Profile: Ken Costa

John Buckeridge meets Ken Costa, the chairman of an international investment bank and Alpha, a course which has introduced Christianity to 12 million people worldwide.

Ken Costa is both the chairman of an international investment bank and Alpha, a course which has introduced Christianity to 12 million people worldwide. So he is good with large numbers. But ultimately he says he is interested in influencing individual hearts and minds – and their attitude towards both God and money. 

You may not have heard about Ken Costa. Unless you work in the banking industry, have read his book God at Work or attend Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) his name probably hasn’t crossed your radar. But behind the scenes Costa is a man of influence. A top investment banker (he is head of Lazard International) and chair of numerous charities, this former Marxist now has strong political ties with the Conservative Party. 

He is regarded by many Christian leaders as an understated, wise and discreet man to look after the balance sheet and have on your side when trying to launch a new project or initiative. Busy and well-connected, he could be moderating sessions with CEOs in Washington alongside Rick Warren one week and lecturing in London on transforming society after the banking crisis the next. 

Brought up in a nominally Catholic family, Costa became a Christian at Cambridge University at about the same time as HTB vicar Nicky Gumbel, with whom he has had a long and enduring friendship. ‘We share a passion for the faith, for the work of the spirit, for seeing the country come to Christ and our society being transformed. That is a great unity.’ Costa now serves as church warden at HTB and is chairman of Alpha International. 

He puts the breadth and success of Alpha – more than 12 million people worldwide have now completed the course – down to many factors. He says Gumbel’s leadership plays a key part: ‘He’s a remarkable person. I’ve seen his vision and the way in which he’s translated that vision into very practical ways going forward.’ 

And when he describes another reason – ‘there’s a combination of the spiritual dimension, the key trust element of the brand and a degree of professional activity of the people that are involved in it’ – you start to get a feel for his values and business sense. 

Normally I start an interview with a gentle question to help settle any nerves and get the person talking. But given the headlines of the past 12 months and the way bankers in general are regarded, I figure this interview needs to begin at a brisker pace. 

You’re the chairman of a bank, which in times past would command huge respect from most people, but right now that puts you in the same league of notoriety as traffic wardens, wheel clampers or an MP who claimed for his moat to be cleaned out on expenses. How does that make you feel? 

Well, I don’t suppose the Samaritans were very popular at the time of Jesus, but some of them were good Samaritans. I think that there’s an outcry against some of the practices in the financial community worldwide, which is justified, but not all bankers are tarred with that same brush. This crisis is not only financial – it is also moral and spiritual. The trust economy has been all but shattered. That needs repairing. 

Are good, successful bankers worth millions? 

Good, successful bankers are worth what is a justifiable long-term correlation between the risks that they have taken and the rewards that they have received. Don’t forget that the parable of the talents is a parable of risk. It is a parable of graded risk throughout: from the one who hid his talent and did nothing with it, to the other who was given a great reward for stewarding the talent that he had. But it was over a period of time, the king didn’t come back a week later. He was away for a period. So, over a period of time, correlated risk and reward is the best way of rewarding people. 

So you presumably don’t agree with one US magazine which described Goldman Sachs as ‘a great vampire squid, wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood-funnel into anything that smells like money’. 

Banks are very important in the provision of credit. The bank of which I’m a chairman doesn’t have a balance sheet. We don’t lend money; we’re like a consultant. We provide financial and strategic advice. Those who do lend money, [of which] many of our clients are part of those banks, are very important to oil the machinery of the market economy. The market economy needs credit. The crisis occurred because the credit was gummed up and small businesses – people who run hairdressing salons, people who’ve got their own motor businesses – were unable to expand. The economy needs effective banking to grow and that’s an important part of what banks do and provide. 

In the good years banks make large profits, and, whether they’re justifiable or not, pay high bonus payments. And then, when a bad year happens taxpayers have to bail them out. That’s an incredibly advantageous position. 

If that were the case it would be an advantageous position and a wrong one to have. We have to remember that what occurred last year was a once in a lifetime perfect financial storm. This is not the normal way of what happens over a normal year, it is something highly unusual. Therefore, the way ahead, in my view, is that we’ve got to learn the lessons. We have to work out, what is unshakeable? What is vital to the future? 

