When Donna Cooper stepped into the top job at TSB bank a little over a year ago the signs were starting to emerge that everything was not right in the banking sector.
Australia's Royal Commission into misconduct in the financial services sector had begun several months earlier and some shocking stories were beginning to emerge from the Australian banking sector.
In New Zealand calls for a Royal Commission were mounting with Kiwi bank bosses called to Wellington in May 2018 by regulators the Reserve Bank and the Financial Markets Authority and asked to prove how they were different.
Not convinced the regulators told the Kiwi banks to respond in writing and then launched their own conduct and culture review which found "significant weaknesses" in the way New Zealand banks govern and manage conduct risks.
But Cooper, whose career has spanned international stints with American Express and roles heading up Baycorp New Zealand and The Warehouse's short foray into financial services, says she was not fazed.
"Banking is going through a lot of change. I think it is positive change. Banks are being challenged to ensure they are putting the customer at the forefront of what they are doing and I am working for an organisation founded on doing that."
Set up in 1850 the TSB, formerly known as the Taranaki Savings Bank, is owned by a community trust and gives 15 per cent of its profits back to the community.
It is because of that Cooper believes now more than ever is TSB's time to shine.
"It gives us an opportunity to talk more strongly about how we are a New Zealand-owned, profit for purpose organisation."
TSB is also well-known for its strong customer service winning Consumer's People's Choice award for banking for the last three years in a row.
Cooper has already used some of the anti-Australian bank sentiment to her advantage to take on the Goliaths of the sector.
In February TSB launched a price-match campaign initially promising to match any one-year home loan rate advertised by an Australian-owned bank and then extending it to all home loan rates advertised by the Australian-owned banks.
It was due to end by March 31 but such was the success of it that it was only pulled a few weeks ago.
Cooper says the prompt for the campaign was that despite all its awards and recognition for customer service it wasn't enough to get people to switch banks.
"What I have found interesting is that people may be frustrated with the service they are getting from their financial service provider but it isn't enough to make them choose to change.
"So it was about when do people think about moving banks and making sure at that point they were considering us."
She says by taking price out of the equation it enables people to think about other things like customer service and New Zealand ownership.
While its financial year data only captures some of that period it shows TSB's residential lending book grew by more than 10 per cent in the last year to March 31 up from $4.39 billion to $4.84b.
On a percentage basis that growth outstripped all the major banks including ANZ, ASB, Westpac, BNZ and Kiwibank but it remains a banking minnow with less than 2 per cent market share of all residential lending in New Zealand.
Cooper says it wants to grow further but has to do it in a sustainable way that ensures it keeps up its customer service standards.
As well as conduct and culture the biggest issue on the minds of the banks this year is the Reserve Bank's capital review which is due to be finalised by November.
The proposals have set out a near doubling of the capital held by the big banks in a move expected to help level the playing field for the smaller New Zealand-owned banks.
But in a joint submission to the Reserve Bank's proposals, TSB as well as Kiwibank, SBS Bank and The Co-operative, warned it could widen the competitive gap because of increased limitations around the type of capital that will qualify.
"Proposals to further restrict the amount and type of non-common equity tier one capital will continue to advantage the Australian banks and make it harder for the NZ-owned banks to meet the increased capital targets.
"Consequently, this will limit the opportunity of the NZ banks to grow," the four banks said in a joint statement.
Cooper says she is supportive of the Reserve Bank creating a banking system that has greater security and that it is working closely with the regulator to make sure New Zealand banks do have mechanisms to raise capital and compete with the bigger Australian-owned banks.
Despite working in financial services for her entire career Cooper says it is people that are her passion rather than numbers.
"I have always been a big people person. I've always cared a lot about what makes people tick and how to do right by people."
She grew up in Raumati South - a small town on the Kapiti Coast - and says she had a great childhood of riding bikes around the farm and playing in the neighbourhood.
Her mother was a teacher and her father worked in the building sector.
The family moved to Auckland's North Shore when Cooper was at high school and she attended Rangitoto College, becoming the head girl in her final year before studying business at AUT University.
She was then lucky enough to undertake a postgraduate course in international business at a university in France.
