Charles Middleton: 'Yes, I'm a banker who really cares...'

It's not hard to run a bank on ethical principles, the boss of Triodos UK tells Sean Farrell

Outrageous bonuses, socially useless trading, shaky funding, reckless lending and dealing with dodgy customers. These are just some of the practices that have stirred mounting anger about the banks' role in society. With protesters camped at St Paul's and railing against City excess, Charles Middleton wants to let people know that his bank has nothing to do with this mess. Mr Middleton is the UK chief executive of Triodos, which bills itself as one of the world's leading sustainable banks. Founded in the Netherlands in 1980, the bank has operated in Britain since 1995.

Since Mr Middleton joined the British operation in 2003, its lending has increased from £60m to £413m without exceeding its 75 per cent limit on funds to loans. That means that it always has more deposits than loans and does not tap wholesale markets, where funding droughts have proved fatal for Northern Rock and others.

So how has the mounting antipathy towards banks affected Triodos in the UK? "It's an interesting time," Mr Middleton says. "There have been more phone calls and people hitting our website. We're trying to get our views out there, partly because every time I turn on the radio they are talking about ethical banking and we believe there are specific things people can do to have an impact."

He admits the "emotional response" of customers to the crisis has so far been stronger in countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium than in Britain, but he believes Triodos can win more business if it can get its message across.

Triodos sticks to the basics of banking that became obscured by financial engineering, racy funding and a dash for big returns in the years before the credit crisis. Money it raises from retail savers is lent to social, cultural and environmental businesses that meet the bank's "sustainability" requirements.

Unlike other banks, it also publishes details of all the businesses it lends to, so that savers can see where their money goes. The list is filled with environmental, campaigning and social enterprise clients such as Cafédirect, the fair trade coffee and tea producer, Jamie's Farm, which offers agricultural rehabilitation to deprived urban children; and Visionary Soap Company, a maker of fair trade beauty products.

Mr Middleton, a married father of three, spends much of his time visiting and learning about businesses he lends to. In the UK, Triodos is expanding lending to social housing and food recycling companies, among others.

The bank has about 30,000 savers in the UK and Mr Middleton thinks the opportunity is there to make that number "significantly bigger". He says competition is tough because the bigger lenders are straining to attract deposits but, with low interest rates making a real return "practically impossible" for all savers, the added attraction of ethical lending could be persuasive.

"The product has to be right but there is a great story in terms of what we are doing with our money," he says.

Banks are usually wary about identifying their customers, citing confidentiality reasons, though this also helps to make the projects they fund difficult to pin down. Triodos gets over this problem by stipulating to all borrowers that they will be made public. Mr Middleton concedes that this would be hard for mega-banks such as HSBC or Barclays, but he argues that they are "in denial" and missing an opportunity to regain public trust.

"They are so defensive about this sort of idea but there is an enormously positive impulse that can come out of this. They desperately need to be seen in a more positive light and this is one thing that could do that. They can't publish the full list of customers overnight but they could be more transparent. It's quite sad at a time when some businesses are thinking quite deeply about what this means for their business and looking at ways they can make changes."

Pay is a big issue on which Triodos claims the high ground. Mr Middleton is coy about his salary but he earned less than the not-so-huge €258,000 (£222,000) paid to the group's chief executive, Peter Blom, last year.

Triodos also has no contractual bonuses, though a few individual employees were paid a discretionary two months' salary last year and every European worker got €300 extra as a reward for the bank's performance.

Before moving to Triodos, Mr Middleton was a traditional commercial banker for many years at Barclays, whose US chief executive and powerhouse investment bank are high on many anti-capitalists' target lists.

When he joined Barclays, its Quaker roots were still in evidence but the bank veered off in a new direction, he says. "I don't think we valued [those values] quite as much as we should have done. When you see how banks like Barclays have evolved, you can see how we lost sight of some of the traditional ways of doing things."

However, Barclays did give Mr Middleton the chance to see the world and he spent 11 years overseas in India, Botswana and the Caribbean. India was what started to make him think more about the ethics of banking.

"It was such a privilege to be there and we were so well received by our Indian friends. There was an opportunity to do something and we worked on some [charitable] projects there."

When his family returned to the UK, he sold to friends some of the hundreds of photos he had taken and thereby funded the education of 17 Indian children.

Once back in Britain he spent a year travelling to Africa every month for work, and was looking for opportunities in the charity world when a Dutch friend introduced him to Triodos. He could not believe his luck. "They were looking for a UK CEO and it was aligned with where I wanted to be," he says.

If he can be heard above the clamour, Mr Middleton's time may just have come.

What the customers say

* Gaby Guyer, a Triodos saver for 10 years: "With other banks you don't get publications coming through the door with information about where your money is going. It feels like I know the projects and where the money is invested. With other banks, you're never quite sure who's being exploited."


* Richard Scanlon, finance director at Cafédirect: "We've banked with Triodos since 2004 and there's a real difference. Charles Middleton came in last month and spent 45 minutes finding out about our business. You feel like you are working in partnership and they are investing in your business."


* Jamie Feilden, founder of Jamie's Farm: "We borrowed £400,000 from Triodos last year to buy the farm. We approached other banks without Triodos's agenda and they weren't interested. Triodos took a lot of time to understand our business."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all