the tradition of Nansen.