NZ Herald business editor at large

Outrageous Fortune: The Westie boss of ANZ Bank

As ANZ's new group chief executive Shayne Elliott drives me down Lincoln Rd in West Auckland, he runs through his impressive CV, one which ends with him taking the reins at the $25 billion revenue banking group - Australasia's third largest.

Crammed into a late model Mazda hatchback we're heading back to the very beginning - his old school, Waitakere College, and his first home, literally a garage in Te Atatu South.

That Elliott is driving, with his corporate minder squeezed into the back seat, is more than a little unusual when you consider the kind of prestige and pay packet his job comes with.

Just three months in, his salary is not public yet, but his predecessor at ANZ was paid $8 million in his last year.

Elliott is a proud Westie and a pretty mean driver. He's not actually a bogan though. At least, not in the black jeans, Holden V8, version of the Kiwi stereotype.

He loved school he admits, enjoyed debating and drama. He has fond memories of the teachers at Waitakere College who sat him down and set him on a path to where he is today.

"I used to ride my bike to school along here and all of this was orchards," Elliott's says as we rattle past rows of fast-food joints and drive through retailers.

This part of West Auckland has grown fast in the 30 years or so since he left. But it's far from unfamiliar to him.

[My father] just really disliked having any debt. Which is kind of ironic given what I do for a living.
Shayne Elliott

His mother passed away just 18 months ago and until then he was regularly back in the area to visit her.

"I haven't been back to my old school though."

Later, outside his former family home, on a street that finishes up against the North Western Motorway, Elliott points down the driveway to the garage that he lived in for the first years of his life.

His parents bought the first section in what was then a new sub-division and they lived in the garage while his father - a carpenter - built the house on weekends - specifically to avoid borrowing from a bank.

"He just really disliked having any debt, " Elliott says. "Which is kind of ironic given what I do for a living."

As a child Elliot's father's family lost their house in the Great Depression.

"So dad had this really morbid fear of debt. That's why they only built the house as they could afford it."

Elliott admits he has inherited a bit of that debt aversion.

"I grew up in that kind of conservative financial environment."

Later we talk more about debt and the role banks may play in what is now a much more leveraged world.

But first, back to that CV

After the humble start, Elliott says his was very much the classic Kiwi childhood of the 1970s - free ranging, endless summer sort of deal.

While he enjoyed school there wasn't really any early indication that he was destined for the kind of success he has since achieved.

"I wasn't the dux of the school, I wasn't top of anything in particular," he says.

As he gets the royal tour of his old school, complete with a Kapa Haka performance, it's clear he has great affection for the place and the people.

He probably would have been a teacher, he says, if it hadn't been for his English teacher Claire Hallas who sat him down for career advice in the 7th form and told him he needed to go to university and study commerce.

"People talk about that one coach or teacher that changed their life, well she was it."
He took her advice and he's never looked back.

Shayne Elliott with Waitakere College Kapa Haka group. Photo / Michael Craig
Shayne Elliott with Waitakere College Kapa Haka group. Photo / Michael Craig

Straight out of University, where he admits he did the "bare minimum" commerce degree, Elliott joined CitiGroup on the derivatives desk in Auckland. He stayed with the global banking group for more than 20 years through stints in London, New York and eventually a big step up as country head for Egypt.

"I was only 33 and it was fantastic, it was a real adventure ... I met my wife there."

Elliott's wife Najla is an Egyptian born economist, although she grew up in the US.

In 2001 he moved back to Sydney to run Citi's Australian and New Zealand operation, then after a stint in Hong Kong and another back in Egypt with an investment bank he was on his way home to New Zealand.

"But then ANZ got in the way and we moved to Melborne in 2009."

He was chief financial officer before being appointed chief executive and taking over at the start of this year.

Kiwis leading the banking sector

Elliott is now one of three Kiwi's heading up the big four Australian banks - along with Ian Narev at Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Andrew Thorburn (Australian-born but a long-time New Zealand resident) at National Australia Bank.

"All of us went to Auckland University Business School - roughly at the same time," he notes.

So why do Kiwis do so well in banking?

Elliott says his theory is that a lot of bankers of his generation started out as New Zealand's economy went through its radical restructuring.

Obviously banking is at the core but it's really about management and strategy and leadership.
Shayne Elliott

"When I was at university Muldoon was in power, then I went out into the real world [and] we went through that whole deregulation. So when we started work in the banks we were at the forefront of all this new technology, new thinking," he says.

"We were there at the beginning. And of course in New Zealand because it small you have to do everything. So on the derivatives desk you'd fund it, hedge it, book it. It's a great training ground.

"Then you go to London and the guys there just know their one little piece. New Zealanders tend to be very flexible and they don't have a lot of political baggage."

At this point though, it's clear Elliott's success has to be about more than just banking skills.

"Obviously banking is at the core but it's really about management and strategy and leadership," he says.

"Banking itself is not that hard. The fundamentals are relatively simple. You take deposits and lend them out to others. Our industry is really heavily commoditised.

