Brian the size of a planet

Former CEO of Wokepac and reliable content generator for this organ, Brian Hartzer, is on the publicity milk round for his new book, The Leadership Star. He keeps popping up on the Creepbook for Business timeline grinning in selfies with various people at book signings and coffee meetings to tout his wares like a truckstop hooker at 2am.

Occasionally he scores a wider audience such as a guest appearance on a podcast, as he does on this one:

I took the time to listen to this and regular readers may be surprised by my reaction…. I thought Brian came across as extremely knowledgeable about the banking industry.

Less frequent readers might be forgiven for thinking, “well duh, one doesn’t get to be CEO of a major bank if you don’t know banking inside out”.

Somewhere between those two points of view lies a question; if Brian is such a banking industry subject matter expert, how come he made such a custard of running one?

Before we answer that, I do need to comment on a couple of points he made in the interview.

Firstly, he talks about improving customer experience to increase market share. This is a medium-sized elephant in the room; there are four main banks in Australia and a large gap between 4th and 5th place. I can’t find figures on customer attrition rates in Australia, but my assumption is it is low compared to other jurisdictions. He doesn’t go into details in the interview either which, if it were a great factor would be presumably data rich.

My hypothesis is customers don’t move banks much in Australia, which explains why the customer service is so shite.

The second comment I’d like to pick him up on is where he mentions his duty to constantly reduce operating costs. When he took over from Gail Kelly, he chose to not integrate the wholly-owned subsidiary, St George, keeping its duplicate infrastructure, staff, products and premises. Go to any high street in Australia and there will likely be two Westpac branches not far from each other, one with a red logo, the other with a dragon. Cost cutting, me arse.

To be fair to Brian, he does talk about lessons learned. Taking more interest in compliance reports and making individuals explicitly accountable being two very relevant lessons he’s clearly taken on board. He actually sounds quite contrite and, ironically, rather like the theory that the safest time to fly is immediately after a major plane crash, he’d probably make a better bank CEO now.

Bill’s Opinion

Brian isn’t stupid, in fact, he obviously got his last job on merit. Yet he still fucked up royally. Why?

My hypotheses is he allowed his focus to drift to the ESG/woke stuff. There are only so many hours in the day and it’s a foolish person who doesn’t concentrate on his or her core objectives for 99% of those waking hours.

Oh well, at least he’s got plenty of time to spend on his hobbies now.

One Reply to “Brian the size of a planet”

  1. Early comment. You may recall I have spent some time working around Brian’s last real job. Two comments/confirmations.

    First, bank customers don’t change banks much. It is too difficult. I’m in the process of doing so from a position of knowledge, and it is still difficult. This is not anyone’s fault really, but the details are numerous, and it takes time. Mortgage borrowers (in particular investors) do get loans from multiple banks, so you can miss system growth that way.

    At some point, when they have offloaded all their peripheral businesses (and some not so peripheral businesses) and stopped turning over senior executives, they will get back to being a bank. This might coincide with when they put a banker like Brian back in charge, rather than the charisma free bean counter. Although neither path has really helped much has it?

    The board belongs in a room of mirrors also.

    The second point/question (partially rhetorical). At what point do the board and shareholders decide that you can’t be under extreme regulatory pressure (for regulatory technology/control environment improvement), strong competition (well, sort of), rapidly changing customer access requirements (technology channels requiring investment), a baked in higher cost base from dual/confused brand and still having to pay 75% (as a minimum) of your profit back out to shareholders? At least one or two periods in the last few years have seen a >90% payout ratio. APRA may have noticed this.

    Its also worth noting that in banks, competition often manifests in looser terms, and lower pricing in response to threats to move from customers. You may notice that both are occurring in Australian banking currently, from an already low base on historical comparison.

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