Smith loss could reshape ANZ

ANY early departure by ANZ chief executive Mike Smith the driving force behind the bank's move into Asia would trigger a reshaping of the lender's expansion push.

ANY early departure by ANZ chief executive Mike Smith the driving force behind the bank's move into Asia would trigger a reshaping of the lender's expansion push.

A series of global reports, including in The Wall Street Journal this week, has named Mr Smith as a potential contender to replace former Barclays boss Bob Diamond as the British banking major embarks on an accelerated global search for a CEO in the wake of the Libor rate-fixing scandal. The preference of the Barclays board is reportedly for an external candidate.

ANZ has declined to comment on the reports. There is no evidence Mr Smith, who is on annual leave, has been approached by Barclays.

One sticking point is that the bulk of Barclays' businesses are based in Britain and North America, with its Asian businesses generating just 4 per cent of its earnings.

Since joining ANZ in October 2007, Mr Smith has been on a rolling contract, which means either he or the bank can terminate the contract with up to a year's notice.

ANZ is widely viewed as carrying the biggest "key-man risk" the risk of losing momentum from the exit of a top executive among Australia's big banks. This is because ANZ's so-called "super-regional" strategy is so interlinked with Mr Smith.

"There would be a slowdown of their expansion into Asia," one investor said yesterday. "There would be no one who would be willing or capable to drive it at the speed he's been driving it at."

A former Hong Kong-based head of HSBC's vast Asian operations, Mr Smith used his extensive connections to open doors for ANZ in the region. He has been responsible for fast-tracking ANZ's expansion in China, including adding to its branch network and securing a licence to provide yuan-denominated services, including deposits and loans, for Chinese citizens.

Soon after joining ANZ, Mr Smith set down a plan to drive 20 per cent of the bank's earnings from Asia by the end of this year. More recently, he increased that target to as much as 30 per cent by 2017. Mr Smith has previously batted away questions on whether the 2017 target should be read as a guide to his planned tenure at the bank.

Any early exit would focus attention onto the long-term succession planning inside ANZ. At present, much of the focus is on Phil Chronican, the former top Westpac banker who runs ANZ's Australian operations which is by far the bank's biggest business unit.

However, Mr Smith's hand-picked Asian boss Alex Thursby, a former head of institutional banking at Standard Chartered Bank, would also be the preferred internal candidate if ANZ's board wanted to continue with its Asian push. While Mr Thursby would continue to drive ANZ's Asian agenda, investors say there would be a big difference in style and momentum to Mr Smith.

"He [Thursby] hasn't got the CV of Smith, who was a top executive at HSBC," said one leading bank analyst. "When you are head of Asia at HSBC, you are Asia," the analyst said.

Others point out that since the retirement of former chairman Charles Goode in 2010, ANZ's board has lost one of the key advocates of expansion into the region.

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