José Ignacio Goirigolzarri: ‘Political conflict doesn’t save lives or create jobs’

EL PAÍS is publishing a series of interviews with the leaders of Spain’s biggest companies regarding the coronavirus crisis. The fifth installment is with the president of Spanish bank Bankia, who believes the pandemic will exacerbate ideological differences

Company directors facing the coronavirus crisis (V)

The president of Bankia, José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, at the company’s headquarters in Madrid.
The president of Bankia, José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, at the company’s headquarters in Madrid. Samuel Sánchez

The president of Spanish bank Bankia, José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, 66, believes that the coronavirus crisis will exacerbate global ideological differences in the coming years, and that the defense of liberal democracy, rights and freedoms, globalization and multilateralism is essential. In his opinion, Spanish politicians should make a concerted effort to understand each other and emulate local councils when it comes to constructive cooperation.

Question. What impact has the pandemic had on you?

Answer. Firstly, it has brought feelings of grief, pain and solidarity with the people who have been affected. Secondly, I feel proud of Spanish society’s response and grateful to those collectives on the front line, such as health workers, security forces and, of course, bank employees. Thirdly, I am concerned because our situation is very uncertain. And fourthly, I am hopeful because I believe very much in Spanish society’s capacity to adapt.

Q. Have you had to change the management of Bankia much?

A. We have changed drastically. In two and a half months, we have modified our way of working, not only internally but also regarding our products and how we relate to clients. [...] If I was told three months ago that we would be able to have 95% of central services teleworking or 90% of our offices open with half of our people teleworking, I would not have believed it. We wanted to keep as many offices open as possible and this required a lot of micro management in terms of organization, health protection and work-life balance. An extraordinary effort has been made, of which I am not only proud but full of admiration.

Q. Have you been coming in person to the bank?

A. I have been coming in every day and have actually teleworked from here because during the most difficult period, there were very few people – just five or six. And with this radical change, I have been more on top of operations than usual because decisions have had to be made continuously.

Q. Why come to the bank rather than work from home?

A. On one hand, because I have better infrastructure here than at home, but also because, [before the lockdown] there were at least 6,000 people working in offices with clients, and in some way, it felt symbolic to be here, even if no one knew it.

If I was told three months ago that we would be able to have 95% of central services teleworking, I would not have believed it

Q. What lessons have we learned from this crisis so far?

A. Basically, two. Firstly, that we have to delegate more in our organization. Secondly, that remote working is here to stay, in one form or another. Teleworking has worked very well so far because we were in a stressful situation. It is not so easy to manage teleworking in a normal situation, although we will have to make progress in that respect for the future.

Q. What changes can society expect?

A. The next few years are going to be very decisive for the world and for different societies. Before Covid-19, we were seeing a number of trends regarding ideological conflict that are going to become more acute with this pandemic. But I am very optimistic because I believe very much in humanity and I am a born optimist. But we have to be very realistic with our diagnosis.

Q. What do you mean?

A. In the world, there is conflict between those of us who believe that multilateralism is great and those who say it’s a mistake; there are people who think that globalization has played an extraordinary role and people who think that protectionism is the future; there are those who think that we have to move towards more global governance and those who believe that it has no place. Europe is a clear example. There are those of us who think that we need more Europe and then there are obvious anti-European movements. In terms of individual rights and freedoms, there are those of us who think defending them is relevant and others who believe that principles such as security must take precedence over them. Politically, there are people who think that a liberal democracy should be defended and there are those who think that an illiberal democracy or Caesarism [absolute government] is much better because it is more effective. There are people who think that everything has to be publicly owned or that everything has to be private and others who think that a combination works better.

José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, president of Bankia.
José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, president of Bankia.Samuel Sánchez

Q. Why will these differences become more acute with the pandemic?

A. Because we see how vulnerable we are and that brings uncertainty. The question is how we manage that. We either do it from a place of fear, which means looking for false assurances, or we do it with maturity and responsibility. I am optimistic and I believe that the second option will win out, but we must fight to defend these principles, because there’s no guarantee they will triumph. This will be the main issue for the next 10 years.

Q. There is also a lot of political confrontation in Spain.

A. We are living through some very clear political tension and to me, as a citizen, that’s bad because the conflict is over issues that are not the ones we should be worried about now. Political conflict doesn’t save lives or create jobs. It is very important to dial this tension down and to focus on the problems that we have now. We must ask political leaders to make an effort to understand each other. But on a positive note, when you look at administrations dealing more closely with the public and its needs, such as the local councils, we do not see that tension. Different political forces are working together to solve the most immediate problems.

Q. What measures are needed to revive the economy?

A. I would divide it into stages. We are coming to the end of the first one which involved protecting people who have been left without an income while preserving the business fabric, which is key to getting out of this crisis faster. I believe that this stage has been carried out correctly. We are now moving from the macro to the micro, to the sectors that need us to provide solutions. To do this, we must draw on the expertise of the entrepreneurs who work in them. It is essential to come up with strategies and solutions. But there is also a third stage, running parallel to this; all crises throw up opportunities, since in a crisis you dare to do things you would not normally do. We know this from experience at Bankia. We have to take advantage of this crisis to improve the weaknesses in Spanish society and its economy.

