Smith gets an ally on board

ANZ chief Mike Smith is not shy when it comes to voicing his defensive frustration about non-believers of the bank's Asian strategy, or even those that raise legitimate questions around returns or some parts of the execution.

By · 19 Dec 2013
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clock 19 Dec 2013
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ANZ chief Mike Smith is not shy when it comes to voicing his defensive frustration about non-believers of the bank's Asian strategy, or even those that raise legitimate questions around returns or some parts of the execution.

Parachuting David Gonski into the chairman's role at ANZ won't make the sceptics disappear but it will provide Smith with support at the highest level within the bank.

Gonski has never run an Asian business - indeed he is a corporate lawyer by trade - but he sits on the board of Singapore Telecom, is a former director of Singapore Airlines and the chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil - which operates the Indonesian Coke territory.

From an Australian non-executive director perspective he is about as close as we get to a Mr Asia.

And he is so sought after by Australian boards that he can pick and choose his positions. Being duchessed by ANZ must have been particularly sweet for Gonski, who served on the bank's board between 2002 and 2007 waiting to be tapped on the shoulder for the chairman's job, which didn't become available because there wasn't a large enough shoe horn around at the time to prise the entrenched incumbent Charles Goode out of the job.

He may even feel a sense of entitlement. His interim (and near certain permanent) replacement as the chairman of the Future Fund, Peter Costello, will certainly see his elevation as a combination of a hard year of lobbying and his virtual birthright. But it wasn't Costello agitating his mates in Canberra that kicked off this game of musical chair(men)s.

Gonski is sufficiently enticed by the ANZ chair that he has skipped away from the high-profile chairmanship of the Future Fund - a role that while important is more of a figurehead position.

In reality, as far as jobs go, there is no comparison. ANZ is seven times the size of the Future Fund and has 54,000 employees around the world, where the Future Fund has 80 people in Collins Street, Melbourne, and no shareholders. The ANZ has to compete and perform in the publicly traded market. The Future Fund is already fully invested.

So for Gonski it was all in the timing. Had he waited until the end of his term at the Future Fund in another four years, ANZ would have replaced the outgoing chairman John Morschel, as would Commonwealth Bank, National Australia Bank and Westpac.

Meanwhile, he keeps most of his other jobs including chairing Coca-Cola Amatil, a director of SingTel and chancellor of the University of NSW. It's a very full dance card and one that could well raise concerns among the shareholders of any of these companies.

But the Smith/Gonski duo will be the relationship that will become vital to how ANZ proceeds in its regional super strategy and the pace at which it does so.

Morschel, who last year sought approval for another three-year term, was seen as supportive of the super regional strategy but not as championing the Asia push.

Wednesday's annual meeting allowed Smith another opportunity to defend the strategy and attack the critics. While ANZ said it was difficult to calculate the exact return from the Asian operations, the whole point of the exercise was to provide growth options and earnings diversification - beyond the domestic focus - which were not available to the other Australian banks. It's a clearly a sensitive issue for Smith who has invested his reputation on winning a long game in Asia. But his support will only be as strong if the domestic franchise compares well enough against its peers.

Call it a reprieve or vindication but the 2013 results were just what Smith needed. Earnings from Asia grew strongly but even more importantly the overall result was up 11 per cent.

It's a nice inflection point for Gonski to step in and help Smith preach his message. And while the two will be undoubtedly singing from the same song sheet there will be a difference in the pitch.

Where Smith's tense frustration bubbles through into the public domain, Gonski's calm and considered manner could be a useful counter-weight.
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