What is vital is the recovery of a moral spirit. By which, I don’t mean a new kind of morality which is very narrow-minded, very restrictive, very dos, very don’ts. But a moral spirit. The two combined enables one to say, ‘Look there is a spirit, a conscience that says the ticking of a box is not a duty done. That behind what we’re doing, behind our work and attitudes, there is a humanity that needs to be taken into account.’ 

The crisis occurred because so many people did not recognise that there were human beings working in the economy, and what we want is an economy friendly towards humans and not just treating people as if they were machines. 

What does that look like in the workplace? 

If you have an economy as if people mattered, several things would happen. Firstly we need a regulatory regime that is fair and that punishes those who commit the things that we regard as wrong. Then we have to establish some form of agreement as to where we’re going. 

What I believe we’re trying to do, is to enable the prosperity of the greatest number of people worldwide, including raising the prosperity of those who are in extreme poverty. That is my journey’s end if you want to put it that way. In the absence of a journey’s end, it is very difficult to make an immediate moral judgment. So we need an education process which teaches trust. 

That’s a great aim, but I’m reminded of the 1987 film Wall Street where the fictional character Gordon Gecko famously said ‘greed is good’. Many people would say that banks make the most profit when you’ve got greedy, hungry, megamotivated people in charge. 

Do you think they’d still say that now? Do you think with the evidence that we have of what happened last year, even assuming that were to be the case, that people would still hold that view? 

In my view there’s a major qualification that has taken over that view. Of course as a Christian I don’t hold that view. Greed is not good – it is and always was a deceiver and a destroyer of personal integrity and personal life. But younger people growing up into the market place now want to see this overall picture of where we are going. If I’m going to commit my life and my energies, my talents, my money, my future – where are we heading, not only as a particular institution but also as part of a global economy? 

Do you have a realistic hope that re-education and a new direction are attainable? 

I always travel hopefully. We’re in the middle of a crisis. At the moment the most important thing is to stabilise the financial system of the world. That is the key issue for the moment. 

You are the chairman of Alpha. Some commentators would suggest that, internationally, Alpha is growing still at an exponential rate, but in the UK it is stalling. Is that your perception? 

It certainly isn’t, no. Commentators would love to find trends where none exist. On the contrary, what we’re finding is that the package of the ministries is growing. Those churches that have been doing the Alpha course could now look to a marriage course, or be able to work together on the key issues in God at Work. The suite of the products drawn together is pressing forward new areas of discipleship. Of course, as the other denominations that have not yet been touched come to recognise that Alpha isn’t some sort of empire building, but on the contrary is distributive, you know, giving it away, it will continue to grow. I see no evidence of the stall and look forward to taking off in a different number of ministries. 

You grew up in South Africa when apartheid was still strong. 

I don’t like talking about that period of time. 

Why? 

Because some of the memories are so very painful. When I look back, I look back to the times at university where there was a burning passion for justice. It was unfulfilled, because you saw a so-called Christian government perpetrating some of the most appalling atrocities in the name of Christianity, so I naturally turned against it. Those are the days, it was 1968, when I was a Marxist, but a particular kind of Marxist, believing that humanity was what the key was. Seeing great friends arrested and locked up and thrown into the security headquarters and killed, it was a very traumatic experience. 

You were very involved in the anti-apartheid movement I gather, at one time as the leader of a student movement? 

Yes, the students of the University of Johannesburg and then the National Union of Students, where we were trying to keep alive the principles of justice and freedom and we sang those iconic songs of the time: ‘We shall overcome’. We knew we would overcome, we never thought how it would happen. You know, Steve Biko [a noted anti-apartheid campaigner who was killed by South African police while in custody] was a friend; we struggled together on some of those issues because they were very hard times. And then gloriously Nelson Mandela was freed and the rest is a wonderful example of God at work. 

You became a Christian while studying at Cambridge. What made faith come alive for you? 

