Jamie Gray

Jamie Gray is a business reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ wire agency

All systems are go for high-tech exec

ASB Bank CEO Barbara Chapman is inspired by Thunderbirds' Lady Penelope. Photo / Dean Purcell
ASB Bank CEO Barbara Chapman is inspired by Thunderbirds' Lady Penelope. Photo / Dean Purcell

A model of Thunderbirds star Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward's pink, six-wheeled Rolls Royce takes pride of place in Barbara Chapman's office.

It seems that Chapman, ASB Bank's new chief executive and arguably the most powerful woman in corporate New Zealand, is something of a fan.

To the uninitiated, Thunderbirds was a British mid-60s science fiction television show which used puppets instead of actors.

The series followed the adventures of International Rescue (IR), an organisation created to help those in grave danger using technically advanced equipment and machinery.

The aristocratic Lady Penelope was a finely-turned-out, sophisticated James Bond-style agent for IR.

"I liked Lady Penelope - she always had a sense of style," she says.

Chapman, like her TV heroine, is a follower of fashion. She likes to keep fit, does not drink coffee or tea, and she has a family.

But that's about as much personal detail as she is prepared to impart.

Like Penelope, she retains a sense of reserve.

Chapman was born in New Plymouth and moved to Christchurch as a child where she attended intermediate, high school and university.

Chapman worked for 12 years as a senior executive at ASB specialising in marketing, human resources and retail banking roles, and then as managing director at the ASB-owned Sovereign.

She became chief executive and managing director at ASB in April, after a five-year secondment with parent company Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney, which until his recently-announced retirement, was headed by former ASB chief executive Sir Ralph Norris.

The sense of old world conservatism in the heavily wood-panelled office of ASB Tower headquarters in Albert St is offset somewhat by the steady stream of bungy jumping thrill seekers leaping off the nearby Sky Tower in their one-sided argument with gravity.

Chapman appears happy enough to canvass a range of issues. On the question of gender imbalance in corporate New Zealand, she says: "I happened to be the right person for the job, but I do think more progress needs to be made around gender in business," she says.

"There aren't as many women around in business as you would expect," she says.

"New Zealand had a good run at it for a while, Theresa Gattung [Telecom] was here, Ann Sherry [Westpac] was here.

"There were high profile people in government, but it just seems to have gone off the boil a little bit so one of the things I'm thinking about is how do we make this better, generically, for women, and how do we help women come through."

On a post global financial crisis (GFC) world, she says there is still a fair amount of caution in the market.

"Certainly for banks, the provisions that were put in place as we went through the GFC are now starting to come off, so there is growth in P and Ls [profit and loss accounts] and growth in balance sheets as those sorts of things flow through."

She says there has been a lot of what bankers call "deleveraging" - paying off debt - and there's been a big shift in home lending from fixed rates to floating rates.

"Banking in general has gone through a flat period. We are seeing signs of a bit more confidence coming through. It is patchy. Different parts of New Zealand are experiencing different growth rates," she says.

Chapman says the Auckland region is doing reasonably well. "The local housing market is showing signs of recovery and certainly housing stock levels are low, and so there is no oversupply."

ASB expects house prices in Auckland to go up, albeit at a modest pace, over the next two years.

It's only about 20 years since the then Auckland Savings Bank was limited by statute to the Auckland region.

A change in mandate enabled ASB to head south of the Bombay hills and go outside its traditional personal banking markets.

It picked up the Westland Savings Bank in 1994 and now about a quarter of ASB's business is generated outside Auckland.

While the housing market is important, it is not the only game in town. Corporate and institutional banking is strong in Auckland and the bank last year recognised that by setting up ASB Institutional, which marries local expertise with the global reach of CBA - the world's 14th biggest bank.

Chapman is only prepared to give perfunctory treatment to some of the stodgier topics circulating in the banking fraternity at the moment, such as the Reserve Bank's core funding ratio (CFR).

The ratio was introduced last year to help instil more conservatism into the banks' balance sheets after the global financial crisis.

It requires banks to put greater focus on retail and wholesale term funding and to place lesser reliance on short-term wholesale funding, much of which comes from abroad.

The Reserve Bank last year set the ratio at 65 per cent. On July 1, the ratio went to 70 per cent and it will soon consider whether to put it up to 75 per cent on July 1 next year, which will put pressure on bank funding.

"We are comfortable with the way the CFRs are being moved," Chapman says.

"We don't see that putting any strain on our business at all. We are comfortably positioned in terms of where we need to be. It does mean there is more competition for deposit funds, but that's the framework we are all working with now."

As it stands, banks are paying quite high prices for deposits while relatively low rates are being charged on loans, because the official cash rate is still low (2.5 per cent).

Then there is the issue exercising the minds of bankers at the moment: covered bonds.

Banks are increasingly turning to the covered bond market as an alternative source of funding. Bank of New Zealand and Westpac have already successfully tapped this market, which can be a useful source of funding, especially when its comes to meeting CFR guidelines.

ASB is keen to join the fray but it all comes down to timing. "When it suits we will probably move ahead, so we do have an appetite."

The bank, CBA's biggest asset outside Australia, has about 16 per cent of the local banking market. Chapman wants to see that grow.

"I think we have got lots of opportunities for growth - when you think about our move into institutional banking and markets - when you think about the penetration we have in rural banking and in commercial banking.

"These are relatively new markets for ASB. Our growth potential in those markets is very good, so I would like to see our market share lifting."

While Chapman is happy to talk about the standard banking subjects, it's not until we get to things digital that she starts to liven up. Suddenly, the conversation becomes peppered with terms like "miniaturisation" and - "bandwidth explosion". The prolific growth of GPS devices also gets a mention, plus the emergence of social media and the like.

She sees the future being very much bound by the explosion in digital technology and the emergence of the new social network. "If you start to bring those two trends together, it gives you some insight into what kind of demand for services that customers will be thinking about."

Chapman thinks the future will be determined by how banks position themselves in the new technology and social framework.

"We've got to now start thinking about people of high influence and the sphere of influence that they have in their social networks," she says.

"It does not take much for a tech savvy person to be sending out a tweet [on Twitter] and suddenly, the communication flows are enormous, so things like brand and reputation are very important in those sorts of worlds.

"If you think about the role of Google and Apple and the penetration they have with their huge customer bases and their low cost of data storage and the data they have got on people, what kind of financial services are they going to bring to customers in the future and how is that going to position the banks?"

In the distance, a lone crane makes a start on ASB's new North Wharf heaquarters on the corner of Jellicoe and Halsey Sts. The bank will soon leave behind its polished wood environment to unashamedly embrace modernity.

The new office, due for completion in 2013, will be high-tech, with sustainable design features. Out with the old and in with the new.

Outside, another body screams earthward.

A disaffected ASB customer, perhaps?

"Another bank's maybe, but no, not one of ours."

CV

* Spent five years on secondment to the parent company, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, as the bank's group executive, HR and Group Services, based in Sydney.

* Worked for 12 years as a senior executive at ASB specialising in marketing, human resources and retail banking roles, and then as managing director of Sovereign.

* Was a member of the senior management team that transitioned ASB into a nationally operating, full service financial services institution.

* Holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Diploma in Industrial Relations. Chapman was the inaugural winner of the TVNZ Marketer of the Year award, is an inductee of the NZ Marketing Hall of Fame, a past chairwoman of Oxfam New Zealand, past director of Oxfam International and the past chairwoman of NZ Equal Employment Opportunities Trust.

- NZ Herald

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