Brian Hartzer says that in a time of dramatic change, banks’ core role is to support economic development.

Westpac Group chief executive Brian Hartzer has embarked on a mission to transform the bank into a world-leading service company, with the Kiwi operations playing a Trojan horse role when it comes to innovations.

Hartzer says the economies the bank operates in are going through dramatic structural change.

"Whether it is Australia with the resources boom moving from construction to production; across the region, the growth of Asia and the rise of a billion-plus middle class; the ageing of the baby boomers, who are just starting to turn 65; and then on top of that technology.

"The combination of those things means dramatic change for many industries, many businesses and many consumers."

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Hartzer's fundamental belief is that it is the bank's role to support economic development. "I would argue that the reason the GFC happened is because banks forgot why they exist. They started to think they were just like any other business wanting to make a profit and lost sight of the fact that really banks are about economic development."

That doesn't mean the bank can ignore innovation.

Hartzer cites local Westpac boss David McLean's coup in forging a 10-year deal to join Air New Zealand's Airpoints programme as its newest financial services partner.

He was impressed with the speed of the deal's execution. "I went through it and he [McLean] said we would be ready to launch by the end of March," recalls Hartzer. " I said, 'Are you serious ... are you joking?'

"He said, 'We can do that' ... and they have moved heaven and earth on a shoestring and made it happen."

The Westpac CEO says this is an illustration of the way the bank can continue to innovate in New Zealand and share its ideas with the core business in Australia. It is a two-way street.

Hartzer credits McLean - also new in his top role this year - as having a tremendous connection in New Zealand combined with an understanding of the group's "awesome capabilities" in other parts of its business.

This ought to lead to better connections "across the Ditch".

Hartzer himself has strong New Zealand connections dating back 20 years when he came to Wellington on a project.

"One of the good things that has always impressed me in New Zealand was how, given you have a small market, you have to find ways to be innovative and lean in developing businesses and get things done on very small budgets very quickly. It's really quite impressive."

New technologies have transformed the battleground on which banks compete. Hartzer reckons territory was unnecessarily ceded because banks used to design processes to suit themselves, not customers.

"PayPal exists because the banks did a lousy job of making it easier for customers to shop online.

"My first message is let's stop doing a lousy job of helping customers to do what they want to do, instead let's design the process about what the customer wants."

To ensure the bank is not blindsided by fast-moving developments that could shake the foundations of its business, Westpac has launched Reinventure - an A$50 million fund which will back early stage start-ups.

This places Westpac closer to the cutting edge of technological advances by enabling it to stay aware of disruptive innovations and take advantage of developments by newcomers including in data aggregation and payment systems.

Reinventure operates separately from Westpac. Its founders include former APN News & Media digital director Danny Gilligan and innovation consultant Simon Cant.

Their published brief is to invest in ventures that are led by great entrepreneurs with great teams; are executing on business models that have demonstrated traction; have the potential to build significant, defensible businesses in the Australian and New Zealand markets with the potential for international growth; and have the potential to accelerate their growth and win their respective markets through access to a strategic relationship with the Westpac Group.

Explains Hartzer: "That's an opportunity for us to say 'Let's get involved with these things' ... we don't want to stifle them by doing them internally. There are so many things going on. We are trying to stay close to it and look for where we can learn from it and where it makes sense to engage with it."

Within Westpac itself, the bank is deploying techniques from the technology startup environment. Hartzer draws on a sporting analogy: "It's not playing technology tennis but playing technology rugby. Let's all get around the ball and run with it together rather than hitting it back and forwards over the net."

To him it is all about putting frontline members of project teams in one room together for extended periods working to intense deadlines. "It's much more 'try, fail, fix. We have been seeing some fantastic results as to what we are ably to deploy into the market.

"So as long as we are not complacent about it - learn from approaches people are using ... hire the best we can find and challenge them with aggressive timelines and protect them a bit from the dead hand of the big company, then I think we can be quite successful and our New Zealand business is and has been particularly innovative and successful."

Staying focused on Westpac's relationship with customers and strong experience-based financial services is the key to the future, Hartzer says. "Some of the guys who think they are going to eat the banks' lunch are going to find when the market turns that they have more risk embedded in their businesses than they realise."

Brian Hartzer
•Chief executive of Westpac since February.
•Joined Westpac in 2012.
•Before that worked at Royal Bank of Scotland for three years after a decade in executive roles at the ANZ.
•Also worked for 10 years as a financial services consultant in New York, San Francisco and Melbourne.
•Graduated from Princeton University with a degree in European history and is a chartered financial analyst.