Asian push intact, says ANZ chief

ANZ chief executive Mike Smith insists there is no change in the bank's Asian growth strategy, despite the sudden departure of the executive leading its push into the region.

ANZ chief executive Mike Smith insists there is no change in the bank's Asian growth strategy, despite the sudden departure of the executive leading its push into the region.

In a surprise move that analysts said could impede ANZ's Asian expansion plans, the chief executive of institutional and international banking, Alex Thursby, will resign this month to become head of National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the second-largest bank in the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Smith, who had entrusted Mr Thursby to spearhead ANZ's push into Asia, conceded the move was "a little bit unexpected" and might have caused problems if it had occurred a few years earlier.

But he said the bank's plan to extract a growing share of profits from Asia was unchanged. It was still targeting 25 per cent to 30 per cent of its income from the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and America by 2017, he said.

"That is absolutely unchanged. We are still front and centre on a journey to become a super-regional bank," Mr Smith, a former banker from HSBC, said.

He said he expected to stay on as ANZ chief executive for two to three years.

"I feel that we need a little bit more time to truly embed the super-regional culture into the organisation and at the appropriate time I will hang up my boots," Mr Smith said.

Mr Thursby had been touted as a potential successor to Mr Smith, but the latter denied his staying on at the bank may have influenced Mr Thursby's decision to leave.

He said it was a personal matter instead.

The departure of Mr Thursby, who joined ANZ in 2007, comes at a time when analysts are questioning ANZ's emphasis on Asia, with some saying it should focus more on the less risky Australian market.

Even so, Deutsche Bank analyst James Freeman said the exit of Mr Thursby had the potential to "impede momentum" for the bank's Asian strategy over the short term.

"We think this will come as somewhat of a shock to the market, given Thursby has been an integral part of the bank's expansion strategy in Asia," Mr Freeman said.

"While unlikely to impact the long-term strategy, it has the potential to impede momentum in the short term," he said.

Mr Smith rejected this, saying the bank was well prepared to find a replacement for Mr Thursby and its Asian growth ambitions were "much bigger than one person".

"Had he made this decision three years ago, I'd have been in a bit of difficulty, it would have been much harder for me," Mr Smith said. "It is a bit of a shame ... but I think we're in very good shape right now."

As ANZ continues to expand its market share in home lending, Mr Smith said it had made "tactical" investment in its domestic mortgage book this year. But this did not change its long-term focus on the potential from Asian growth markets.

"Everybody has always concentrated on the Asian story because that's quite different, but we should be growing everything, we've got to put the foot to the gas everywhere," he said.

In his new National Bank of Abu Dhabi assignment, Mr Thursby is expected to drive the international expansion of the Middle Eastern bank.

There are plans for international earnings to make up 40 per cent of operating profit by 2021, more than double the present level.

Almost 70 per cent-owned by the Abu Dhabi government, National Bank of Abu Dhabi is the most international of the United Arab Emirates' banks.

The bank has operations in 14 countries across four continents, and aims to be in 41 markets by 2021, mostly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"He [Mr Thursby] is extremely well regarded across the market as a strong banking leader with a reputation for developing and growing businesses, accompanied with a strong risk-management approach," National Bank of Abu Dhabi said.

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