Five Years Later: Has There Been Sustainable Change in the Financial Services Sector?

The past five years have been transformational times for financial services companies on both core business and corporate responsibility levels. Government, stakeholders, and civil society have intensely focused on creating a more responsible financial services industry. Within this context, how much has changed inside the industry? Do these companies interact differently with their clients on sustainability issues? This one-hour session will look at the impacts of the financial crisis on the financial services industry, and how it has affected the ways financial institutions manage their businesses, invest clients’ money, and work with clients on sustainability leadership.


  • Sheelah Kolhatkar, Features Editor and National Correspondent, Bloomberg Businessweek
  • David Wheldon, Managing Director, Brand, Reputation, Citizenship and Marketing, Barclays Bank PLC
  • Andrew Plepler, Global Corporate Social Responsibility and Consumer Policy Executive, Bank of America Corporation
  • John Hodges, Director, Financial Services, BSR (Moderator)


  • Financial services companies have taken the financial crisis as an opportunity to integrate CSR into their business practices. First and foremost, this has meant refocusing on core values and regaining a sense of purpose for the industry.

  • To ensure that the press and the public regain trust in the financial services sector, companies should continue to increase levels of transparency by maintaining an open dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders.

  • To enable products and investments that benefit society other than generating profits, the financial services sector will need to increasingly become more inclusive, multicultural, and diverse. The sector will also have to increase efforts at explaining what banks do and how credible financial institutions are crucial to development and growth.

Memorable Quotes

“One of the few silver linings of the financial crisis—if there is such a thing—is that corporate responsibility is now much more integrated into the business model.” —Andrew D. Plepler, Bank of America Corporation

“ ‘With this hand, we take a whole lot from society, and with that hand, we give back to you’ is an equation that does not work anymore, and does not work at all.” —David Wheldon, Barclays Bank PLC

“You have to convince everyone at every level of large financial institutions to sign on to a whole new set of values.” —Sheelah Kolhatkar, Bloomberg Businessweek


John Hodges from BSR opened the discussion by expressing his fascination about the fact that the financial services industry has undergone radical transformation in the past years. The industry—which encompasses not only banks, but also insurance companies, investment funds, and financial information companies—has gone through both a financial crisis and a corporate responsibility crisis at the same time. Since ethics and trust are the two fundamental ingredients to corporate social responsibility that were called into question during the crisis, Hodges highlighted the tremendous challenge that financial services companies are experiencing in regaining the public’s trust, and asked panelists about the related opportunities that exist to “get things right” in the industry.

Andrew Plepler led the panel by saying that one of the few silver linings of the financial crisis has been the transformative role that it has played in reforming CSR’s role within financial services institutions. He elaborated by saying that having a full CSR department with a well-developed strategy has become nonnegotiable in executives’ quest to get business practices right. The industry’s introspection during the past five years has led to issues such as community development getting to the business leaders’ table in the same way as fees, lending, and investing normally do. This integration is demonstrating that financial services businesses want to be increasingly led by a definitive set of good principles and values. Plepler added that perseverance and top-management leadership are key ingredients in ensuring that integrated corporate responsibility becomes the industry’s operating model.

Plepler then took the opportunity to ask Kolhatkar about the press, and whether she believes that media is accurately portraying the transformation happening in the financial services industry. Kolhatkar responded that while there is indeed a real lack of trust and some degree of cynicism, there is also an opportunity for companies to create more dialogue with the press and the public. Kolhatkar then extended an open invitation to the financial services industry to be more transparent, and lower the barriers for reporters and other stakeholders to access information about the industry.

Elaborating on the industry’s current low levels of credibility, Plepler reminded everyone that getting credit for the current transformation will take a long time regardless of how the press portrays it. Plepler also explained how fascinated he is by the fact that job creation and solving the world’s poverty problems cannot be done without functioning financial institutions, yet the public does not fundamentally understand what banks do and the role they play in enabling the global economy.

Wheldon responded to Plepler’s puzzle by stating his belief that this misunderstanding is not only due to past low transparency levels in the industry, but also to the industry’s historical failure to clearly articulate its values and purpose. To illustrate this, Wheldon ran the audience through the process by which Barclays narrowed down the company’s culture to five fundamental values: respect, integrity, service, excellence, and stewardship. After a change of leadership in 2012, Barclays brought together more than 125 of its senior leaders under one roof to redefine the bank’s core purpose, and took this change as an opportunity to realign with society. He then described how all Barclays employees are being trained on the notions of values and purpose, and how these concepts are increasingly integrated into the company’s employee incentive policies.

Wheldon then shared his optimistic belief that the company’s Millennial employees are indeed more interested in values than earning money. An audience member asked how values are being integrated into the company’s policies and practices, and Wheldon explained Barclays’ compensation model, which is based not only on the delivery of business objectives, but most importantly on the extent to which employees cooperate, respect, and motivate each other to act in the greater interest of society.

Hodges asked panelists about the topics of transparency and inclusiveness, both in terms of maintaining a dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders, and in terms of making the financial services industry a more diverse workplace. Plepler explained how transparency is now being incentivized within the financial markets themselves; for example, disclosure of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data drives inclusion into the sustainability indices and asset classes that wealth management clients are increasingly interested in. Since there is strong demand from customers that their investments be profitable as well as beneficial to society, institutions are now increasingly establishing dialogues with environmentalists, consumer groups, and community advisory councils.


November 5, 2014