Barbara Chapman walked out the doors of ASB's Wynyard Quarter HQ for the last time as boss yesterday, satisfied she has left behind her a bank that has its mojo well and truly back.

When Chapman re-entered ASB as chief executive in April 2011, she felt she had walked into a company that had lost its confidence.

"ASB's very much a business which thrives on winning in the market, thrives on having a really big goal that it runs after, focuses hard on the customers. And when I came back in a lot of that had been lost."

For Chapman, this was a marked change from her earlier time at the bank when it was run by the charismatic Sir Ralph Norris and subsequently the late Hugh Burrett, whose own stylish presence belied a very human approach.

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"I've been incredibly fortunate to have those people. You learnt a lot from both of them. You learn getting out of the ivory tower and getting in amongst it and really trying to understand what your customers want," says Chapman, who acknowledges the pair as mentors.

"Ralph is brilliant at maintaining focus on a single goal. I learnt from him things like, if you're setting up a goal like getting to 50 per cent sales on digital, you've just got to stick with it. A lot of people might say 'let's try something different' but if you do firmly believe that it's the right thing to do, then you've just got to keep on going."

Chapman had earlier made her public mark at ASB when, as marketing manager, she gave the late advertising guru David Walden the go-ahead to launch the iconic Goldstein campaign, which had a galvanising impact on the bank's image.

"At the time that was quite radical. Quite different. I've never shied away from just being bold enough to do something a little bit different."

ASB had also earned a reputation as being a business that was heavily driven by "being unbeatable, being a great team and really trying to out-perform in the market."

When Barbara Chapman re-entered ASB as chief executive in April 2011, she felt she had walked into a company that had lost its confidence. Picture / Jason Oxenham.
When Barbara Chapman re-entered ASB as chief executive in April 2011, she felt she had walked into a company that had lost its confidence. Picture / Jason Oxenham.

While Chapman doesn't name him, it is obvious she believes ASB lost its mojo during the intervening two years when the quite restrained and very British Charles Pink ran the bank. (Pink also fired Goldstein.)

"When I walked in, I counted up, there were 191 projects on the go. And for an organisation the size and scale of ASB, that's just too much to focus on," she recalls. "People didn't quite know what was the big thing they were meant to be going after, and we'd sort of lost our way in a culture perspective.

"So step one for me was about rebuilding that culture and getting our mojo back." That is was what she labels as her first "horizon" as CEO.

Chapman packs a punch that belies her petite frame.

ASB's very much a business which thrives on winning in the market, thrives on having a really big goal that it runs after, focuses hard on the customers.

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She is a trail-blazer. She was first Kiwi female CEO of a "big four" trading bank (both her successor and BNZ's chief executive are also women). She is relatively private, but she is married to Steve, has a son at New York University doing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and Television, and they have a house in Sydney as well as their Auckland home.

Typically, she is well-prepared for our interview (she had four horizons she wished to canvas) which took place via a video link before she headed to London for a week-long intensive governance course run by the UK Institute of Directors.

A recap first: Chapman's career at ASB began when she was appointed senior manager of employee relations in 1990. She followed a typical CEO track and was blooded in a range of senior executive roles including marketing and retail banking before gaining her first chief executive appointment at wholly-owned Sovereign Assurance.

Chapman subsequently joined Norris in Australia, running group HR and services (including marketing) when Sir Ralph became chief executive of ASB's parent, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA).

Chapman's second horizon as a new CEO was to invest in diversifying ASB's balance sheet, which was light in the corporate and commercial markets. She attributes a great deal of the bank's subsequent success to Steve Jurkovich, who is in charge of business banking.

"He's done a great job in really building capability, and that's now really shining out in the market — the opportunities that we're getting, the deals that we're doing are really great."

Barbara Chapman made her public mark at ASB when, as marketing manager, she gave the go-ahead to launch the iconic Goldstein campaign.
Barbara Chapman made her public mark at ASB when, as marketing manager, she gave the go-ahead to launch the iconic Goldstein campaign.

Chapman's third horizon was transformation.

"Disruption is coming, so we may as well do it to ourselves first. Because if we don't, then you're not setting your own agenda," she explains. "It's quite easy for a bank like ours to still think of itself in a traditional paradigm of being a branch-based, people-based business that has digital services with it. We really needed to challenge and transform ourselves to being a digital-based business with a physical underpinning."

