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What makes new Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer tick

16 March 2015

Head 162X171

Brian Hartzer (above) took the reins at the Westpac Group as its CEO on Monday February 2 this year. The Friday before, he’d been in Melbourne working out of the new Head Quarters on Collins Street. He tries to get to the southern capital every other weekend to see his four children there. (He also has two step children in Sydney.)

The day began early. He took his girls to school, did a day in the office and left in time to pick the kids up from school.  It was back to work after that via email, etc.

“As an employer who wants employees to feel fulfilled, acknowledging they ‘have a life’ is very important,” says Brian, whose children are demonstrably important to him.

When Ruby spoke to Brian for this interview, he’d been in the job for a month. It was March and he was in the middle of International Women’s Day celebrations. The issue of gender diversity was top of mind not just because it is a business and economic imperative for Brian but because, with four daughters, “it’s personal”.

As part of International Women’s Day Westpac had released its Youth Gender Equality Research. One of the key findings was that most adolescents go to their parents for career advice.

What then would this CEO’s advice be to his children?

“Explore the breadths of the world in your 20s. Don’t make any assumptions about what you will really enjoy doing. Let life unfold. The more things you expose yourself to the more you’ll be open to finding your passion.

“I know it’s a cliché,” he continues, “but the, ‘if you find something you are passionate about you never work a day in your life’, has certainly worked for me.

“My hope for my children is that they find something they are passionate about, do it to the best of their ability and they will be satisfied, fulfilled and happy.”

Banking is Brian Hartzer’s passion, and he admits he’s lucky to have discovered his early.

Growing up in America he remembers being set the task in Grade 10 of writing on “anything” for an English essay.

“I was 15. I couldn’t work out what to write about. My teacher said, buy the New York Times and see what’s in there that might be interesting. At the time the LDC [Less Developed Countries] debt crises was in all the papers. A number of South American countries had defaulted on these huge loans and the implications were beginning to play out. I was introduced to a senior banker who was involved and who offered to explain what was happening.

“I remember at one point asking him what the loans were for, and his answer. The countries, he said, were desperately poor. The loans were to build roads, hospitals, apartments, so that people could emerge out of poverty to a better life.

“That’s interesting I thought: banks play a vital role in the economic development of a country. That insight stuck. Whenever I had a choice to study, I always chose something that had a tangential relationship to banking.”

Having negotiated corporate life successfully, you wonder what else might have helped this teenager develop such a rigorous and long-held passion for banking.

“I’ve always been interested in business. My first ever ‘job’ was selling pieces of gum at school,” says Brian, alluding to the fact that Hubba Bubba bubble gum had just launched and he bought packs to sell it to other students by the piece.

“I also had a paper run. I played sport – team and individual – but I confess I was a high class of averageness at it. My life has not been formed by sports. Curiosity has formed my life. I’ve always been curious and obsessed. I would find a topic I was interested in and get every book out of the library on it and read them.

Computer games were another fascination and Brian remembers when the first Apple personal computers came out: “I was very lucky. My father allowed me to get an Apple II. I taught myself programming off the back of liking to play games. Eventually, I got a job teaching people programming and that got me interested in computers. It’s certainly one of the themes infusing my professional life,” he explains.

Technology, he believes, is tremendously empowering, allowing people to engage with information at their own pace and in their own time, and way, without feeling intimidated. For customers, Brian continues, that adds up to good banking experiences.

So what, according to the new CEO, does “good banking” look like?

“We are here to support economic development, to support customers to grow their businesses, to manage their money... We are not here to sell mortgages but to help people buy homes. We are not here to sell products but to serve. We are a service industry and the moment banks lose sight of that purpose, and the GFC is an example of this, you get bad banking.

“It’s really simple, if the nation is to benefit and we are to benefit then it starts with our customers and helping them to be more successful. As Australia’s oldest company, and its first bank, we’ve played this role from day one. We are the circulatory system of the economy.”

Before joining Westpac in 2012, Brian worked as chief executive of British retail for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He has also held senior roles at ANZ Banking Group, which he joined after moving to Australia in 1994 as a management consultant working for a firm that specialised in banking.

The reason for the change to management out of consulting was that he found he got “way more satisfaction out of helping people to develop and be successful than being the sole achiever”.

On his new role, Brian concludes; “I know that part of my job is to lead, to advocate for the company, for the industry, for the country itself given our integral role in its economy.

“If we want to understand our market and make good decisions then we need the best possible talent. If we aren’t including half of the potential talent pool then we are not going to be as effective as a company. I make no bones about the fact that gender equity is a business and economic issue for me. If all the best women in Australian business think that Westpac is where they would like to work, then we win.”

“Selfish”, he agrees, but to be the first company in Australia to achieve gender equality in management is important for continuing success.

One of the issues he sees is the pipeline to upper management. The Australian tradition of making people choose their academic major when they are in their mid-teens, perplexes him. How, he wonders, does a 16-year-old person know what they want to study at university?

“I find it odd and the unintended consequence of that sort of thinking - and this is only my hypothesis - is that bright young women get tapped on the shoulder and asked, so are you going to be a lawyer or a doctor, and the young woman says, I don’t know, maybe a lawyer, and off they’re channelled into that.

“In the mix for boys is the ambition to be a senior business leader. It is not something young women are asked to consider,” says Brian, and this is what has led to the Westpac Group Equilibrium program.

The initiative, launched in late 2014, called on women in other industries to look at their skills and experience and consider a new career in banking and finance.

Marketed through word-of-mouth and social media, the response to Equilibrium has been encouraging. A 300 strong applicant list was shortlisted to the final six and announced on March 6. Brian describes them “as women with the intellectual horsepower to invigorate the industry.”

The inaugural external Equilibrium program participants are (pictured below with Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer):

Rebecca Meli, most recently Senior Marketing Manager at Nestle;

Michelle Gorman, joining Westpac from Meat & Livestock Australia, where she was General Manager, Industry Systems;

Tiffiny Lewin, a former Director and General Manager in fast moving consumer goods, most recently at Asaleo Care and Mondelez International;

Natalie Frazer, whose last role was as Associate Director at EY;

Caroline Williamson, who joins us from Deloitte, where she was a Director; and

Danielle Mckeon, a former General Manager at pharmaceutical compounding business, Fagron.

Brian Euilbrium

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