Karen Scott-Howman

• Job: Chief executive, NZ Bankers' Association

• Age: 45

• Educated: Aotea College in Wellington, Bachelor of Laws from Otago University and Honours at Victoria University

• Family: Two children, aged 16 and 14

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• Has a black belt in karate

Karen Scott-Howman has a black belt in karate, was once a documentary producer and helped launch New Zealand's first national spelling bee.

It's not quite the background you would expect from a Wellington lawyer whose job is to be the voice of the banking industry.

Scott-Howman, who took over as chief executive of the New Zealand Bankers' Association seven months ago, has had a unique career, stepping between broadcasting and banking.

She originally trained as a lawyer, focusing on both public law and media law, and says with that background it made sense for her to do both.

"It's great to be able to look at things from a different perspective."

Born in New Zealand, Scott-Howman spent the first five years of her life in her father's homeland, Vietnam.

The family decided to head back to New Zealand when the war got too close.

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"My mum would go every day to the New Zealand embassy and ask to leave."

When they finally got the call, her dad had to be left behind because he was not a New Zealand resident.

The family flew to Singapore, where her father was allowed to join the family and they carried on to New Zealand.

"It must have been really traumatic," says Scott-Howman, who has been back to Vietnam only once since then.

She grew up in Wellington and studied law at Otago and Victoria Universities, using her honours year to study entertainment law, focusing on the censorship of rap music.

After university she worked as a lawyer for Chapman Tripp and did a stint working overseas in Australia and Canada, before returning to Wellington to join the Broadcasting Standards Authority as a legal adviser.

It was while working at the BSA that Scott-Howman decided to take a punt at being a producer herself.

"When I worked at the BSA it was in the same office as NZ on Air."

Inspired by an American documentary about spelling bees, Scott-Howman and a close friend made a documentary about sending a New Zealand child to the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship in the United States.

The documentary was the start of a nationwide spelling bee competition in New Zealand which has now been running for more than 10 years.

"We did it from the kitchen table," she says.

From that experience, says Scott-Howman, she learned how to write a press release, organise a nationwide competition and promote it - experience that she says made it easier to deal with the media in her current job.

She then became a broadcasting adviser for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, then joined the Bankers' Association for her first stint in 2009.

Scott-Howman worked her way up from regulatory director at the NZBA to head of advocacy and deputy chief executive, before leaving to go back to the BSA as chief executive.

But it wasn't long before she was drawn back to banking, and with the departure of former boss Kirk Hope, Scott-Howman stepped into the top job.

Her move back to banking from broadcasting might seem a strange choice, but she says it was interest-driven.

"What I found out about banking was that it is a lot more interesting than people might think."

What really attracts her is the breadth of issues the NZBA can be dealing with at any one time.

"One minute it's scams, the next, detailed policy work."

She also enjoys the ability to influence regulation for a sector that affects everyone.

While some might question the need to stand up for an industry that makes so much money and already wields a lot of power, Scott-Howman sees it as a chance to tell the other side of the story.

"It's important to tell people about what banks do for the economy and communities."

Banks have been under fire this year for deserting small-town New Zealand, by closing branches - despite still making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

"Technology is changing really quickly in banking," says Scott-Howman. "That is actually a great thing for us because the customers are driving change and we are being able to deliver innovative solutions.

"The flipside of that is in small towns branch traffic is really small. That means there are some difficult decisions that might need to be made and these are not taken lightly."

She says the public needs to remember the changes are being made in response to customers' demands for better banking.

"That 's actually quite exciting for us as an industry."

Scott-Howman says trust and confidence in banking is one of the key issues for the sector - and something it is constantly working on.

It's not only the public's opinion that it is trying to influence, but politicians' views too.

Banks came under fire from opposition politicians this after failing to pass on all of the official cash rate cuts made by the Reserve Bank.

Scott-Howman says setting interest rates is a commercial decision made by each bank individually.

"The OCR is an important factor. But it's not the only factor."

Funding loans has become a key issue for banks this year as local retail deposit growth has failed to keep up with lending growth, forcing banks to rely on more offshore funding.

"There is no shortage of money offshore," she says. "But it's about the price you get it at."

At the same time, deposit rates have gone up as banks try to encourage more people to save - an unusual move in what has been, until recently, an environment of falling interest rates.

Like many industries, banking is also facing challenges from innovation and disruption.

Scott-Howman sees this as an opportunity to better understand the needs and wants of their customers and make changes to meet them.

"I think of disruption as positive."

As head of the Bankers' Association, it's Scott-Howman's job to listen to the views of all the banks, no matter how big or small.

But she can only speak on their behalf if there is consensus across the industry.

"We have a consensus model. Everybody agrees with the position we come up with."

The association doesn't get involved if there are competitive issues.

"One thing about the GFC [global financial crisis] was it really galvanised people to work together."

"There are less disagreements than you might think."

And you get the impression Scott-Howman is no easy walkover despite her slight frame.

She got her karate black belt a few years ago when she went looking for a new challenge.

"When I was growing up I was a competitive gymnast. I was looking for something to do to replicate that. I like the achievement of it."

"It's all about not fighting."