After studying engineering and public policy at Princeton, Varel Freeman ’71 *74 *77 expected to work in technology or consulting. But an interview with the World Bank steered him in a “totally different and unexpected” direction. Freeman followed that path and eventually became a leader in the field of emerging-market finance.
Freeman recently stepped down after two terms as first vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which was founded in 1991 to promote growth in the new market-oriented economies of Central and Eastern Europe. Earlier in his career, he worked on investments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, first for the World Bank and its private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, and later with Chase Capital and Baring Private Equity Partners.
In a field where MBA grads were far more common than aeronautical engineers, Freeman said he found his engineering background to be “immensely handy.” Engineers, he said, are trained to evaluate things they don’t fully understand by simplifying them “to the point where you have some analogous experience” and then adding complexity. Freeman applied that approach when learning about new countries and new industry sectors.
At EBRD, Freeman faced new challenges in 2008-09 when the global financial crisis threatened the stability of banks in region where EBRD operates. Freeman and his colleagues pushed to ensure that rescue plans would not overlook Europe’s emerging markets, and as those local economies regained their footing, the demand for EBRD financing boomed. Backed by its shareholders, the bank expanded its efforts and widened its geographical reach to the east and south while maintaining its AAA credit rating.
EBRD President Sir Suma Chakrabarti, in a recent press release, thanked Freeman for his leadership. “With his keen instinct for sound banking, he deftly steered the EBRD’s investments as the bank sharply increased financing in response to the global economic crisis,” Chakrabarti said. The same release announced Freeman's successor at EBRD, who happens to be another Princetonian: Philip Bennett *79.
Freeman plans to return to the United States and spend more time with his family. He also hopes to have more opportunities to fly — for pleasure, not for business. A longtime pilot, he earned his commercial license before beginning his undergraduate studies at Princeton and even flew some charter flights to help pay tuition. Since then, Freeman has flown multiple trans-Atlantic flights, making memorable passes over remote areas of Greenland and Iceland.
Like many of our Tiger of the Week honorees, Varel Freeman ’71 *74 *77 was nominated by a PAW reader. Do you have an idea for a future Tiger of the Week profile? Let us know.