Albert Fink is co-founder of GLS Bank and has always been an entrepreneur in the very best sense of the word. He has never been content with only theoretically engaging with the ideas of a social threefolding; rather, he is always impelled to also do something, to take action. Among his many passionate causes is the advancement of the biological and dynamic agricultural sector. He was honoured for his work in this area in November 2014, when he was awarded the Werner-Kieffer Prize at Hambach Castle.
Albert Fink takes us back to the 1960s, sharing memories of his first encounter with Friederike and Alfred Rexroth, and his early meetings with the circle of people around Wilhelm Ernst Barkhoff – a man inspired by anthroposophical texts to work on the ideal foundations of an extended banking industry. He also belonged to this circle. He does not believe it sufficient to exclusively deal with theoretical aspects though; at the same time, practical (and very consciously also experimental) steps should also be taken to stimulate institutions and ways of working in the external societal environment which can bear fruit to thoughts and ideas in action.
Albert, in your view, what were the biggest challenges and questions that arose in the early days of Neuguss?
At that time, society was not prepared for new forms of collaboration in economic life. The idea was to organise the ownership of commercial enterprises so that it would benefit the common good. This wasn’t just a matter of the initiatives of individual businesspeople, but one of the creative drive of everyone involved. The various spheres of life (education, organic agriculture, medicine, commercial activities) should on one hand be connected and on the other made to be economically and financially viable through new forms of collaboration. The question arose as to who would mediate such collaborations and how the financial footing for undertakings of this sort could be established. There was also the question of how a part of any surpluses that were produced (e.g. from industry and other economic activity) could be used as an investment in the future of the non-profit initiatives.
How did you come to meet Alfred and Friederike Rexroth during this period?
At the beginning of the 1960s, I met Friederike and Alfred Rexroth through Helmut Bleks, who was then a representative of the Rexroth company in Lohr in North Rhine-Westphalia. As mentioned before, the couple had had their first meetings with the initiative group centred around Wilhelm Ernst Barkhoff. The group was working on the ideational foundation of an expanded banking form, which later resulted in the GLS Bank. But things didn’t remain purely theoretical. After very sobering experiences at Der Kommende Tag AG, Rexroth was deeply disheartened that there had been so little success in shaping economic activity through anthroposophy and social threefolding – in particular in industry – and combining commercial initiatives with those that work for the common good. Using guidance from Rexroth, we engaged intensively with the preamble to ‘Kommende Tag’, written by Rudolf Steiner, in which he points out the need to form bank-like institutions as a form of mediation body in the associative employment contexts (see essays on the threefold social order and during the years 1915 to 1921, GA 24).
In Bochum, we managed to take the first practical steps and make the first attempts to stimulate institutions and ways of working in the external societal environment which could bear fruit to thoughts and ideas in action. As a first step, Alfred Rexroth made a sum of money available to the Gemeinnützige Treuhandstelle as a gift with the condition that it should take a silent partnership with him in an industrial enterprise. Through this involvement, part of the income was to be transferred to the Gemeinnützige Treuhandstelle. The company was located quickly, but due to having new premises that were too expensive, it became practically insolvent. I took over the management as a general partner. The company – Schweisstechnik Bochum – developed so well that the start-up costs for the Bochum banking institutions were covered to a large extent by its profits and those of another company that Alfred Rexroth had a stake in. Later, he transferred the rest of the shares that he had in other companies to Neuguss, which had been founded for this purpose. It is important to mention in particular the stake in a Berlin-based company, Alfred Rexroth GmbH, that was financially successful under the management of Horst Bleks. Later on, Neuguss diverted significant dividends to the Gemeinnützige Treuhandstelle. Among other things, these formed the basis for many investments that were made in cultural and social projects in the public welfare sector.
Alfred Rexroth wrote down the factors that informed his actions in a mission statement that he called ‘Die Unternehmer Kooperation’ (The Enterprise Cooperation). The partnership model between employers and employees that Alfred Rexroth and his brother developed was to form the social basis for this new kind of economic activity. He envisioned the neutralisation of entrepreneurial capital. This was to be transferred into larger social contexts and help the often irreconcilable opposites of capital and labour, non-profit and commercial activity, and culture and economy move towards each other. Alfred Rexroth clearly saw a forward-looking model for his endeavours in Neuguss and the related trust agency and in the GLS Bank associations, and he ultimately made all his industry assets available to them after his death. The contracts in fulfilment of the testamentary dispositions turned out to be a set of contracts that some lawyers and tax experts considered to be too unsystematic and inconclusive because they relied too much on the insight and ingenuity of the future participants. In the report of one large-company audit of Neuguss, there is a comment that forms the conclusion of the long deliberations of the auditor: ‘The Neuguss company doesn’t belong to anyone.’ This is certainly a remarkable sentence for an auditor.
As well as Alfred Rexroth, we should also remember his wife, Friederike. Without her unconventional, confident and, in pivotal situations, decisive actions in the background, many things would not have come to pass or been done by Alfred Rexroth.
The name ‘Neuguss’ (new casting) already references the linking of industrial and creative processes. What were the big challenges in this respect?
My friend Rolf Kerler gave an opening speech at a general meeting of the Gemeinnützige Treuhandstelle e. V. on the occasion of their 40th anniversary, in which he described the path of training that was taken for the founding of the Bochum banking institutions and thereby also for Neuguss. Among other things, it concerned the question of how we could move from community building to society building. This was certainly a huge societal task, not least due to the threatening hardships of the time, but also because of the hopeful movements that expressed themselves in the various initiatives of civil society – beyond state and institutional establishments. Rolf Kerler painted these difficulties as ‘entering into real working relationships with the cows we want to milk’. What he meant was that the actions of the Gemeinnützige Treuhandstelle were largely made possible through income from industrial holdings. He also added the question of how we can combine economic and cultural value creation with one another through the people that create it. This is an unresolved task for the future that had always preoccupied Alfred Rexroth.
Where do you see the aspirations from the founding days of the company in the context of future endeavours?
On one hand there are many so-called start-ups these days that are looking for new ways of doing business and generating innovative talent. GLS Bank is also involved with this new impetus. On the other hand, most formations run the risk of reverting to the old ways once they reach a certain market value. What makes me very hopeful are the numerous initiatives from the various spheres of life in which stakeholders can take matters into their own hands. Examples include health initiatives that provide mutual care across generations, solidarity-based agriculture, cooperative forms of housing and many others.