Björn Ordell. Image: Handelsbanken
20 Oct 2022
Driving change in the financial sector
Björn Ordell has been in banking for almost half of his life – more than 20 years. Seven of them he spent as CFO at the Nordic Investment Bank, before making his way back home to Sweden. In seven years, a lot can change, so change is what we focus on in our talk with Björn: how this role changed his career and what kinds of changes help to stay relevant.
Let’s start from the present day, however. As of April this year, Björn leads Debt Capital Markets at Handelsbanken in Stockholm. This follows a change that happened in June 2021, when he left NIB and joined Handelsbanken as Head of Sustainable Finance & Debt Advisory. He is convinced that his experience from NIB was and remains instrumental in his role at one of Sweden’s leading banks.
“NIB is at the forefront of assessing, understanding, and evaluating the environmental aspects of financing. Therefore, graduating from the ‘NIB system’ imparted me with knowledge that I have brought to my new role at Handelsbanken, and it keeps helping in my career as well,” says Björn.
For someone born and raised in a mid-sized town called Karlstad in Sweden, accepting Handelsbanken’s offer also meant coming back closer to home. NIB was Björn’s first workplace outside Sweden. The Bank’s international environment was the thing that attracted him to try a career abroad.
Finding his place in Helsinki
“I was looking for an international experience, and NIB seemed a great fit both in terms of its project and customer base as well as its ownership. It offered just the right opportunity to get that broader Nordic and Baltic experience,” says Björn commenting on his decision to join the Bank back in 2015.
Having previously worked as Treasury Controller at the forestry company Holmen and also as a Senior Manager at PwC, Björn was in his eight year as CFO for Landshypotek Bank prior to taking up the position at NIB. His previous experiences helped him to make up his mind about the new job. “I knew NIB’s treasury operations from earlier, so I was looking forward to joining a professional treasury team in a very international setting compared to basically any other bank in the Nordics.”
As Björn says, though, the stars needed to be aligned to make the move to a completely new city with a family and three school-aged kids.
“In addition to the job itself being very interesting, it was the right time for the family to embark on an adventure abroad,” remembers Björn, saying the move to Helsinki might have seemed surprising given that they did not have any connections at all with the city beforehand. “Moving to Helsinki is not the obvious choice. If you ask someone on the streets of Stockholm, they will probably say that a move to Oslo or Copenhagen is more common than a move to Helsinki.”
“That being said, Helsinki has many things to offer. It’s a great place for kids to grow up. The kids really loved it: everything is convenient, everything is close by and accessible,” says Björn.
Blowing with the winds of change
Just as quickly as he discovered the delights that Helsinki had to offer, Björn was not shy in bringing his ideas forward as soon as he joined the Bank. He remembers coming to NIB in times of significant change–a lot of groundwork had been done during the previous years, and the implementation needed to be accelerated further.
Björn points out two major developments during his time at NIB: first, the Front Office, Back Office, Risk and Accounting solution (FOBORA) and second, statutory changes.
The former development was a large-scale, bank wide IT project to streamline NIB’s operations. The latter went beyond the Bank’s walls, securing NIB’s strong position for the future by increasing its financing capabilities and ensuring efficient control.
Both took years of hard work, but both were worth it in Björn’s view. “The challenging part with the statutory changes was, firstly, convincing our Board that the new toolkit we had developed could help to steer NIB successfully into the future. After that, the persuasion had to go further to the next level, and the next level, all the way to the parliaments in order to get the new Statutes ratified.”
“In the end, those two projects showed that we were able to adapt, we were able to change, and we could be agile and forceful in implementing the changes that we had wanted. Maybe that’s something that will stay in NIB’s legacy–even within such a small organisation, it is possible to change something as complicated as the Statutes,” says Björn.
Adapting in times of need
According to Björn, the statutory changes proved their worth when Covid-19 hit in 2020. Called upon its owners, the Bank increased its lending to assist the governments and most affected companies in the Nordic–Baltic region, as well as launched NIB’s Response Bond Framework to raise funds for projects that alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic.
“I think that the COVID response loans and the Response Bond framework wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t changed the Statutes,” says Björn, who was at the heart of these developments, leading the Bank’s Treasury and Finance Department as NIB’s CFO at that time.
“The success behind the COVID response loans was that we were able to act rapidly. There was a short window in March-April when these loans were extremely important for the recipients. It was vital that we were quick and agile in responding to these needs. Afterwards, various EU frameworks were created, but for a lot of the recipients, they came too late as the need was not necessarily there anymore due to somewhat recovering markets,” reflects Björn. “Within two to three weeks’ time, we were able to secure the funding, agree with the counterparties and get the Board’s approval to issue the response loans.”
“It was also important that the management did not stay paralyzed or sit and wait for the world to go under. We felt that we wanted to be a part of resolving this and there was a strong sense that we must take action.”
Reinventing on par with the developments
For Björn, this kind of proactivity is at heart of the sustainable finance – both in an international financial institution (IFI) or a commercial bank.
“In some respects, it’s easier to work for a commercial bank, because the objectives are clearer; you know what is expected,” he says when asked about the main differences between the two. “In an IFI, existential questions tend to surface more frequently: ‘Why do we exist? What is our mandate?’“
According to him, NIB has a role to fill the gaps when the financial systems start to crack. However, he goes on to say that the Bank’s mission needs to be constantly reinvented. “The establishment of NIB’s environmental and productivity mandate was essential in creating relevance for the Bank. I think those were extremely successful steps that the management took at the time. But while productivity and environmental finance is still relevant, it’s so much more mainstream now and therefore you need to find the next big thing. You need to find where the cracks are today,” says Björn.
“I think there are very important tasks for NIB take on. They have something to do with the Baltics, energy security, or large-scale energy transmission projects between countries. They have something to do with the current challenges that are slightly different to those 20 years ago.”
“Of course, the environmental challenge is still huge and shouldn’t be underestimated. But perhaps NIB’s dual mandate needs to be tweaked a little bit to find a good way forward for the future. NIB cannot be like any other bank; other banks are also very involved with environmental finance. NIB needs to continuously find its niche and remain a front runner,” Björn concludes.
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