Johan Torgeby, President and Group Chief Executive of SEB, joined SACCNY on November 29 for a breakfast seminar and candid conversation with Chamber President Anna Throne-Holst. During the talk, Torgeby shared his philosophy on work-life balance, tech, and the advantages of being thrown in the deep end.

In hindsight, Torgeby’s trajectory may look very straight—working at Morgan Stanley after studying economics, and then on to SEB via Swedbank—especially given that his mother recently reminded him that he announced at age four that he wanted to be ”a big boss at a big bank.” However, he has no recollection of that childhood dream. An avid drummer, his sights were set on becoming a professional musician. This ambition was dampened once he began music school and realized the level of talent some of his peers possessed. Drumming became relegated to his spare time, something he admits not having had much of for the past two decades.

Rather, Torgeby’s secret to work-life balance is doing what makes him happy. ”If there is no strong polarization between work and the rest of your life, if going into the office feels like meeting friends, then work might feel joyful all the time,” he says.

At just 42, Torgeby is a young CEO. In terms of achieving success, he stresses the importance of being ”surrounded by generous people who believe in your ability rather than in your CV.” He says he was lucky enough to have a manager early on at Morgan Stanley who trusted him in this way. ”When you get thrown into deep water you can just skyrocket compared to someone who doesn’t get that opportunity.”

As for the questions on everybody’s mind when it comes to banking these days, Torgeby sees online banking as old news, a slow incremental change he has been living since 1994. Though he concedes, ”Something magical is happening right now in retail- and mass-market-banking given cheaper technologies.” He also finds the narrative that pitches startups against established banks to be overwrought.

I believe in offering our clients the best possible service. That is the only way to create sustainable business models.”

The more worrisome trend to him is not in fintech, but in what he calls techfin: Tech companies providing financial services. ”I have Apple pay and visited Apple two days ago. This is a platform that doesn’t care about financial services, they see it as data-gathering and a platform loyalty-enhancer, and they don’t need to make money on it.”

His overall outlook regarding technologically fueled changes remains optimistic and pragmatic. He compares big banks to hospitals and asks if anyone would raise an eyebrow if a health care facility bought a startup for a new cutting-edge MRI scan. ”No, you would just say that’s the technology incorporated into the incumbent, that’s one way of thinking of what’s happening if you are a large bank. You just welcome it all. In the end, I’m here to serve the clients. If the clients stop choosing us, we’re dead.”

One area of new technology in which SEB has caused some buzz is the bank’s deal with San Francisco-based Ripple to use their blockchain solution for payment transactions. ”Previously a payment from Sweden to the United States would take up to 48 hours. With blockchain the first payment took 9 seconds and now we are down to do just 2 seconds.”

Torgeby notes that this deals a severe blow to the basic business model of banking—the day that a bank keeps the money after you send it until it arrives in the receiving account. ”A lot of banks worry that this will negatively impact business, but I believe in offering our clients the best possible service. That is the only way to create sustainable business models.”

Karl Wellner, SACCNY, Johan Torgeby, SEB
and Anna Throne-Holst, SACCNY