Robert Rubinstein is the CEO of the TBLI Group, dedicated to raising awareness and educating financial professionals on the benefits and opportunities of sustainable investing. We asked him how it started and where he’s going.
How would you describe your venture?
TBLI is a pioneer of sustainable investing with a proven track record. TBLI GROUP moves private capital towards sustainable liquid and illiquid investments by focusing on what really moves markets: self-interest, opportunity and money flows. Combining eco-effectiveness with market rate returns, TBLI makes the case and the connections for smart sustainable investment. Our activities and products include networking events, advisory services and a knowledge center highlighting scalability and best practices.
We have established one of the largest international networks in the sustainable finance sector with these objectives: firstly, to provide education, and secondly, to help move private capital towards sustainable investment. Sustainable investment (ESG and Impact Investing) is a key driver for sustainable development. It has beneficial effects on such global problems as poverty and climate change.
Our vision is a world that benefits when the economy creates well-being TBLI Group is dedicated to raising awareness and educating asset owners and managers on the benefits and opportunities of sustainable investing. The aim is to maximize investment flows into sustainable projects and new sustainable businesses.
What was the first memory you have that made you want to make a positive difference in the world?
I think I always had that. I probably got it from my parents. In all my jobs, I found integrity and doing the right thing essential. Showing some moral leadership was always important. I think the trigger for me with respect to being a social entrepreneur was when I was in publishing. I had started a bicycle magazine and that was a financial and spiritual success.
The next publication was a spiritual success but a financial disaster. During that period I was introduced to Social Venture Network, a network of companies that felt that business had an important role to play in improving society. After going to one event, I was sold. I needed to use entrepreneurial skills to develop a for-profit enterprise that provided a social and environmental added value.
What held you back? What were your fears of taking that on?
Nothing held me back. As soon, as the one publication failed financially, I jumped in to create the first European magazine on Sustainability. Basically how to integrate profits and principles. What was holding me back was being in a place I didn’t want to be. Namely, doing a project or running a company in an industry I didn’t like, and doing what I hated.That was publishing a cooking magazine in an industry dominated by processed food advertisers. I really didn’t want to be there. That ultimately led me to sustainability. First through Source Magazine, which evolved in to TBLI – Triple Bottom Line Investing.
Who encouraged you to step up and become a real leader?
No one. I felt that is what would give me fulfillment.
What was it like, stepping into that new world?
Great. I felt like someone had removed weights from my legs and I could fly. I had a great deal of energy and was doing what I loved to do. Unfortunately, I was so excited about the launch of Source Magazine, that I accepted starting with only 1/5 of the money I needed. That was a mistake. Not having the resources to properly do the marketing in publishing was a mistake.
What was the biggest challenge?
Not enough money to launch the magazine. In spite of receiving only 1/5 of the budget I needed, we were breakeven within 2.5 years. However, the investors felt things were going too slow and pulled the plug when I was on holiday.
Who were your greatest allies?
Professionals who were looking for fulfilment and felt that it was possible to make money and have a higher purpose. Corporates that were looking for strategies to motivate staff and attract talent.
What was unique about your strategy?
I think the marketing strategy that I implemented as a result of not having the resources I needed was quite innovative. We gave away 125,000 copies of the first magazine but only through a recommendation. Anyone could send us a list of people that they felt would appreciatee receiving a copy of Source. We made a special wrapper for sending the magazine with the name of the person who was sending them a copy. This built up our database and because our distributed circulation was so high, we sold quite a bit of advertising to cover the launch costs. If we did a normal direct mailing that would have cost us much more.
Was there any point where it appeared you might fail?
Ultimately the publication failed as the investors pulled the plug. With respect to my present company TBLI Group, there were several moments. I had to be hospitalized for 10 weeks and undergo open heart surgery one day before leaving for Asia to organise our TBLI Conference. Another was during the Tsunami in Japan, when we were hit hard financially, with all sponsors pulling out and a drop of 65% in attendance. When the bank cancelled our credit and all the cashflow we had went to pay the overdraft. This left us with no working capital. These events tested our grit and resolve to the maximum, but we always overcame and continued.
How did that turn out to be a good thing?
It forced us to be more innovative and creative in running our business with far fewer resources, reinvent our business model and drive down costs. We created an entire new model where the leading business schools partnered with us to host our event. This took away the need to spend so much time chasing sponsors to cover the high location and other costs. In addition, we were finally able to monetize our relations by creating strategic partnerships with leading asset owner networks to use TBLI as a convening venue for their members. This brings us asset owners and expands our sales and marketing without additional costs.
What is your most significant accomplishment as a leader so far?
I would say TBLI has been one of the most important driving forces in educating the financial sector about sustainable investments. Raising awareness among the financial sector on investments that improve the social and environmental balance as well as providing a financial return, is absolutely critical. However, the value we create is for the commons and hard to capture, which is why most don’t do this work. It’s heavy-lifting and hard to capture the true value. I think with the rethink we have done the last year, we will be able to capture the value and monetise our relationships.
What is the risk of it being undone?
I don’t see it being undone. I think the risk is how quickly TBLI can find additional funding sources through more paying attendance, sponsor money, turning opportunities we have from our vast network into concrete paying advisory mandates or investors (which we have now found) to continue and expand this work. To guarantee that we continue to play an important role in this financial sector, we will be launching an online community membership to offer a host of services, including access to events, social network, management briefing, retreats, business contacts of experts for the financial sector and education with certification.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned on your journey?
Never give up, don’t believe what most people say, and get management partners that are complimentary and share your culture and vision. Follow your heart and your passion.