Hartzer hangs back in slipstream

A year ago when Brian Hartzer was parachuted in to the second top job inside Westpac his elevation to eventually replace Gail Kelly as chief executive was considered a done deal.

A year ago when Brian Hartzer was parachuted in to the second top job inside Westpac his elevation to eventually replace Gail Kelly as chief executive was considered a done deal.

But the man who made his virgin presentation to investors and analysts on Tuesday didn't command the podium, radiate hubris or deliver any revolutionary plans to change the bank's strategy.

With Kelly sitting up the back of the auditorium, Hartzer played a political game. He was being judged by all in the room.

His ascension to the top job is now no longer a given - not because he has tripped over in the past six months but because Kelly hasn't.

She has suggested recently that she wants another three years as chief executive. This means that if Hartzer wants to take over any earlier he has competition - his own boss.

More recently another Westpac contender, Rob Whitfield, has been improving his market odds but still remains an outside chance.

How it plays out will depend on the next couple of results from Westpac, the first of which is due out in a few months.

This set of numbers will not reflect on Hartzer because he hasn't been around long enough. But it will be a test of whether the recent Westpac profit performance has been sustained.

Before this turnaround Kelly's fragile tenure was the chat of the industry - not if, but when.

In particular Kelly had gambled on a multi-brand strategy to create and invest in several bank brands apart from the flagship Westpac and including St George, Bank of Melbourne and BankSA.

The controversial part was the revitalisation of the Bank of Melbourne, which was a costly exercise and one that was believed risky in a low credit-growth environment.

It is still on the nose with most analysts - sufficiently so that for the past year it has barely been mentioned in the bank's strategy presentations.

But the better than expected past two results silenced Kelly's critics.

But Hartzer bought it back to life on Tuesday.

Indeed, his presentation included cementing multi-brand as a central plank of Westpac's future.

Hartzer discussed the remainder of the bank's plans in much the same way. Within the first few minutes he had declared he was not announcing a new strategy for the chunk of the bank for which he has responsibility - Australian financial services.

He wants to bring to life the existing strategy, which he describes as strong and exhibiting good momentum.

He talked about improving productivity from the existing suite of businesses and lots about simplifying products. It was about investing some of the savings back into the business and balancing this against improving returns.

It is much what one would expect an existing chief executive to enunciate.

But it didn't sound like a pitch for the top job. It was a "don't rock the boat" address with just a hint that he had located a few areas in which the bank could do better.

He reaffirmed that Westpac was OK with being a bit undercooked on mortgages but it wanted to be growing ahead of system on deposits. More needs to be done, or tweaked, on consumer finance, personal loans and credit cards, and St George has plenty of catching up to do in the small to medium-size business market.

There was a discussion on the notion that the whole (of the businesses) should be better than the sum of the parts and "economies skill".

It was nothing that the crowd hadn't heard before - except for economies of skill- which has to be a pretty recent addition to the management lexicon.

It was mostly helicopter views around the business and the industry.

It was a well delivered, clear and confident presentation from a man who in a recent cycling accident broke his ankle badly and now understands the cautious approach.

One gets the feeling that Hartzer would do plenty more if he got a shot at the title, but until or unless this happens he isn't about to upset Kelly or the board.

He has to cool his heels for a while yet.

Westpac paid Hartzer a roughly $7 million sign-on fee to come across from Royal Bank of Scotland.

It also created a position for him that previously didn't exist. He has carriage over about 70 per cent of Westpac's business, having been wedged in between Kelly and most of her former direct reports.

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