N’Gunu Tiny on Why Sir Siegmund Warburg remains an inspiration for modern day banking

N’Gunu Tiny is CEO and Chairman of Emerald Group, an international investment company that stands apart from the rest.  

The Group’s ambition – and that of Mr Tiny – is to bring financial inclusion to everyone in Africa, and to foster this most ambitious continent’s potential to change the world.  

When he was named Best of Africa by Forbes in 2019, N’Gunu Tiny said: “I personally believe that financial inclusion is more than a fundamental right – it is a moral obligation. I am pleased to be in the fortunate position to champion this.  

N’Gunu Tiny – what I’ve learned from Sir Siegmund Warburg

With a strong track record in identifying new investment opportunities within emerging markets, and with a strong focus on Africa, the Emerald Group and Mr Tiny are dedicated to business with ethics, transparency and accountability.  

And inspiration and knowledge is found in many places. He says: “By listening, understanding, not necessarily agreeing all the time… at the end of the day we may have different opinions, respecting those differences but actually drawing insight and wisdom for it.” 

So, for N’Gunu Tiny and his leadership role, listening to and learning from other people is highly significant. In a short series of posts, Mr Tiny shares who inspires him the most and what he has learned from them, starting with Sir Siegmund George Warburg.  

Who was Sir Siegmund Warburg?

One of the most prominent people in the formation and development of merchant banking, Sir Siegmund Warburg was born in Germany in 1902.  

A member of the well-known American/German banking Warburg family, Sir Siegmund could trace his banking lineage back to the early 16th century. In 1798, the family started one of the oldest investment banks in the world that still exists today – MM Warburg & Co.  

Born in Seeburg, Germany Sir Siegmund was raised at Uhenfels Castle in Southwest Germany. He grew up with an inquisitive and critical mind, encouraged by a supportive and loving mother. Forced to flee Germany to escape the rise of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler, Sir Siegmund moved to the UK and transformed the baning world.  

In 1946, he founded SG Warburg & Co in London, along with Henry Grunfeld. This firm became one of the most important British investment banks and Sir Siegmund remained at the helm as MD until the 1970s.  

While not immediately welcomed into the City of London’s establishment, Sir Siegmund persevered and went on to achieve a great deal within the world of banking. One of his most significant achievements was establishing the EuroBond market.  

Sir Siegmund strongly believed that financial integration throughout Europe was vital to develop the wider European economy. A huge supporter of European integration, he was part of many associations and organisations to enable this, including the European Foundation, the Action Committee for a United States of Europe and the Biderberg Group.  

SG Warburg & Co was acquired by the Swiss Bank Corporation in 1995, creating SBC Warburg. SBC went on to merge with UBS AG and rebranded. Knighted in 1966, he died in London in 1982.  

Why Siegmund Warburg’s example is so important to modern banking

For me, Siegmund Warburg was a pioneer, a workaholic and a truly inspiring man. His work in founding the Eurobond market is rightly lauded. He also cared about more than simply making money.  

His ambitions within politics were to influence, and he became close friends with then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He was an intellectual and was fascinated by the challenges of running the organisation much more than making money.  

Sir Siegmund always said that the most important influence in his life came from his mother’s values. He said that she instilled in him that “happiness in life consists in fulfilment of duties and not desires”.  

This basic idealism is part of why I find Sir Siegmund so inspiring. He focused on building relationships and mentored many proteges throughout the years. In fact, relationships were so important to him in his work that he said that most of his “substantial transactions were the result of cultivation of contacts over many years.” 

He was a workaholic, but he was an enthusiastic one – he even hired people based on whether they liked the same literature as him. Think Balzac, Thomas Mann and Tolstoy.   

People came before profit – and that still came later

More than anything else, Sr Siegmund put people, passion and gut feeling first. Profits would follow. Today’s banking world is marked out by algorithms and AI, but Sir Siegmund was all about gut feeling, humanity and first impressions.  

A world away from any soulless banking system of today, he was all about the people. He cared about people – who they were, what they loved and their personality. He ran on first impressions and was unafraid to make decisions about money based on them. This included lending money to those who came to him – whether he supported someone didn’t depend on a spreadsheet. Instead, he decided based on his feeling about the person and their business. If he was impressed, he would help in enormously important ways to support that business and expand its reach.  

Sir Siegmund’s attitude towards banking as well as his creative personality didn’t endear him to the stuffed shirts of Britain’s banking establishment when he arrived in the 1930s. But his steadfast honesty and stubborn resistance to deceitful behaviour stood him in good financial stead.  

He could, of course be tough and he became famous for hostile takeovers in the 1950s. In short, Sir Siegmund had little time for incompetence or inflated egos. He set out a bank’s most important qualities as follows:  

  • A high moral standing.  
  • A reputation for high-quality thinking and efficiency.  
  • Connections.  
  • Capital funds.  
  • Organisation.  
  • Quality of personnel.  

I do believe that in today’s cutthroat financial sector, there is a lot we can learn from Siegmund Warburg – and the world would certainly be a better place for it. One thing I would like to add however, is the importance of a healthy work/life balance. Whilst being a workaholic and passion for one’s vocation is admirable, life is a blessing that is sadly too short, and we must endeavour to find that right mix to keep us both mentally, physically and spiritually aligned. 

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