How Has Money Influenced My Life
I grew up in Brooklyn. Crown Heights, to be more precise, in a middle class Jewish family. My father was a tailor, who made custom made clothes for women, with a store on Madison Ave. That was when rents were affordable. My mom also worked with my father in the store, doing finishing work.
I did all kinds of jobs to earn extra income for special purchases or savings. Investment was never a priority. Never really grabbed me. Growing up, I did many odd jobs: worked for a butcher making home deliveries, managed a tennis court, sorted mail at the post office, delivered rental cars from one part of New York City to another. In the summer, I usually worked at a hotel, as a cook, that was for New York City Policemen, where they took their families. Throughout that period, I would religiously save money.
In 1974, I graduated from Brooklyn College, and decided that my dream to become an assistant district attorney focused on Organized Crime, was just not in the cards. Doing another few years to get a law degree was less important than traveling to Europe and Asia. Got my BA and left the next day to travel to Burma (Myanmar, now). For several years, I did travel and work (kibbutz, North Sea oil rigs, Iran doing gas exploration) before settling down in Amsterdam.
Ultimately, my dream was to be a publisher entrepreneur. The money was never the driver. It was the chess game of publishing. In late 70s, I started a bicycle magazine, called Fiets (verb and noun for bicycle). That was big financial and spiritual success, and Fiets was sold to a Dutch publisher, and that publication is still publishing. Unfortunately, at the same time I was in process of selling the magazine, I started another magazine called Menu, which was a simple idiot proof publication for creating meals in less than 30 minutes. That magazine was a spiritual success but financial disaster. So, all the money I got for Fiets was eaten up by Menu, and more.
That experience led me to my true purpose: change the business system to one where there would be many winners (society, environment, stakeholders). Source would be the magazine to help change the way business was done. However, the investors pulled the plug while we were on holiday. So, I had to start all over. No money, no resources, and still wanting to create an economy based upon well-being.
Realizing that business would only respond to pain pressure, I decided to change the financial system, so it worked for everyone, by educating asset owners and managers about sustainable investment. Remember 25 years ago, when I started Brooklyn Bridge, which later became TBLI Group, there was no PRI, CDP, GIIN, EVPA, AVPN. It was a barren wasteland. The concept of ESG or Impact Investing didn’t exist, and I had no financial background, fortunately. After looking carefully and reading all that I could, and meeting many thought leaders, I felt I understood the system and how to change it.
Changing the financial system so it would work for everyone was going to be an exercise of education, initially. The financial system and those who worked in it, were hunters.
They were incentivized for short term behavior. I looked at the list of asset owners/managers in late 90s and felt that the top 100 controlled a vast amount of the wealth. If I could change the mind set of those 100 guys (CIOs), I could get behavioral change. There were few women CIOs in 1998.
Over the years, TBLI has mobilized the equivalent in assets of those top 100 asset owner/managers. In spite of being surrounded by the billions and hundreds of billions, I was never really impressed or driven to build up a fortune or invest. It was never my hot button. I remember having lunch with an old friend from when I was 12 or 13. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. My wife, Rieki, who has no filter, said “what is the fun of trading money?”. He responded, “don’t you realize the thrill of making millions in less than a day”. She repeated “what is the fun of trading money. You are not creating anything that is beneficial to the real economy.” You could see that Rieki was from Venus, and Saul, my friend was from Mars.
I agreed with Rieki. Not really creating something or creating jobs or following your bliss, or pursuing your purpose, was not stimulating. There was a brief time, when I had saved up quite a bit of money and started investing in ESG funds. That went well, until I got into trouble with my last publication, Source, and had to repay loans from my savings. So, again, back to zero.
I must admit, it felt ok that the portfolio was doing well, and we had some savings, but I derived far greater pleasure, cycling to Spain, helping or mentoring startups, connecting people and most of all seeing behavioral change of asset managers and asset owners towards sustainable investment.
I often thought that was what it was about money that didn’t keep me laser focused on being a financial success. Throughout the time, I started TBLI, we had financial success, as we were early, and the market was growing. Things went easy, but even then, the idea of growing the business for more financial reward, was not a driver. When the financial crisis, hit and we lost 95 percent of our revenue, TBLI had to dramatically re-organize and downsize to one, me. We did survive, by retooling, and bounced back. The Pandemic, forced us, again, to change and adapt towards a full digital system, with focus on the original goal. Make the financial system work for all, not just a small group, and become the force for regeneration investment.
As I approach 70, next year, perhaps being more focused on money, might have made things easier. I have no regrets. I love what I do and love helping others and mobilizing capital to create an economy based upon well-being. If you are doing something that gives you energy, you are in the right place. If you are doing work that costs you energy, you are in the wrong place. I am where I belong.
I feel Walt Whitman was spot on when in verse 52 of Songs of Myself when he said “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” I think we should all do that, irrespective of the upside.
Article by Robert Rubinstein, Chairman and founder of TBLI Group. He has worked on creating consciousness for sustainable values and has led money flows in ESG and impact investments over the past 25 years.
Mr. Rubinstein is the Chairman and Founding Partner of TBLI Group Holdings B.V. with headquarters in The Netherlands. The Company was founded in 1998 with the mission of integrating ESG and TBLI into the culture and strategy of international corporate business and investment companies. Mr. Rubinstein has been instrumental in championing Sustainable and IMPACT investment dedicated to solving social issues.
Prior to TBLI, Mr. Rubinstein had an extensive career in publishing. He founded the first bicycle magazine in The Netherlands, FIETS in 1981, and Source magazine in 1995, a publication focused on integrating “profits and principles” as a message to the business community. FIETS and Source were based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. FIETS was sold to VNU Magazines and it is still in circulation today.
Mr. Rubinstein taught courses in Sustainable Finance at the Rotterdam School of Management from 2003–2006 and in his career has delivered many lectures at international business schools and universities. Mr. Rubinstein has served on various profit and nonprofit boards, as well as advises various organizations.