The Big Interview: Robeco CEO on joining the ETF race, navigating regulatory change and UK expansion

Karin van Baardwijk

Valeria Martinez
clock • 6 min read
Karin van Baardwijk (pictured), is chief executive officer of Robeco and chair of the executive committee

Karin van Baardwijk (pictured), is chief executive officer of Robeco and chair of the executive committee

Karin van Baardwijk had spent close to two decades working at Robeco before she took on the chief executive role at the start of 2022, just as asset managers entered one of the most tumultuous periods for the industry in recent years.

While investors grappled with a drastic shift in the direction of central bank policy, geopolitics and negative returns across many asset classes, van Baardwijk approached the first two years of her tenure with the unique confidence of someone well-acquainted with the intricacies of a business.

"It was good for me to be in this company for many, many years before I took over the role, because 1 January 2022 wasn't the easiest time to get started," she says. 

van Baardwijk held myriad roles across the organisation before landing the CEO seat at the Rotterdam-based asset manager. Having started as an external consultant in 2005, she served as head of group information services and head of operational risk management. 

Robeco appoints new chief executive officer

After ten years at the firm, she joined the management board and became chief operating officer, before being promoted deputy CEO under former chief Gilbert van Hassel in September 2020. 

Despite stepping into the role during a period defined by uncertainty, her time as deputy CEO proved pivotal, giving her close involvement in crafting the firm's 2021-2025 strategy. 

"The former CEO and the supervisory board told me: ‘Karin, you should definitely own the new strategy because you're going to be executing it'," she says. "That was very helpful for me, because at that stage I knew that was something I could definitely stand behind."

Expansion into ETFs

One of the key elements of the strategy was entering the world of ETFs, which began with the poaching of Fidelity International's head of ETFs Nick King in September, who would steer the firm's development in the active ETF market. 

"This is something that we expect a lot from, but also something that we've been preparing in the last few years to get the operational platform ready - to really hire someone with the right skills," she says.

Although they still remain a niche area of the European market, active ETFs have gained popularity in recent years. According to data form Morningstar, flows into active ETFs in 2023 amounted to €6.7bn, more than doubling the €2.4bn gathered in 2022. 

Robeco poaches ETF chief from Fidelity International to lead platform launch

Asset managers such as JP Morgan AM — the largest active ETF provider in Europe — and Fidelity have built their ETF suite primarily with active ETFs, as the market for traditional passives becomes increasingly crowded. 

"The next choices that we're going to make - before going live somewhere in the second part of next year with the first ETF - is seeing which type of building block we are going to use," she adds. 

During their early discussions, van Baardwijk says King immediately recognised Robeco's "candy store" of opportunities when it came to choosing the firm's first ETF, given its existing investment and distribution capabilities.

There are several options on the table for the first ETF launch due sometime later this year, she says, ranging from sustainability-focused strategies, thematic investments and quant investing solutions to emerging market credit and customisable Robeco indices.

(L-R) Karin van Baardwijk and Nick King

ESG leadership and regulatory change

As a mid-sized firm, van Baardwijk acknowledges the danger the house faces in the prevailing "winner takes all" mentality present in the asset management industry today. However, she emphasises that size is not the only factor for success; scalability and unique capabilities also matter.

"Our uniqueness is combined in having a very broad diversified business in combination with sustainability investing - it's a skill play for us," she says. 

"We're not the biggest in the market. If you are very big you also have very big problems, and of course, opportunities. But for us, this is the most important part."

Robeco's sustainable investing journey started way before the ESG frenzy of recent years, having launched its first sustainable investing product in 1995. As of September 2023, the firm integrates ESG into more than €173bn of its total €176bn AUM. 

Robeco opens proprietary sustainable investment data to public

Over the last two decades, Robeco's approach has evolved from solely integrating ESG factors into the investment management process to embracing open access initiatives and collaborating with organisations, such as the World Wide Fund.

This has come as sustainable and ESG investing is met with slowing inflows and growing scepticism, becomes a partisan political topic in the US and the subject of increased regulatory scrutiny in Europe.

van Baardwijk notes that although scepticism exists, performance and achieving sustainability goals "can go hand in hand, but you have to take a very long-term view and a longer-term horizon".

"Sustainability investing is a topic of the future; it will never go away. It will be different in every part of the world, but it will never go away," she says.

Global ESG and sustainable funds post first net quarterly outflow on record

Despite this, she notes the risk of 'greenwashing' is increasingly prevalent and can damage the credibility of the industry, potentially slowing the appetite for sustainable investment and ESG products. 

Financial watchdogs have responded to this issue by introducing new rules, such as the EU's SFDR or the UK's SDR. For van Baardwijk, the increasing regulatory pressure can be a "burden, but also a blessing", as it demands transparency for the market.

"The ones that can provide that transparency [will be] the ones with the most credible reputation," she says. "The ones who are able to adapt quickly to that regulation, the ones who understand it, who have the data, will be the winners of the future."

UK expansion and D&I push

Another strategic push for Robeco comes in the form of adapting its London office. Currently, the City office primarily hosts consultancy, sales and distribution teams, but van Baardwijk sees its future as a global talent hub for investment professionals with an expanded UK asset management licence. 

"It's of strategic relevance for us to get the right people with the right skills and the right experience in," she says, adding "you don't want your licence to be limiting the potential for the UK office".

"So we stretched it. We feel that this way, we will be having more investment professionals coming to the UK office. Having clear visibility in the UK market for Robeco is extremely important, and also of strategic relevance going forward."

While van Baardwijk says Robeco is "lucky to be able to attract all the talent in the world", she argues that retaining it is only possible if a firm has a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion.

Robeco names head of Europe wholesale

"There's a whole new workforce coming with new and younger people who have different expectations of work-life balance and have different backgrounds and education," she says. "How do we make sure that Robeco is a home for all of these people, and for them to be their authentic self?"

The promotion of women into senior positions is a particular focus for the firm, alongside the increase in representation and advancement of underrepresented minorities.

van Baardwijk says her position as a female CEO can help other women in the organisation by learning from her personal leadership journey and serving as an example that climbing the senior management ladder is also within reach.

"They can look at me and say: ‘She's been through 17 years of a whole journey in the organisation and she ended up in the CEO seat. If it's possible for her, it's also possible for me'," she adds.