Eventful six-year reign took CBA to unexpected places

Ralph Norris presided over a tumultuous time for international finance, writes Ian Verrender.

Ralph Norris presided over a tumultuous time for international finance, writes Ian Verrender.

IT IS difficult to imagine Ralph Norris seriously contemplating retirement.

As Commonwealth Bank chief executive, Norris has enjoyed power and influence beyond the wildest dreams of our political leaders while largely avoiding the glare of publicity.

Yesterday, however, he confirmed that come November, he would depart the organisation he has led for six years, a decision he described as "bittersweet".

And, while Australians have long laboured under the misapprehension that we dominate New Zealand's banking and finance world, it appears the Kiwis are gnawing their way back from within.

Replacing Norris will be Ian Narev, another New Zealander, who, at just 44, has youth on his side.

In recent years, a new crop of managers sporting the vowels from across the Ditch has permeated upper management, with the outfit occasionally referred to as the Commonwealth Bank of Auckland.

Norris's six-year reign as chief of the country's biggest bank coincided with the most tumultuous period in international finance, as one of the greatest booms in history unravelled at frightening speed, taking the developed world to the brink of economic chaos.

CBA emerged from the crisis, not merely as Australia's biggest bank, but one of the world's most profitable.

Technically Sir Ralph, after converting a Labour government gong to a knighthood under the new government, Norris can be genuinely charming, affable and urbane with a razor wit and ready smile. But he also possesses an acid tongue, is known to be abrupt, abrasive and aggressive when displeased or confronted and incredibly determined.

His crowning achievement was the masterful acquisition of BankWest during the darkest days of the financial crisis, a purchase that extended CBA's reach to almost a third of the market. At $2.1 billion, Norris paid about half the true value of the bank, picked up from the crippled Scottish operation HBOS. It was a deal that arguably would never have been sanctioned by the competition regulator in ordinary times.

Everyone loves to hate bankers. And, as head of the nation's biggest bank, Norris was an obvious target.

For a while, last November, he became one of the most loathed men in the country after the CBA doubled a Reserve Bank interest rate hike.

It didn't help that he'd just been named Australia's highest-paid executive with a $16 million pay packet.

The ensuing outrage fuelled fierce public and parliamentary debate about the role of banks, in particular, the stranglehold of our Big Four on the nation's finances, particularly given taxpayers had backed them during the crisis.

Although wounded and deeply offended by the venomous nature of the debate, Norris maintained his focus.

There had been suggestions he'd planned to stay on until next April for the bank's centenary. But chairman David Turner yesterday indicated a search for a replacement had been under way for 18 months.

Norris was a relative unknown when he took the job in 2005, and there were initial doubts he had the smarts to run the country's biggest bank.

He'd recently retired, after four years of resurrecting a bankrupt Air New Zealand, a task that contributed to a serious health problem.

But corrective surgery and the challenge lured him back.

He began at Auckland Savings Bank in 1969, finally landing the top job in 1991 after its purchase by CBA, where in the next decade he engineered huge growth in market share and earnings.

So his 2005 appointment was a homecoming of sorts.

There are reports he may pursue a political career in New Zealand. All he'll say is: "I'm looking forward to a less onerous role as a retiree."

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