It was meeting a group of people who spoke about Christianity as if it was real. I read Mark’s Gospel, only because it was the shortest, in a modern translation. There was something suspiciously authentic about what I read. I talked to Nicky [Gumbel] and other people around about what it was that made this difference. And then I realised that there was a moment in which God wanted to change my life and so we had a negotiation. 

It sounds arrogant to say, but in the light of what I’ve done subsequently, an amusing one I suppose. I tried to negotiate saying ‘Ok God, you want to come and be part of my life – let’s do a joint venture, a partnership, 50:50, 40:60?’ And the answers were ‘No’ and I struggled through that until I came to a moment of surrender and said ‘Ok Lord, 51% of my life, if you want to, we’ll do this. You’re in control, thank you.’ Even that wasn’t sufficient until ultimately in this negotiation between the various shareholdings in my life…the arrogance of it embarrasses me now, but it was very vivid at the time. I realised that if you did believe that he was the person in charge of this enterprise that he would want all of you, which in a measure I think I gave, and my life was transformed. 

That’s the key to freedom really. There are many things that I have doubted since that moment, but I can never doubt the authenticity of the experience and I’ve never really doubted the basis of the faith. 

Let’s look forward now to the general election. What are your political inclinations? 

That’s not a secret. I am and have been a supporter of David Cameron from the very first. I supported him in his first move to become leader and have continued to do so since. I believe that David has all that is needed to equip the country for a very difficult time ahead. I also think that he has a broad understanding of what is needed in dealing with social dislocation, because the society is broken. But he also understands that the moral fabric is tarnished and torn. 

He has a faith of his own which he described in the Evening Standard recently, which I think is encouraging. I think he has been wise in the way in which he has not pushed it to the point where it might be offensive, but where it has stayed warm, within and shaping his understanding. For example on capitalism with a conscience, this is one of the key messages that he has been advancing. 

Someone told me that they noticed when you are at a social gathering, there are two things you do. You talk to the best-looking women in the room and you seek out and identify the emerging leaders. Do you think you are shrewd at spotting talent in all its forms? 

Well, I don’t know if any of that’s true, but what you’ve got to be shrewd about is the way you use your time to invest in people. Let me give you an example. I was going through a very difficult time, and it came to an end. We all go through spiritual struggles at times, and I read through that verse in Luke where Jesus tells Peter, ‘Satan has asked to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail and when you have turned back, strengthen the brethren.’ That’s been a key verse for me. Firstly it’s an amazing thought that Jesus prays for us. But we do go through difficult times, there is a battle and sometimes we think it will never end, but when it ends there’s a purpose to it. 

This view of being able to strengthen those emerging leaders, partly because of the function of HTB, the average age is 27 (except when I’m there it’s 55!), but I have spent time understanding the way they think. Their aspirations, their failures, so yes I do try, haltingly, to spend time, not as much as I would like, with those who will be influential in the next generation. 

Do you know they are the most powerful generation ever to emerge onto the earth? Never before have we had so much empowerment to such a young group of people. Because here is the ‘twitterer’, the ‘blogger’, the ‘facebooker’, here is the ‘myspace’, here is the next generation of social networking right in front of us. 

What Edmund Burke spoke of as the little platoons, here are the digital platoons, the small people, the voluntary people who are the yeast within the society that we have. If we can see these people mobilised to do nothing other than what they’d normally do, which is to twitter, to talk and to text, we will see an extraordinary revolution of the faith. 

Ken Costa was born in South Africa in 1949 and studied philosophy and law at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where he was active in the student protest movements against apartheid. He then studied law and theology at Cambridge University. He went to work for an investment bank in the City of London, where he has worked for more than 30 years. After serving as vice-chairman of UBS Investment Bank where he advised international corporations, he was named as the chairman of Lazard International, joining the bank in October 2007. Costa is chairman of Alpha International and a church warden at Holy Trinity Brompton. He is chairman of the successful Tick Tock Club appeal which raised £10million on behalf of Great Ormond Street Hospital; a member of the Advisory Council of the London Symphony Orchestra; is the Gresham Professor of Commerce in the City of London; and a trustee of the UK arm of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. He and his wife, Fi, live in London. They have two sons and two daughters. This interview took place on 17th November 2009.



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