Masja Zandbergen-Albers: Way ahead of the ESG curve

Masja Zandbergen-Albers, head of sustainability integration at Robeco talks to Lynn Strongin Dodds about ESG, engagement and leaning in.

Sustainable investing may be the most talked about trend in fund management circles, but it has been mainstream for Robeco and its head of sustainability integration Masja Zandbergen-Albers, for several years. Both have been pioneers in incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria into the investment decision making process as well as encouraging companies to raise their game.

“We always viewed sustainability as a holistic approach and not a niche activity,” says Zandbergen-Albers. “We have a long track record and believe that integrating sustainability in our research is beneficial. I think today the trend towards sustainable investing is unstoppable for a multiple of reasons and drivers, that reinforce each other in the finance industry. These include client demand, reputation, regulations such as the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation as well as stewardship codes and PRI (UN Principles of Responsibility membership).

Robeco was far ahead of the curve, launching its first sustainable fund in 1995 as well as being one of the first signatories of the PRI in 2005. Two years later, the Dutch firm further cemented its position, acquiring a majority stake in Swiss-based Sustainable Asset Management Group (SAM), one of the earliest asset managers for sustainable investments with its widely recognised water and energy funds.

The acquisition was part of Robeco’s plan to widen its reach and create a leading global platform for sustainability investments across all the asset classes. At the time, governance was the main area of focus and there was less attention on environmental and social issues.

Zanbergen-Albers, who joined Robeco in 1997 as an equity fund manager of a global financials fund and European portfolios, also saw the handwriting on the wall early on. She made the move to the sustainable investing team in 2003 and has not looked back since. “After a few years, I thought there has to be more to investing than making money out of money,” she says. “I thought a lot about sustainability and the place where ESG and investment meet.”

One of her greatest achievements during that time was setting up the Active Ownership or voting and engagement approach. Initially the aim was to liaise with companies on social issues such as human rights and labour standards, but this has been extended to a much greater scope of topics.

In 2020 alone, Robeco had 941 engagement activities with 222 companies, and was able to close 67% of its engagements successfully “I wanted to broaden out how we thought about sustainability and found that our clients were interested in active ownership and voting,” says Zandbergen-Albers. “We always work in collaboration to effect change and sometimes we take the lead. For example, we worked on a joint resolution with other shareholders that led McDonalds in 2017 to agree to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in its chicken meat, which was later extended to pork and beef.”

Her role today also encompasses thought leadership pieces on ESG to educate and share information as well as co-ordinating ESG integration across asset classes. The latter is not an easy task given the multiple sources of data. One of the biggest challenges, according to Zandbergen-Albers is a fragmented landscape. “There are so many different types of data as well as key performance indicators,” she says. “Take the training of employees. Some companies may measure success by the number of people they are training while others look at the number of hours. This is why we think it is best to have our own framework.”

Zandbergen-Albers and her five-person team tap into the deep well of knowledge of 40 experienced experts based in Rotterdam and Switzerland. “ESG is not just about exclusions,” she says. “I work very closely with investment teams – credit, equities, government bonds, quantitative and fundamental – to ensure that we have high quality ESG data in the investment process.”

“There is no one size fits all solution,” she says. “ESG is not black and white but complex. This is why we also work closely with clients and have developed bespoke solutions. For example, we have sustainable multi-asset solutions which combine sustainable fundamental, thematic and factor investments. The aim is to generate market-like returns with a more sustainable character.”

Although Zandbergen-Albers has spent nearly 18 years at Robeco it has not been in a straight line and there were a few detours to further sharpen her skills. She left in 2008 to start her own company consulting in the field of investing, risk management and sustainability at various clients including Syntrus Achmea where she was an interim manager in the responsible investment department, as well as Sustainalytics to work on a research and consultancy project. Three years later she joined Syntrus Achmea as head of the equity team and member of the management team of the asset management department.

“I loved being at Robeco, but I wanted to manage my own team and at the time there was nothing available, so I did a lot of interim work in sustainability, and at Syntrus I was asked to head the equities team, says Zandbergen-Albers who re-joined the Dutch asset manager in 2015 as Head of Analysts at the Global Equities team before taking on her current role two years later.

Zandbergen is used to carving out her own path. She studied econometrics and was attracted by the research and analysis aspect of her first job at Robeco. “The profession of a portfolio manager is about being curious and I like thinking about the big picture and wider economy. I started as a junior portfolio manager, and I was often the only woman in the room. There were a lot of blue and grey suits, but it did not hold me back though.”

Today, there are many more women fund managers, especially in the sustainable space. “Diversity & Inclusion is one of the core components of our five-year strategy. We have specific goals which are promoted across the age range and organisation. We also invest in companies that have the best practices and policies, as well as engaging with companies, who need to improve, about our stewardship programme.”

She adds,” I am personally involved in networks of women which share knowledge and experience. I also try to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook) would say in her book. If one of my colleagues is offered a job, I offer support and a small push to apply for the job.”

©Markets Media Europe 2021

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