IVA’s Great Gold Medal: The magician from Säter has many tricks up his sleeve

“Hans Dalborg, PhD Econ, is receiving IVA’s Great Gold Medal for his achievements in developing the Swedish finance sector and the Swedish model for corporate governance, in combination with his commitment to social issues involving significant contributions to research and culture.”
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Hans Dalborg is the man who turned Nordbanken, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, into bank giant Nordea, now with a market cap of more than SEK 300 billion. There is a reason he is called “the magician from Säter”. But banker Dalborg has more tricks up his sleeve: student extracurricular activity participant, linguist, researcher, professional board member, avid reader and art lover.

This portrait could, of course, be just about Hans Dalborg the banker. He was the one who was recruited to save the sinking ship Nordbanken, with a non-existent market cap, and who when he was finished had created Europe’s eighth largest bank. And who during the difficult years cited hard rock group Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson: “It’s remarkable what your body can take when you’re having fun”.

But it could just as easily be about Hans Dalborg the linguist who, after graduating from interpreter school in the Swedish military, spoke fluent Russian and who, after Nordbanken’s merger with Finnish Merita, learned to speak Finnish (an oft-repeated phrase was: “Arvoisat osakkeenomistajat” or “Dear shareholders”).

Or why not Dalborg the student extracurricular activity participant and jester. Grand Master in the Juvenalorden student society, trombone player in Kruthornan, the orchestra of Västmanlands-Dala student society, Honorary President of Uppsala University male voice choir Orphei Drängar and prolific writer of drinking songs (the best known of which is probably “Mera brännvin” or more aquavit, to the tune of The Internationale).

Then there is Dalborg the researcher who wrote his doctor’s dissertation on business location. It was the early 1970s and economic policy was a lot about where businesses should locate their main and periphery departments, and when it was crucial for management to have face-to-face meetings.

And we haven’t yet mentioned Hals Dalborg professional board member (Swedish Corporate Governance Board, iZettle among many other companies and organisations) or Dalborg man of culture (former Chairman of Sweden’s Royal Opera, member of the Concert Hall foundation, avid reader and art lover).

He now also has a podcast with an old friend Gillis Herlitz, known among other things as a judge on the TV quiz show “Dominans”. But the list of Dalborg avatars and alter egos could probably go on.

“I’m genuinely interested in people – and numbers. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the way I lead. And if I’m going to do something I need to feel passionate about it,” says Dalborg about his diverse background.

We meet at Dalborg’s home in the Östermalm neighbourhood of Stockholm. His pug Majken lies snoring on a footstool. Bookshelves are filled with metres of books – both classic and contemporary literature. Paintings by Lars Lerin hang on the walls. Dalborg discovered his art before Lerin became famous “for real”.

Hans Dalborg, with his background in industry, culture and research, thinks that more business leaders should get involved in things outside of their main occupation, such as cultural activities, or in academia, focusing on promoting and improving conditions for research – different roles and areas, but that benefit from mutual understanding and cross-fertilisation.

“Society would be much better off if there were greater trust between these spheres. But there is suspicion – the business world is, for example, often perceived in the cultural sphere as being full of “tradesmen” and the business sector looks upon cultural workers as unrealistic dreamers”.

Dalborg’s broad interest in society is understandable given his own background. His career is not a straight trajectory to CEO positions and board rooms, Excel spread sheets and AGMs. He used to above all be a humanist. Born in Säter in the southern part of Dalarna, he studied Greek and Latin at upper secondary school before switching to Russian at the interpreter school in the Swedish armed forces. He then studied for a Bachelor's degree in Slavic languages at Uppsala University before enrolling at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE).

Before he could start there he had to study a lot of maths during the summer and it was then that he discovered another language – the language of mathematics.

“I thought maths was so incredibly fascinating and fun, I couldn’t understand how I could have studied humanities. But looking back, I’m happy I have a broad background”.

At SSE he quickly got involved in both economic theory and teaching. Among other things, he extended his education by also attending Harvard Business School to learn about analysis and the case method.

Despite his career in research, Dalborg was still looking for another path to follow and in 1972 started working at the very modern insurance company Skandia. His leaving

teaching and research at SSE was, however, met with great scepticism from his colleagues there.

“But Hans, you can’t resign – you’re going to be a professor!” says Hans, quoting his mentor at the time.

It turned out to be a good decision anyway. At Skandia his career picked up speed. Dalborg soon became deputy CEO for the Skandia and CEO of the listed Skandia International, before being recruited by the failing Nordbanken bank – a recruitment decision that would prove to be a good one by the Nordbanken board, but one that led to a lot of hard work for Dalborg.