You have to support people who have lost their income, not only for social reasons but also out of fairness. Social cohesion is a key element in any society

Q. What should we be doing?

A. We must come out of this crisis with strategies to improve productivity. That covers a range of things, but education and training are essential. We must prepare our citizens to respond to the new labor market conditions. And I am not only talking about young people and university students, who of course are included, but also the whole of society and all age groups because we are going to have to be constantly acquiring new skills. I think that this is the most attractive and inclusive project Spanish society has to undertake in the coming years. If we want to improve people’s welfare, we have to do this or it will be very difficult to ensure our future competitiveness.

Q. What more can governments do?

A. I think it is very important that administrations work on generating the conditions in which these changes can take place. Everything related to training and education is key. Legal security is also important as is creating an environment where the promotion of business is appreciated. Digital infrastructure is also needed as is sustainability and a fiscal system that is fair but at the same time supports development, and attracts talent and foreign investment.

Q. Businesses are asking that the 2012 labor reform not be repealed. This legislation was passed by the main opposition Popular Party (PP) while it was in power, and which, among other things, gave companies in Spain more flexibility to sack employees.

A. The total repeal of the labor reform should not be on the cards for several reasons. Although the reform undoubtedly has many nuances, more than three and a half million jobs have been created [since it was introduced] and it also regulates the figure of the ERTE [furlough scheme, which allows companies to temporarily send workers home or reduce their working hours, and readmit them on their previous conditions after a certain amount of time] – a basic instrument for managing this crisis. Therefore, an amendment to the whole thing should never be on the cards, but less so now, because it would generate uncertainty. Do we need to improve labor legislation and the labor market? Of course, but going back to what was happening in 2011 is not the alternative as there has been so much change in the markets and the economy. We will have to improve it with an eye on the future, creating a radically different labor market than the one we had in 2011. Let’s build on past agreements between trade unions and employers’ associations to achieve a future market that is more inclusive in terms of incorporating people.

Q. Should we be supporting companies or workers?

A. We have to support everyone, which is what we learned from the last [2008 financial] crisis. You have to support people who have lost their income, not only for social reasons but also for the sake of fairness. Social cohesion is a key element in any society. You also have to support the business fabric because that is the only way you can quickly generate employment, which is good for everyone’s welfare. That is obvious in the short term. In the medium and long term, if you have a thriving business environment, Spanish citizens will have better jobs, better salaries, more added value and, therefore, the capacity to finance the welfare state.

Before Covid-19, we were seeing a number of trends regarding ideological conflict that are going to become more acute with this pandemic

Q. Is this a good time to introduce a minimum income scheme?

A. I was more in favor of a temporary response because of its complexity, but the structural vision has its merits. I didn’t think it was necessary when we were on complete lockdown because of the difficulties involved in its creation and application. [...] When it comes to coordination with regional authorities and the local councils, the configuration of a minimum income is complex because you have to find a balance so that people have incentives to join the labor market when the opportunity arises or pursue training opportunities. It is also complex because it can lead to fraud and therefore bolster the informal economy, which is a major problem in the country. It is a very complicated issue, but [Social Security Minister] José Luis Escrivá is someone who has worked on this for many years and I have enormous intellectual respect for him. It is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, you have to ensure social cohesion – what people are not aware of is that no social cohesion means violence and insecurity. On the other hand, to protect social cohesion you cannot fall into the poverty trap of a subsidized society, which we already know does not work. Achieving that balance is very complicated.

Q. What do you think of the European Union’s response to the crisis?

A. It has been very positive and it is important to say this because it is very important to preserve the pro-European sentiment that the Spanish have. On the one hand, the European Central Bank is providing liquidity and acting in the best way possible to fight against the fragmentation of the financial system that happened in 2012 [during the financial crisis]. On the other hand, there’s the European Commission’s proposal for loans and aid, which is very important, and we hope it will be agreed on soon. Meanwhile, this must make us responsible when it comes to managing public money. We must do our duties while at the same calling for solidarity from Europe, which in this case makes a lot of sense because it is a widespread problem caused by a health crisis. There is a clear rational justification for this.

Q. Do you think that society will appreciate the role of banks during this crisis and stop seeing them as the bad guys, like in 2012?

A. We are not starting from a great place, but we are convinced that we have to do what we can to improve our reputation, which is one of the biggest problems in banking. And this is a great opportunity to improve it. Beyond the contribution to social funds and the cancellation of commissions, the reaction of the sector during the pandemic has been remarkable. We are an essential service and we have performed extremely well – almost 90% of Bankia’s branches have remained open. Everyone talks about the groups that have been on the front line during the crisis, but they forget about the bank employees. Our team is very happy with the bank’s performance and we have been touched, above all, by the customers’ gratitude.

Q. You have worked in banks for 43 years and survived numerous crises. Is this the worst in terms of uncertainty?

A. It’s true that I’m a crisis doctor, although I hope that doesn’t mean I’m jinxed. But no, this isn’t the worst. Aside from the pain it has generated, the worst was in 2012 because the bank had tremendous problems with capital and couldn’t serve customers asking for credit, which was frustrating. At the moment, there is a lot of uncertainty but we are helping the customers. However, there are still several financial quarters ahead that are going to be very complex.

Q. Will there be a V-shaped recovery?

A. I agree with the Bank of Spain’s scenarios as there are many unknowns. More relevant than whether GDP [gross domestic product] will fall by 10% or 12% in 2020, is how fast we emerge to take advantage of 2021, and that will depend on what we do until the end of the year.

English version by Heather Galloway.

More information