by Rein van Gisteren*
We live in difficult times, but after 60 years Belgium gets a new consumer bank, a cooperative bank with, at the moment, 116,000 members. New B positions itself as a sustainable and ethical bank “for a society that respects the planet and human rights”. No frills, no misleading promises, no buttons to encourage clients to take more risks, just straight language. NewB promises that it will not invest in weapons or polluting activities.
This ethical commitment has been written down in a Charter that prohibits making empty marketing promises. NewB does not act in vague terms like for instance “a bank on its way to a green economy”; the Charter describes that investments are only made in projects that meet strict criteria. A Social Committee of sixteen non-paid members of the cooperative checks this. At the end of this year at their annual meeting, the members of the cooperative have to approve the Charter. NewB will invest in bonds from EU states from regional governments and the cultural sector and will provide loans for green and sustainable projects.
The number of NewB members more than doubled in November 2019 to the current number of 116,000. It was a bold plan: NewB wanted to raise an extra investment amount of € 30 million within one month with a limited campaign budget. During the first weeks, the amount slowly crept up nerve-racking. But towards the end of the period, confidence grew and thousands of Belgians were added every day to share in the success: citizens that become the owner of a bank. An important guarantee convinced doubters: should NewB not obtain the required banking license, the investment would be paid back in full. And that worked.
€ 35 million was raised, five million more than was necessary according to the regulator, the National Bank of Belgium. NewB is supported by 340 civil society organisations (230 additonal) and 11 institutional investors of which 8 new. 90 percent of the new investment amount came from individual citizens. Young people turned out to be over-represented: the largest age group is formed by 29-year-olds. The usual legal bank guarantee in Belgium up to € 100,000 applies to NewB savers.
The so-called free banking market in Belgium didn’t see any newcomer for decades, but NewB managed to break through the barrier. Of course there were bank mergers and foreign initiatives. There was also no competitor who pursued economic and sustainable values in addition to cooperative values. New for a Belgian bank is that every NewB member has the same voting rights at the annual meeting: whether it concerns a share of twenty euros or a large share package.
Shareholders will be able to vote on the appointment of Thierry Smets (57) as CEO at the next general meeting. The National Bank of Belgium has approved his appointment in October. Smets has a history of 30 years with private banker Puilaetco Dewaay. If confirmed, he will succeed Tom Olinger who led the bank to obtain the banking license. Smets in a message to the NewB community: “I am convinced that I will find here an environment, objectives and a mission that all correspond to my values. I hope that I can use all the knowledge and skills I have gained and developed during my career for NewB and that I can make this project a reality that meets the expectations of thousands of citizens.”
There exist already a NewB goodpay card, and three basic insurances for house, car and bike are offered. Years of work had to be done to obtain the banking license; the ECB and the National Bank granted this in January 2020. Ten months later, the first account holders can have their income deposited into their NewB account. The bank is located in bilingual Brussels and operates as an internet bank: NewB does not open a branch network. There is no head office in a marble bank building, but only a simple floor in a multi-company building. Step by step, the service will be expanded with the introduction of a debit card in June 2021, which is a smart combination with a NewB Visa debit card, a type of bank card that does not yet exist in Belgium.
*publicist and communication advisor