April 2014

Bank CEOs. What does it take?
The Machiavellian world of ambitious bank executives is, for some, right up there with watching the manoeuvrings of Prime Ministerial aspirants and would-be AFL football coaches.

So with the retirement of NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne and his replacement by Andrew Thorburn it is perhaps timely to look at the recent track record of the Big Four to see if the appointments have any discernable patterns.

There are several key themes which suggest themselves:
  • The CBA is a good training ground for bank CEOs (Gail Kelly, Andrew Thorburn and Stewart Grimshaw at BOQ).
  • some experience running a bank in NZ is useful (Cameron Clyne and Andrew Thorburn again).
  • But if you want to be CEO at ANZ, it’s most likely you’ll only get the job if you come from outside, and have been running a franchise for a major foreign bank (John McFarlane at Citi and Mike Smith at HSBC.

Is that why, perhaps, Alex Thursby left to head the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, because he understood the bank would look outside, rather than inside, for Smith’s successor?

At NAB, Andrew Thorburn was not the favourite to replace Clyne, but a look at the recent history at the bank shows that a previous career in NZ is good for the CV when applying for the role as group CEO at NAB.

Like Clyne, Thorburn – a dual Aussie/Kiwi who barracks for Essendon in the AFL and the All Blacks in rugby union – cut his management teeth at BNZ in New Zealand, and had a previous career at ASB.

Running through recent NAB chiefs and the other point which becomes apparent is the length of tenure. Since Frank Ciccuto – the only recent CEO of a Big Four bank who started his career at the same institution – the tenure of all NAB CEOs has been around five years.

By rights then, in five years we might be talking about a new chief at NAB (even though Thorburn is currently only a youthful 48), and we should be weighing up the credentials of the incumbent at BNZ.

A Kiwi connection is clearly useful at CBA too, with both Sir Ralph Norris and Ian Narev hailing from NZ. Both, however, had significant careers outside of CBA, and outside of banking in fact, before they led the bank – Norris with Air New Zealand and Narev as head of consultancy McKinsey.

This highlights the other main theme in Big Four CEO appointments – you don’t have to be true blue Australian. Westpac chief Gail Kelly famously began her career as a bank teller in her native South Africa before coming to Australia and furthering her career firstly with CBA, then St George and now of course Westpac.

Of the Big Four, leadership speculation now centres on both ANZ and Westpac, where Smith and Kelly have been incumbents for six and seven years respectively.

No-one would suggest that the bank boards are biased against local internal candidates, but a look at the history infers that when it comes to Big Four leadership appointments, the net is cast wide and candidates can come from left field.

Also, with the Big Four now so well established as global players, the Australian bank sector is no longer considered a backwater by senior global bankers, many of whom might also now aspire to a leadership role in Sydney or Melbourne.

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