"It's just a question of what your strategy is to differentiate and be better."

A new strategy at ANZ

Elliott has moved fast to implement a new strategy at ANZ and has made headlines in Australia for decisions to downsize the institutional banking division.

He's unashamedly putting the focus on retail banking where he sees the biggest scope for growth.

"Retail and small business, is where we have about 40 per cent of capital invested but it represents about 70 per cent of our profits," he says.

"ANZ in Australia is quite small in those areas. We've only got about 15 per cent market share and CBA has 25 per cent. So we've got room to grow by being better." About 50 per cent of ANZ's capital is in the institutional business and it makes just 20 per cent of the profits.

Banks actually fight for you as a customer now, people take that for granted but it is a massive change.
Shayne Elliott

The dynamic in Australasian banking is highly competitive, Elliott says.

Unlike his father's day the power balance has shifted towards the customer.

"Consumers have a choice now and that's good," he says. "If you want a mortgage you can choose which bank you want. Banks actually fight for you as a customer now, people take that for granted but it is a massive change."

But given the cost of housing most of us have less choice about taking on debt if we want to own a home.

Elliott accepts there is a moral dimension to banking and a responsibility that comes with lending.

"It is legitimate to ask questions about what the right levels of debt are for people," he says. "It's not our job as an industry to encourage people to borrow. But there is a valid reason for debt and it's about getting the timing right. It's about timing your consumption and lifestyle relative to your earning. Our job is do manage those timing issues, responsibly, and that's where the wheels can fall off if you're not careful."

In New Zealand right now the debt spotlight has fallen on dairy farmers who collectively owe banks nearly $40 billion. With milk prices low there are fears many will struggle to pay their mortgages.

"That's a really good example," Elliott says.

ANZ - the biggest local player since merging with National Bank - holds about a quarter of that debt.

"It used to be a lot more," Elliott says. "We've deliberately run that down. Not that we don't love the sector. It's a great sector but like any ag business it goes through cycles."

The next couple of seasons were going to be tough and there would be farmers that didn't make it, he concedes. But ANZ would be doing everything it could to help them through.

"It would be self defeating for us if we decided we wanted to get out of dairy farming," he says.

Farmers would have to sell, land prices would fall and it would be a very negative cycle.

"What we need to do is make sure farmers understand that it is a business they are in, it's not about the value of the land its about the cashflow. Can they afford the debt. We've restructured our book, made sure the people we lend to can afford to get through ... not all of them obviously. If the price stays below $4 [per kg of milk solids] its going to be hard."

Elliott might have been away a long time but as Kiwi credentials go, knowing the frame of reference for Fonterra payouts is a pretty solid one.

He's also remains a stalwart All Black fan. He has handed out numerous copies of James Kerr's What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life to staff and colleagues around the world.

He didn't want to look parochial but was taken by its wisdom.

"It's about the culture of teams," he says. "The team is more important than any individual. It talks about the idea that good people make good All Blacks."

So when you're hiring you need to look beyond technical skills and "look for good people with the right culture and values".

Watching him interact with teachers and students on his college visit, it's clear that Elliott remains remarkably connected to the community he left so long ago.

He's an individual very much shaped by the culture and values of his home and upbringing. Not the bogan stereotype, but the down-to-earth, straight-talking attitudes of hard-working, working-class New Zealand.

The Awkward Questions

Since Elliott took the top job on January 1, ANZ Bank has hit the headlines across the Tasman for more than just his new strategic approach.

He's had to cope with a "cocaine and strippers" scandal in the institutional broking division as a trader dismissed by the company took a law suit against it, claiming a "toxic culture".

He's also dealing with a major price-fixing case brought against the bank by Australian financial watchdog ASIC.

Both issues are historic, but represent a real threat to ANZ's reputation.

Elliott seems keen to front foot them both.

"It makes juicy headlines and I get that," he says.

"That was in Global Markets and it was really bad. But it was a small number of people and we're dealing with that. We made a decision not to sweep that under the carpet. We wanted to let the good hard-working staff at the bank know that we've got their back and we're not going to tolerate it.

"A lot of it is about being visible and saying, 'We are being sued by one of our ex-employees and if they want to talk about all that juicy stuff, we'll deal with it'."

ASIC, meanwhile, is alleging that ANZ engaged in activity to set an artificial price on the 90-day bank bill rate.

"Their allegation is that on 44 days over a certain period of time we engaged in activity to manipulate that rate," he says. "We reject that. We don't believe we did that so we're prepared to go to court."

Elliott stops short of saying ANZ is being made an example of but he notes that ASIC is investigating a lot of activity around banking right now.

"For whatever reason, they chose us to look at first for the bank bills and they've chosen another bank to look at first for foreign exchange," he says.

"These are areas being investigated in every developed country in the world - the US, Singapore - so I think it's legitimate that ASIC have a look.

"But what's important is that those allegations are for a certain period of time. They're not alleging that it's current."

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 25 Oct 2016 16:33:01 Processing Time: 765ms