Edy walker, you've been working at ABS since 1998. Can you still remember your first day at work?
Edy walker: yes, it was the 2. January 1998 – actually a holiday – and at ABS everyone was working because the account statements had to be packed by hand. The chairman of the board of directors at the time also helped out. It was a groove like in a WG!
Previously worked for conventional banks for several years. What did the change to ABS mean for you?
It was like an exemption. I no longer had to hide with my views. I've always run in environmental and socio-political circles in my spare time, for example in the lucerne chapter of greenpeace. Since the ABS was still very small – I was only 19. Employees -, I got the chance to work in different areas and help shape the ABS.
You know the ABS very well. What do you think is their greatest strength?
That we are – this may sound a bit romantic now – a community. By this I mean everyone who deals with the bank, including shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers. Our values are supported by the majority of these stakeholders.
Do you also see weaknesses?
I think one of the biggest dangers is that ABS could get stuck in a biotope mentality. It is important to allow for change from the outside. Knowledge of how we might address pressing social and environmental challenges is constantly evolving. Leading to new controversies, which the ABS should be unabashed about.
In the course of your work at ABS, you have done something unusual, namely taken a step "down" in the hierarchy: after several years in management, you moved to a staff position. Why?
I am a generalist, with a focus on credit. But in the management I was responsible for the private and investment customers, the romandie and the personnel. When martin rohner became CEO, a jolt went through the bank. In many areas it became more professional, and in talking to martin I realized that I didn't have the tools to bring the necessary professionalism to the investment business. For the ego, of course, this was a bit of a problem, but for the heart: super! I was able to stay with ABS, which was very important to me, and reduce my workload.
Since then you are responsible for the association innovation fund. What kind of companies does it support?
Young or new companies that want to tackle societal challenges and have exhausted their potential of "family and friends" in their search for capital. The risk is greatest at this stage of development. That's why it's difficult to get the financing you need through conventional channels. The innovation fund supports such companies with a loan or investment of currently a maximum of 75,000 francs.
Can you give a typical example of a startup that has been supported?
There are so many great companies! But a good example is recircle, a public company that produces high-quality reusable tableware for take-away meals and drinks. We supported this company at a very early stage.
How has the innovation fund developed in recent years?
Thanks to regular donations from ABS and dividend donations from ABS shareholders, the activities of the innovation fund have steadily developed. Unfortunately, we are in a dilemma because we receive more and more requests worthy of support and have to give many refusals due to limited funds. Last year, we had about 50 requests; we funded seven of them.
What criteria do you use to select?
In terms of content, we follow the ABS funding structure and support companies that are active in the areas of energy, ecology, social issues, education or the creative industries. For some years now, we have also been focusing on forward-looking projects, and they have to be viable.
Is it even possible to assess the viability of a company at this early stage??
I have always been challenged by the question of what are the reliable parameters for supporting a project. Today, the business plans in the financing applications are usually perfect. But I think it's important not to just dwell on that – it's just numbers pointing to the future. And I have noticed: the person behind the project must "bewitch". In the end, I rely mainly on my gut feeling there.
What is the most important effect of the innovation fund?
That with our financing we can decisively accelerate the development of a meaningful project. Ideally, our contribution acts like the yeast in a dough. For this reason, however, it can not be too large projects. For example, we recently had to reject the application for a great project because it needed 1.5 million francs. In this case, our financing of a maximum of 75,000 francs would only have been a drop in the bucket.
Wouldn't it make sense for the innovation fund to have more money at its disposal so that it could support more and larger projects??
This has been a recurring theme. Some ABS customers would like to give the innovation fund an interest-free loan, but based on the statutes and the strategy so far, they have refrained from doing so and said: we remain a small donor vessel – the fund is, after all, financed exclusively by donations from the bank and the shareholder base – and thus retain the freedom we have.
"The trust that has been placed in the ABS up to now is justified. And I would encourage everyone to keep it up, because it's worth it."
Currently, there is a gap between the early financing of the innovation fund and ABS lending to established businesses.
Exactly. There are always companies that receive a loan from the ABS after receiving support from the innovation fund, but as a rule, start-ups are not yet creditworthy at this stage.
The money that the ABS lends belongs to our savers. That's why you have to be very careful when granting loans. Before my colleagues in the financing department grant a loan, they have to do a proper credit check. Among other things, they look at a company's collateral and past history. On this basis, they decide whether to finance a business. An important tool is the "rear-view mirror. One does a credit analysis and "guesses" the borrower or borrowers. But a young company still has little history to judge by. That's why it doesn't usually get a good credit rating. And I always say heretically to my colleagues in the financing department: this "rear-view mirror" is so big that it blocks your view of the future.
How could this problem be solved?
I wish that the ABS would show more courage. ABS has plenty of equity and could afford to take more risks. My suggestion would be for the ABS to say: next year we will provide 10 million for start-up financing. We give 5 million as loans and put the other 5 on hold.
Do you already have plans for retirement?
No, no plans and no agenda. Living into the day once again, that's what I'm looking forward to! I have recently also let go of sideline commitments. I keep other things: I remain treasurer of slow food central switzerland
as well as auditor at the alpine cheese dairy urnerboden AG and our neighborhood association.
Are you afraid of a void after retirement?
No, not at all! I'm also satisfied from an ego standpoint. I have arrived at irrelevance (laughs). I'm looking forward to cultivating relationships more intensely again, and last year in july I became a grandfather. I would also like to travel, if it is possible again, preferably to new zealand. And I am a passionate golfer – migros golfer – hiking and culinary delights are also very important to me.
Is there anything you would like to give to the people associated with ABS as a wish for the future?
I think the trust placed in the ABS until now is justified. And I would encourage everyone to keep it up – because it's worth it. The ABS proves that it is possible to manage money sensibly and make a good contribution to change.
That's a wonderful final word! Or is there something else you would like to say in conclusion?
Yes, I was actually at home at the ABS and felt really comfortable. You can say what you think, and that's a huge quality.
Roland baumgartner succeeds edy walker
New head of special financing
Due to the retirement of edy walker, roland baumgartner will take over as of 1 january 2009. June 2021 the management of special financing at the ABS and thus also of the innovation fund association. The 56-year-old has been a corporate finance consultant for ABS since 2015. In addition to his work for ABS, he teaches leadership skills and business administration at inovatech, a higher technical college in zofingen.
Katharina wehrli works as a freelance journalist, editor and proofreader in zurich.