Q&A with Nick Astwick, Kiwibank

27 January 2015

“Make sustainability core to your vision and focus on the critical few”. Find out about Kiwibank’s vision for sustainability in our interview Nick Astwick, Chief Operating Officer.

What is Kiwibank’s vision for sustainability?

Our core vision is making a more prosperous, more sustainable New Zealand – or, to put it more colloquially, Kiwis making Kiwis better off. That vision is at the heart of our business, and our first learning is that sustainability has to be central to our business strategy, it can’t be an appendage on the side. For us, sustainability is in line with our core purpose of prosperity and potential.

What is Kiwibank doing that will contribute to making NZ a more sustainable nation?

At Kiwibank we’re very strategic about our focus on sustainability. We focus on three critical areas in which we can make a long-term investment:

  1. Housing – we’re working on fixing some of the supply side issues to make the housing stock more affordable and more sustainable. That means not just looking at the price, but also the health benefits and environmental sustainability of houses.
  2. Microfinance – we’re helping to get the microfinance market up and running to create another market dynamic to avoid loan sharks.
  3. Social enterprise – our role is a trampoline, or a catalyst, to help kickstart other structures and build flourishing social enterprises, for example our work with Nga Tangata Microfinance Trust to facilitate microfinance loans.

How do you take the younger generation’s view into account?

When we had our 10 year anniversary and were looking at presenting a brand that reflected New Zealand’s values going forward, we decided to ask the people who know the younger generation best. So we took advice from a group of 10 year old children. We asked them how they see the world, and what their attitudes and characters are. We found that they are incredibly globally aware, and extremely socially and environmentally conscious. They gave us a fascinating view of the world that’s quite different from older generations, with a very strong social, sustainability drive.

What have been the advantages of committing to sustainability?

There is recognition that comes with committing to sustainability, of course, but ultimately the main advantages have been genuinely reflecting the values and attitudes of New Zealand. We have always said we’re a bank for the people by the people, so our job is to reflect New Zealanders’ attitudes in the way we conduct our business and what we stand for.

Being clear about what we stand for is fundamental. We believe that rather than being in the business of banking, we’re in the business of delivering independence, which is the ultimate form of sustainability in some sense. If people have a level of independence, whether that’s financial literacy, economic or educational independence, that makes them better off.

For me, the ultimate recognition of success is getting customers out of debt, helping people making good financially sound decisions and helping people avoid financial issues that arise from mismanagement. Those sorts of things lead to independence and help individuals – and collectively New Zealand – with sustainable living. That’s why we’re here.

What are the challenges with committing to sustainability and how do you overcome them?

Getting the business in front of the vision can be a challenge that faces most organisations at times, particularly those with different shareholder and stakeholder needs. Are sustainability initiatives seen to be competing with business initiatives? How do you deliver the vision when you have economic imperatives to hit? Getting that balance right is always a challenge. Often it’s about educating people that they’re the same thing.

I have seen sustainability fail in businesses when it’s not core to the strategy. Sustainability must be central to an organisation’s vision or strategy. That’s always been my critical success factor.

Overcoming these challenges always comes down to leadership: telling your story, making your purpose come alive, and championing certain initiatives, for example. Awareness and education is important too, but it’s leadership that counts.

What advice would you give to a business wanting to embrace sustainability?

I have two pieces of advice – make sustainability core to your vision and focus on the critical few [areas of focus]. You need to be clear about your capability and how you strategically use it. What are you good at? You can’t focus on something that isn’t your strength.

Find out more about Kiwibank and sustainability