world of ambitious bank executives is, for some, right up there with
watching the manoeuvrings of Prime Ministerial aspirants and would-be
AFL football coaches.
So with the retirement of NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne and his
replacement by Andrew Thorburn it is perhaps timely to look at the
recent track record of the Big Four to see if the appointments have
any discernable patterns.
There are several key themes which suggest themselves:
The CBA is a
good training ground for bank CEOs (Gail Kelly, Andrew Thorburn and
Stewart Grimshaw at BOQ).
- some experience running a bank in NZ is
useful (Cameron Clyne and Andrew Thorburn again).
- But if you want to
be CEO at ANZ, it’s most likely you’ll only get the job if you come
from outside, and have been running a franchise for a major foreign
bank (John McFarlane at Citi and Mike Smith at HSBC.
Is that why, perhaps, Alex Thursby left to head the National Bank of
Abu Dhabi, because he understood the bank would look outside, rather
than inside, for Smith’s successor?
At NAB, Andrew Thorburn was not the favourite to replace Clyne, but a
look at the recent history at the bank shows that a previous career in
NZ is good for the CV when applying for the role as group CEO at NAB.
Like Clyne, Thorburn – a dual Aussie/Kiwi who barracks for Essendon in
the AFL and the All Blacks in rugby union – cut his management teeth
at BNZ in New Zealand, and had a previous career at ASB.
Running through recent NAB chiefs and the other point which becomes
apparent is the length of tenure. Since Frank Ciccuto – the only
recent CEO of a Big Four bank who started his career at the same
institution – the tenure of all NAB CEOs has been around five years.
By rights then,
in five years we might be talking about a new chief at NAB (even
though Thorburn is currently only a youthful 48), and we should be
weighing up the credentials of the incumbent at BNZ.
A Kiwi connection is clearly useful at CBA too, with both Sir Ralph
Norris and Ian Narev hailing from NZ. Both, however, had significant
careers outside of CBA, and outside of banking in fact, before they
led the bank – Norris with Air New Zealand and Narev as head of
This highlights the other main theme in Big Four CEO appointments –
you don’t have to be true blue Australian. Westpac chief Gail Kelly
famously began her career as a bank teller in her native South Africa
before coming to Australia and furthering her career firstly with CBA,
then St George and now of course Westpac.
Of the Big Four, leadership speculation now centres on both ANZ and
Westpac, where Smith and Kelly have been incumbents for six and seven
No-one would suggest that the bank boards are biased against local
internal candidates, but a look at the history infers that when it
comes to Big Four leadership appointments, the net is cast wide and
candidates can come from left field.
Also, with the Big Four now so well established as global players, the
Australian bank sector is no longer considered a backwater by senior
global bankers, many of whom might also now aspire to a leadership
role in Sydney or Melbourne.