It's notable that Chapman set ASB a goal to have 50 per cent of all sales through digital platforms by 2017.

"That was a big goal: that's 50 per cent of everything — not just 50 per cent of the products that can go through digital. The denominator had everything in it, including all our rural loans, all our corporate loans, stuff that you're never going to do digitally for a while.

"So, everything was in the denominator. And we actually achieved the goal, which I was really surprised about!"

Chapman maintains that the only risk associated with the goal was not that they would undershoot the 50 per cent target, but that it was the wrong goal.

"It's a big call to make — to focus really a lot of your eggs in the one basket," she says. "But I think in hindsight it was the right strategy for us and we got there.

"If you talk to any consultant anywhere in the world, they'd say we're world-class (on our cost to income ratio) because we've had this big focus on migrating to digital channels."

Her fourth — and final — horizon was to radically transform "high impact customer experiences". She confesses that sounds awfully jargonistic, and volunteers that it basically means making interactions like loans or credit card applications "really effortless" for the customer.

But it is also a challenge she has bequeathed to her successor, Kiwi Vittoria Shortt, who, like Chapman before her, was CBA's marketing chief before becoming ASB chief executive.

"I feel like the ways to get to 50 per cent digital, to transform ourselves, and to really position ourselves for a disrupted future — I feel like we're there. And so for me now it's time to pass that baton on."

It is relevant that her reign as chief executive has also been marked by her trips outside of New Zealand, to explore what other companies are doing.

"We've always been really focused on, firstly, trying to understand what is it that our customer is looking for from us, and then where in the world can we go and have a conversation with a different bank or a different industry who's got these things right?

"And what can we learn from them, how do we bring those lessons back into our business and just try and out-execute?"

That is particularly important when the "banking model" is fast being challenged by US and Chinese technology platforms, whose products like Google Pay, Apple Pay and Alipay are forcing new relationships with what are still perceived as trading banks.

"There's no doubt in my mind that as these platforms get bigger — like the Alipays and the Tencents — and the use of advanced analytics gets more prominent, the use of robotics develops and gets more prominent, that the future of these businesses is going to be really radically different," says Chapman.

"Do banks themselves, in a world that's dominated by these platforms, want to become an infrastructure layer, or do we still see ourselves as businesses at the front of the customer relationship?" she asks. "So for us, we need to be thinking about where should we be an infrastructure layer, and where should we be at the front of the customer relationship?"

Chapman's legacy includes a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and a focus on instilling cultural empathy.

"If I think about that work that we've done around LGBTI inclusion, that has largely been driven by that community itself, who've had a very strong presence, very strong leadership, and who have been prepared to stand up and say, 'these are the things we want to see for our community inside this organisation'.

"And honestly, it's been fantastic and I'm really, really proud of the work that they've done."

Since announcing her retirement as chief executive, Chapman has joined the board of the NZ Initiative.

With the Accelerated Certificate in Company Direction under her belt, she is now open to considering directorships.

"It's got to be something that's really challenging, it's got to be something that's interesting, and I would sort of think I've got a unique set of skills that I've built up in my career. I've spent time in marketing, I've spent time in HR, and time as a CEO, and where can I add value with that sort of set of experiences?

"I'm at the stage where I'm just having a range of conversations with different people and different organisations, and I don't want to close stuff down too quickly ... I always view a board as a long-term commitment and so most directors on a board might be there for six years or nine years, seems to be the pattern, so you want to make the right call."

Chapman says it will also be nice to travel a bit more.

"I'm really looking forward to not having to apply for annual leave. Steve and I are definitely going to just get about and we've got a couple of quite big holidays booked, and I'm just really looking forward to it. I'm really looking forward to dropping the intensity that comes with a role like this and chilling out a little bit."

But she is confident ASB is in good heart.

"I feel like I have done my best ... I feel like it is just the warm-up act for the next decade. We have set a platform and there's more work to do, and someone else's ideas are just what the business needs now."

A final question: What expectations do you have of your own executive team at ASB?

"Look, they're going to be fantastic. We've got a great strategy, we've got a great team environment here. They are just going to carry on.

"One day I'm just going to leave the building, Fran, and they're going to carry on without me as if I was never here."

That day was yesterday.