Ralph Norris, the insider from outside

By Gareth Vaughan, Chris Daniels

Ralph Norris was the outside candidate with the inside running for the top job at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

The new chief executive and managing director said that despite 30 years in the banking industry, the three years at the helm of Air New Zealand were important to his being picked to head one of Australia's largest companies.

"In these sort of situations, they don't run an advertisement which you apply for," he said.

After being "tapped on the shoulder" by a corporate headhunter, Norris was interviewed by CBA chairman John Schubert, then a board subcommittee, then again two weeks ago by the full board.

He is replacing David Murray, who is retiring after 13 years in the top CBA post.

Norris' time at its ASB Bank subsidiary would have done him no harm either: He knew all but one of the directors.

"From their perspective, they saw me more as a 'quasi-internal' candidate.

"The advantage that I had in leaving the group and going to Air NZ was that I had to adapt quickly to another industry, with a company that was in trouble.

"In life, to get one chance of being a CEO is something that is great, but from my perspective, I really feel privileged to have the opportunity now to effectively become chief executive for the third time and to have been in two different industries."

Norris will be paid a base salary of A$1.9 million ($2.05 million) a year, with a cash incentive of up to A$1.9 million and an initial allocation of A$3.8 million ($4.1 million) in bank shares.

In the year to June 30, 2004, he was paid between $1.25 million and $1.26 million by Air NZ.

David Tripe, senior lecturer in banking studies at Massey University, said there was a tendency within the CBA to see the ASB as "the glittering jewel".

"So what they're hoping is that the glittering jewel of the Commonwealth Bank will be spread through the rest of the Commonwealth Bank - he's an inside and an outside candidate."

Tripe said that during Norris' time at the helm of the ASB, he was well regarded for the way he promoted the use of technology.

"I'm not sure that's a particular problem at CBA, but one of the things ASB is recognised for is being a technology-focused bank," said Tripe.

"But I suspect that is a lesser part of the process.

"The more important part of the process is an attempt to transform, update and sharpen up the image of CBA.

"I think the image and perception issues will be as important as anything else."

* Air NZ shares closed up 5c yesterday at $1.41.

What makes the Commonwealth tick

* CBA made A$1.86 billion net profit in the half-year to December 31, 2004.

* In February, it replaced National Australia Bank as Australia's biggest bank by market capitalisation - with a value now of about A$50 billion.

* Telecom, the biggest company on the NZSX, has a capitalisation of $11.7 billion.

( The CBA was founded by the Commonwealth Bank Act in 1911 and has more than 36,000 staff.

* It acquired 75 per cent of ASB in 1989 and the rest in 1990.

* Its shares listed on the ASX in 1991, with the federal Government selling its remaining 50.4 per cent stake in 1996.

* It acquired Colonial, a bank, insurer and fund manager, in 2000 for A$9.4 billion.

* It also owns PT Bank Commonwealth in Indonesia and 51 per cent of Colonial National Bank in Fiji, plus Sovereign Insurance in New Zealand and CMG Asia in Hong Kong and Colonial Fiji Life.

* It bought 19.9 per cent of China's Hangzhou City Commercial Bank for A$100 million earlier this year.

- additional reporting Gareth Vaughan

 

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