“I realised when things eased up a bit that those years were not normal. I was often woken up in the middle of night with a new problem to tackle. So it was a great relief when the bank turned a profit again. It was like a waterlogged field of oats that finally rose up into the sunshine again!”

A recipe for success for Nordbanken proved to be mergers and acquisitions. First the bank merged with Gotabanken. Then in 1998 it merged with Finnish bank Merita and in 2000 with Danish Unibank and Norwegian Kreditkassen. Nordea was born and became one of Sweden’s and Europe’s biggest companies overall, with a market cap of SEK 310 billion in 2011.

But mergers and acquisitions don’t always succeed – far from it, especially not when the mergers are across borders. Why the success this time?

“It requires active and hands-on leadership, resolute decisions and a willingness to create a unified bank and a common culture”.

What was the significance of the fact that several nations were involved in building a new company?

“We never turned it into a discussion about justice. The unions in Sweden were extremely good about providing support. They were on board with having four locations – a Swedish one, a Finnish one, a Danish one and a Norwegian one – and that was the cement needed to create the bank”.

In 2001 Hans Dalborg switched to the role as Nordea’s Chairman and over the next few years Nordea grew exponentially. At the end of 2011, when Dalborg retired as Chairman, the bank was managing capital equivalent to SEK 1.7 billion and had 11 million customers. In 2011 the gavel was passed on to Finnish banker Björn “Nalle” Wahlroos. Dalborg later wrote a book about his 20 years at Nordea called “Ansvarets sköna börda”, focusing on the multi-dimensional aspects of leadership.

Dalborg developed his commitment to and knowledge about leadership while serving as Chairman for the Swedish Corporate Governance Board. Under his leadership the Board made a big imprint on corporate culture to promote proper behaviour in the securities market.

Heading up a big corporation is no walk in the park, and this is especially true of banks. In particular, the yield requirements placed on banks from many directions can be significant. Also, ownership structures are usually complex, especially when governments are among the owners. In 2013 the Swedish Government sold its last shares in Nordea.

Should governments even be in the business of running banks?

“The Government wasn’t a bad bank shareholder. But they were too eager once they decided to sell, so they got a bad deal. The decision was steered purely by principles”.

Hans Dalborg has many opinions about the issue of state ownership. He was, for example, on the board of Svenska Spel and reacted strongly to how profit maximisation trumped social responsibility within the company.

“I wasn’t on the board long before I was asking myself ‘What am I doing here?’ Svenska Spel was a monopoly because it was supposed to reduce gambling addiction, but the Government opened Casino Cosmopol, started setting up one-armed bandits everywhere and even wanted to get into dog racing”.

That was when Hans Dalborg said goodbye and walked out the door. Later he was asked by Minister for Financial Markets Peter Norman and Minister for Finance Anders Borg to form a one-man commission to propose ways for the Government to handle its company ownership. The commission was called “Economic value and benefitting society” and the Government liked it, but it fell by the wayside during the 2014 election campaign.

It wasn’t as if Dalborg had nothing else to do. He had, for example, returned to the academic sphere (which he had exited in the 1970s when he left SSE) both as Chairman of Uppsala University and Chairman of IVA.

Why?

“I still have a soft spot for research and education. There is an exciting tug of war going on between basic research and research driven by a thirst for knowledge at universities and IVA’s brand of more focused applied research. My simple conclusion is that both are needed”.

Hans Dalborg

Age: 78

Education: Interpreter school, Swedish Armed Forces. Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Languages at Uppsala University. Economics degree at Stockholm School of Economics where he also gained a PhD in 1974.

Career: Within Skandia: appointed Deputy CEO in 1989. 1991–2001 President and CEO, Nordbanken. Created one of Europe’s largest banks, Nordea. Chairman, Nordea, 2001– 2011 Former Chairman of Kungliga Operan, ÅR, Ung Företagsamhet, 

Uppsala University, Swedish Corporate Governance Board and iZettle. Chairman of IVA 2005–2008. Member of the board of Konserthusstiftelsen, among others. Honorary President of Orphei Drängar. Lord Chamberlain-in-Waiting.

Distinctions: H.M. The King’s Medal of the 12th size with the ribbon of the Order of the Seraphim, 2000. Commander, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland. Order of Merit, Norway. Guldklubban, 2005.

Photo: Daniel Roos

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Helena Mehra
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