Interview with Axel Weber on corporate culture and responsibility at UBS

Axel. A. Weber

Axel. A. Weber

Christian Leitz (Secretary, UBS Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee): Let me start with a very direct and broad question: How important is corporate responsibility and sustainability to UBS. And how do you see your role as Chair of the Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee and the role of the committee itself?

Axel A. Weber (Chairman of UBS and Chair of the UBS Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee): Let me be very direct and clear from the start: Corporate responsibility and sustainability is of crucial importance to UBS today. And it will be even more important in future.

As Chairman of UBS and the Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee, I see it as my duty to understand the scope and scale of societal challenges. Together with my fellow board members and of course our CEO Sergio Ermotti we consider the immediate and long-term effects of these challenges. We look at how they may impact the firm, our clients, and other stakeholders, and what action we may need to take in response. As you know, challenges abound - be it how to maintain functioning infrastructures, or the impact of climate change and demographic shifts.

Our industry has played, and continues to play an important role in fostering growth and prosperity and, as a consequence, societal change. Acting responsibly, achieving a positive societal change - through our own activities as well as through the products, services and advice that we offer to our clients - that's one of our key roles.

And let's not forget that the expectations of our stakeholders have grown in this regard, and continue to do so. More and more of our clients are expressing an interest in sustainable investing. Clients are at the core of what we do, providing them with products that meet their needs. So staying ahead of the game and offering clients what they want also makes very good business sense.

CL: Corporate culture has come under fire in recent years. What are your views about this and its importance to UBS?

AAW: I am convinced that a strong, sustainable and ethical corporate culture is crucial to achieving long-term success.

It has been shown time and again that firms with a strong, productive culture reap many benefits. Such firms achieve superior financial performance, have more satisfied clients, and provide a more rewarding place for employees to work. And they also tend to experience fewer negative incidents.

Unfortunately, corporate culture in the financial sector has become associated with negative events. This is regrettable, but I can assure you that we are focused fully on ensuring there is no repetition of the unacceptable behavior seen in the past. However, our focus must not, and is not limited to this alone. We aim to foster a culture where responsible behavior is deeply imbedded in our long-term thinking.

This focus on thinking and acting responsibly and sustainably is clearly expressed in our Principles and Behaviors. Most importantly, when we do business we must not simply ask ourselves whether it is allowed, we must also ask whether what we are doing exemplifies our key behaviors, such as integrity. If it doesn’t we shouldn’t be doing it.

To demonstrate the importance we attach to our principles and behaviors we have embedded them across key HR processes. And last but not least we have recently renamed our Board committee in order to reflect the importance of corporate culture and make it clear that oversight of it is provided at the highest level of our firm.

Living up to our principles and behaviors will give us a competitive advantage. In short, if we do business in the right way, we will not only be a better business, we will be an even more successful one.

CL: 2015 marks 15 years of UBS's participation in the UN Global Compact. Where do you see UBS today as regards the core areas of the Compact such as protecting the environment and respecting human rights?

AAW: UBS was among the first companies to sign the Compact in 2000, which today is the world's largest corporate responsibility initiative. And we are doing an excellent job in living up to our commitments. Let me give you some examples.

As regards the environmental area of the Compact, in 2014, we were recognized as industry leaders in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices which is an important external recognition of our strong performance.. Furthermore we are the only Swiss bank on the list of best performers of the CDP for our efforts in reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the business risks of climate change.

We are also an active member of the Thun Group of Banks. The Group's discussion paper on banking and human rights has set a benchmark helping to guide banks as they map and analyze their potential adverse impacts in relation to human rights. And key elements of the paper are already reflected in our policies and guidelines, notably our Environmental & Human Rights Policy and our Environmental & Social Risk Framework.

And the Wolfsberg Group, which, like the Thun Group we were a founding member of, continues its work in the important area of combating financial crime.

CL: Looking at 2014, what would be your highlights as Chair of the Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee?

AAW: I would point to three achievements in particular.

First and foremost, we launched "UBS and Society" last year. "UBS and Society" is a cross-divisional initiative encompassing all our activities and capabilities in sustainable investing and philanthropy, as well as our firm's community interaction. The initiative supports the development of our dedicated, industry-leading platform designed to provide our clients with comprehensive research, advisory and product capabilities in sustainable investments and philanthropy.

The second major achievement I have already referred to, the publication of our environmental & social risk framework. This embodies our strict standards with regard to key societal topics, notably climate change, deforestation, biodiversity and human rights.

Last but not least, as I mentioned at the start, one of the Corporate Culture and Responsibility Committee's roles is to monitor societal developments and trends, assess their potential relevance to our firm and our clients and, where necessary, decide on required actions. With this in mind, last year we established a system to monitor regulatory and soft law changes relating to sustainability and corporate responsibility.

CL: Looking ahead, what are the main opportunities and challenges for UBS in relation to corporate responsibility and sustainability over the next 3-5 years?

AAW: Well, the examples I highlighted for 2014 provide an excellent indicator of the opportunities and challenges we will see becoming even more important over the next few years.

We will focus our efforts on how best to deliver societal benefits through our products and services while, at the same time, preventing potential harm. This will require us to continue with our rigorous approach towards the management of environmental and human rights risks.

We are already actively engaged with many other organizations and initiatives that contribute to tackling societal challenges. We contribute regularly to the public and political discourse around sustainability and corporate responsibility topics, both here in Switzerland and elsewhere. And we will continue to enhance our position as thought leaders in the area of corporate responsibility and sustainability.

As I said at the start of this interview, corporate responsibility and sustainability is of crucial importance to UBS today, and will be even more important in future. I believe that our continued work in this area means that we will be even better positioned to provide an industry leading and integrated range of sustainable investing products and services for our clients while, at the same time, delivering on our wider commitments as a good corporate citizen. And, ultimately, we aim to make sustainability the every-day standard throughout our firm.