"We had a very diverse group of people I studied with from all different countries so it challenged your perception of being open-minded and the way that people thought, and I thought that was a really great experience.
"The conversation in the classroom: 'I understand you think that but in my country here is how it would be thought about' was really good for making you think differently about problems."
After her studies Cooper moved to the United Kingdom where she was accepted into the graduate programme at American Express and then worked for them in different locations for the next 13 years.
Part of that included a two-year stint in the India office which was a steep learning curve for her both as a leader and a woman in a male-dominated environment.
"India - to state the obvious - is really different to anywhere else I had lived. The people were warm and embracing, they have a wonderful richness in their culture which I really enjoyed being part of."
The financial services industry was just starting to kick off in India but it was very different to New Zealand.
Less than 2 per cent of all spending was on plastic. "If you think about NZ at that time it was in excess of 80 per cent."
It also didn't have a credit bureau - data that is used by many lenders to make decisions on who they lend to.
But, says Cooper, one of her biggest learnings was that inherently people are similar.
"Often it is easy to see difference but inherently we are all the same - we all love our families, want to support each other and be part of a community."
She was also only one of two women in her leadership team in India.
"That taught me about what it is like to be a minority and how that adds value and how that adds challenges for how you can demonstrate you have got value to add - you are coming from a different point of view."
After India Cooper moved back closer to home living in Sydney for four years before her return to Auckland in 2012 to be closer to family.
Her daughter was 2 and a half at the time and she was pregnant with her son and decided to take some time out to spend with her young family.
She stepped back into the workforce when her son was 1 year old to head up debt collection agency Baycorp in New Zealand and after three years there was approached to run the new financial services division of The Warehouse.
Unfortunately that turned out to be short-lived when the retailer decided to pull out of the sector and sell off the business a year later.
Cooper takes a pragmatic view of the situation. "If you think about the wider retail environment there is a lot happening, it is a dynamic industry and at that point Amazon were investing heavily in Australia.
"I totally appreciate as a collective the Warehouse needed to focus on strengthening its retail business and that is core of what it does."
She helped transition the business to its new owner and was approached for the job at TSB. Cooper's predecessor Kevin Murphy left the top job at TSB in January 2018 after nearly 10 years as CEO and 40 years with the bank.
Cooper says she was drawn to the role because of its community trust ownership and philanthropic purpose. It was also a chance to move to Taranaki and give her children the kind of small-town upbringing she had experienced.
"Having grown up in small part of NZ I thought it was an opportunity to give my kids the chance to experience a childhood like I had. Those opportunities are less easy in a big city."
And the commute - well needless to say it takes her the same time no matter what time of day she goes.
She still returns to Auckland to visit TSB's regional office. TSB has four branches in Auckland out of its 24 nationwide branches and has its call centre based in New Plymouth.
Asked if there are plans to open more Cooper says it will depend on the needs of customers. The shift to online means there is lower demand for branches for transactional banking but people still want to deal with someone in person for the big decisions like getting a mortgage or loan.
Cooper says TSB has recently made it possible to join the bank online and 40 per cent of its new customers now come via that route.
Asked how a bank with a profit of just $45m a year can compete with likes of ANZ New Zealand, the country's biggest bank which this year made just under $2b, Cooper is confident in her response.
"We have got some magic and that is we have an organisation committed to doing the right thing by customers.
"I hear rhetoric that all banks are the same - and that is just not true. We are owned by a trust and put our profits back into that trust for the community.
"Imagine a world where all banks gave 15 per cent of their profits back for the good of the community, what a wonderful place we would be living in."
TSB chief executive
Began working for American Express in the United Kingdom in 1998 and worked for them in various roles in New Zealand, India and Australia for 13 years. Moved back to New Zealand and began a role heading up Baycorp New Zealand in 2014 before being approached to head up the financial services division of The Warehouse in 2017. After the financial service arm was sold she moved to the TSB job starting in July 2018.
Bachelor of Business, management and international business at AUT, Masters of Arts, international business at ESC Rennes, a university in France.
Married with two children.
What was the last book you read?
Star of the North by David Johns.
Last movie watched:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with my kids!
Last overseas holiday:
A turtle conservation island in Malaysia.