My Partner and Friend, Eberhard von Koerber

My Partner and Friend, Eberhard von Koerber

by Ashok Khosla, Co-President of the Club of Rome with Eberhard von Koerber from 2007-2012

Eberhard’s friendship was among the most treasured and cherished gifts I have ever received. Over the twenty years we were colleagues, then collaborators and then inseparable partners, it was not long before we became as close as life-long brothers.

We shared much more than our very different life experiences would have predicted. The distances between the cultures we inherited, the divergences in the professional career paths we chose and the dissimilarities in the personal networks we had built around the world were not inconsiderable. He came from a German upbringing, a hugely successful business career and with a vast set of relationships with leaders in governments, international businesses and philanthropic institutions. I was an Indian, with a grounding in science and environmental activism and mostly involved in the work of NGOs and non-profit civil society institutions. In other words, we were virtually opposites in every respect.

But these differences very quickly dissolved into complementarities that provided for a solid base of trust and mutual respect, an exemplary professional and personal relationship that enabled us to accommodate each other’s often-differing viewpoints and to become a partnership that was, hopefully, able to deliver results of some value.

Eberhard and I knew each other as fellow members of the Club of Rome since the late 1990s but first became really aware of each other during the Club’s Annual Conference in 2003 at Amman, when we were elected the two Vice Presidents of the Club of Rome. For the next four years, we served as deputies to the Club’s new President, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, who had just succeeded the revered and long-standing president, Ricardo Diez Hochleitner. Over the next four years, we worked as a well-knit team with Prince Hassan and met at numerous meetings in Geneva; Helsinki; Norfolk, Virginia; Tallinn; Madrid; Paris and other nice venues, building up a deep and fruitful rapport with each other and with many other members of the Club of Rome.

In 2007, at the Annual Conference in Madrid, when Prince Hassan stepped down from the presidency, Eberhard and I were elected Co-Presidents of the Club of Rome. For the next five years, we worked, together and interchangeably, to bring the Club back to its full potential for bringing about change in global thinking as the world heads into an uncertain future. Our efforts to create a strong network of thinkers and doers around the globe took us to many more places: Rome, Amsterdam, Winterthur, Delhi, Bucharest, Tokyo – and we met often in his office in Zurich and at his home a few miles away in Feldbach. We both stepped down from the presidency of the Club at the Annual Conference in Bucharest in 2012, after nearly a decade of working together in its leadership team, and handing over the reins to our very worthy successors, Ernst von Weizsaecker and Anders Wijkman.

Eberhard was truly an exceptional person. At work, he was highly disciplined, purposeful and dependable. I did not have much contact with the business side of his life, but I know that his dedication to the big causes he had chosen as personal commitments – ethical business, the world scout movement, music, a global economy that is fair and just, and not least, the Club of Rome – was total and complete. He was forever on the road attending board meetings, providing guidance and demanding performance. For him, no relationship, institutional or personal, was passive. When he made a commitment, it was absolute: fully engaged, thoughtful, pro-active and result-driven. Long after he relinquished his positions in the Club of Rome and the World Scouts Movement, he was still actively, though with care not to be intrusive, available to provide advice and help at a moment’s notice. For me, during our work together, he was on call at all times, no matter what his current preoccupation at the moment was.

The parallelism of Eberhard’s concerns about the “human problematique” with those of our predecessor, the founder of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei is striking. Aurelio had earlier created Fiat’s manufacturing and marketing empires in Latin America and came to launch the Club in 1968 motivated by his observations there of the social, environmental and economic costs of modern industrialization. Similarly, Eberhard’s experience in setting up a major and highly successful automobile venture for BMW in South Africa was certainly instrumental in the enormous empathy and sensitivity he developed towards the same broad concerns, and enabled him to contribute to the building up of the Club’s positions for designing and creating a better world.

Not everyone in the Club realized the depth and breadth of Eberhard’s contributions to its substantive deliberations. He was a major champion of the need to evolve new economic paradigms suited to a sustainable future, of the importance of ethical business practices and of the need to redress the imbalances between the North and the South.

Working with Eberhard was a pleasure and always deeply rewarding. I greatly admired the efficiency and simplicity of his management approach. But more than that, he had an extraordinary ability to combine strategic thinking with the needs of the here-and-now; to be rigorous in thinking without being rigid; to insist on formal procedure without losing sight of the flexibility that is needed to generate consensus and desirable outcomes; to have strong opinions and yet realize the need for consultation.

Above all, I most valued his commitment to personal and professional integrity and yet to be able to laugh off the frailties of less self-demanding fellow human beings.

Eberhard’s joie de vivre and generosity of spirit were beautifully exemplified in the big events he organized. One of these, his own seventieth birthday to which several hundred of his friends converged in Zurich, was an occasion I will not forget. He made it possible for me to come all the way from New Delhi and though I was only one among the many there whom he must have made to feel guests of honor, I certainly returned home feeling very special.

I was fortunate in being invited often as a guest at the von Koerber home. My family and Eberhard’s had a warm friendship. Eberhard and Charlotte were the most generous and hospitable of hosts and I took every opportunity I could to visit them. I always admired Eberhard’s ability to plan his life, making time for everything: signing off from work and fitting in time for holidays and family renewal.

My family and I feel the deepest sense of personal loss and we wish Charlotte and their daughters all courage to accept theirs.