Peter Bills: Banker steers focus back to people

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Barbara Chapman. Photo / Dean Purcell
Barbara Chapman. Photo / Dean Purcell

Peter Bills has travelled the country, interviewing a diverse range of New Zealanders. The interviews will appear over the next four weeks.

She comes to meet me in her Auckland office, and has a surprising proposal. Kiss?

I'm being a little disingenuous here, so let me explain. The woman who is now chief executive and managing director of the ASB banking group and has been called "arguably New Zealand's most influential businesswoman" has a straightforward philosophy for business.

Barbara Chapman espouses a creed of "Keep it Simple". In the world of rugby, they also adhere to such a strategy with an extra "s" on the end - "Keep it Simple Stupid". Or, as it is universally known, Kiss ...

She says she hates bureaucracy and complexity. But is that possible in the world of banking?

"Absolutely, and it has proven to be so at Commonwealth Bank [ASB's Australian parent company].

The singular focus on what we did to transform that organisation has delivered. So it is perfectly possible."

Bankers ... don't you love 'em? They're either wailing like landlubbers on a rough sea when times get bad or quietly pocketing vast profits and bonuses for putting our savings into projects as reliable as condoms with holes in them.

Did you know that in a recent poll to find the most loathed profession, bankers came below even journalists? Don't the whole lot of them deserve to be put on a floating barge, taken up into the Bay of Islands and quietly sunk? Well, she swallows a bit at that one but, fair enough, she fronts up on the issue.

"It depends what you are delivering to your customers. Are you providing a service to them that they value, and if you are, then as a business you will continue to get support from your customers to enable you to have the growth that you want as a business."

I think that means work hard, but I can't be sure because it is largely bank talk. I try to cajole her back into the world of ordinary-people talk. "The moment you think you are bigger and better than the customer you serve is when you can get into problems around arrogance.

"A lot of people hold memories of business with banks that might have done wrong by them. Those things can take a while to work out of people's minds. But for me, rather than dwell on that as a negative in the industry, I am much more focused on how we support our customers, what issues they are facing, how we can help them deal with problems they may have. If we get that right, I guess that is what we will be judged on."

But bonuses for people who very often have lost their customers small fortunes? "You have to ask the right questions around those sorts of things." Oh dear, more bank talk. And in plain English?

"Where there has been a bailout by government you have got to think about who has been accountable for the decisions that got them to that point. How should those people be remunerated?

"At the end of the day, you really want good strong people running financial institutions. Now if we make mistakes we are gone, and I think that's fair. Then we should not be remunerated for that. But you do need some parameters. You can't have people receiving bonuses when they are not delivering to either their customers or their shareholders.

"If you are delivering and doing the right thing internally, fair enough, you get the bonuses. But if you are not, you do need to question whether people are being over-remunerated."

The $64,000 question is this: have bankers learned from this mess?

"Yes," she says, emphatically.

Are you sure, I ask?

"Overall, I think the last five years have been absolutely the most difficult in any senior banker's career. This is all new; it is not history repeating itself. So I think people have learned a lot. The bankers growing up today who have learned from all this will mean it is going to be a much stronger sector in the future."

Mmmmmm ... maybe. I am yet to be convinced that when better times do come, we won't see some of the old rapacious ways creeping back into the banking world. The trouble is, their creed is making money, and that beloved pursuit of the human race almost invariably means values become like grains of dirt on the floor - swept under the carpet. Present company excepted, of course.

Chapman, born in New Plymouth and educated primarily in Canterbury, having moved there at the age of 11 for high school and later university, has "come home" to join ASB in Auckland. She spent five years with the Commonwealth Bank, and admits she loved the Aussie lifestyle. In a business sense, she says the principal lesson she learned was that you can complete as much transformation in a very big company as a smaller one. "Size doesn't really inhibit as long as you are clear about your vision and goals. Get everyone lined up behind you, then size and scale doesn't stop you."

And living on the other side of the Ditch? "Auckland is a great place to live and you think it's going to be really hard to settle somewhere else. But you get to Sydney and there are quite a lot of similarities to Auckland.

"It is a very positive, dynamic place to live and the climate is amazing. However, Sydney is much more expensive than Auckland. But above all, working in Australia gave me that much bigger global perspective."

And her teenage son has been so taken with the place that he elected to stay at his Australian school, which has meant Mum commuting across the Tasman most weekends. "It isn't a very difficult thing to do. And I notice many of the same faces flying with me each time. After all, many people in Australia and New Zealand drive further than that each weekend to get to their beach house."

But what kind of a person is Barbara Chapman? Well, her slight, compact figure should not fool you. She wields a vibrant intellect, as you'd expect from someone in such a high-powered job. She doesn't suffer fools, and there is a crisp, businesslike tone to her greeting and conversation.

Above all, she insists, she is a positive type of person. "You have to be positive about things. There was a really positive energy and momentum built up in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup and I loved seeing that.

"That is really critical to New Zealand, that positive energy. If we can capture and harness that, turn it into other pursuits that benefit New Zealand and then keep it going, that would be amazing."

That positivity manifests itself in her belief about where New Zealand is at this moment in time. "Our proximity to Asia gives us a really positive perspective, and our trading-partner relationship likewise with Australia. So if you are going to be anywhere in the world ... being here used to be a geographical disadvantage but now I think there are advantages. Not just in terms of our trading partners but to what we produce.

"Our primary produce is in demand: dairy, wool, red meat, forestry. Those industries are serving us really well and that is where the momentum thing comes in. Historically, it has been difficult for us to compete on the world stage but now we are at the forefront of some of these food-type issues.

"I still think New Zealand is in a relatively good spot. However, I don't think we have yet fully defined the vision for New Zealand Incorporated."

How long does she believe it will take the world to sort out its current mess? Maybe 10 years?

The contemporary banker's conservatism comes to the fore. "I wouldn't put a specific time on it but it is going to be a long time."

You tend to assume someone in Chapman's position must rise before dawn and not turn in until the next morning's newspapers are being delivered. But it isn't necessarily like that, she confesses.

"The hours are a lot less than people imagine. I arrive at the office by 8 but I am gone by 6 most nights. It's true, I do a lot of evening functions, but not a huge amount at the weekends. I'm not a 7-in-the-morning-to-10-at-night person and never have been. You lose your own momentum if you do too many long hours. You have got to keep your energy levels up."

To ensure that is the case, she works out and keeps pretty fit. But essentially, she loves her job, calling it "a privilege and a responsibility".

Bankers? People like Barbara Chapman might just start to restore their image ...

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