THE DISTILLERY: NAB facelift

Jotters have mixed views on the significance of a new-look NAB, with one saying it's business as usual for Cameron Clyne.

The commentariat has spilled plenty of ink over National Australia Bank's management reshuffle and technology plans, but not too many commentators can agree what it all means. Some read the announcement with a yawn, while others believe it's just the right response for the times.

As part of the 'drab NAB' chorus, The Australian's John Durie says Cameron 'people's banker' Clyne appears to have patched up his differences with the other big banks by "declaring he has no vastly different strategy but just wants to manage better". That, he argues, is more business as usual than revolutionary.

"A better bank? Yes, but Clyne has abandoned his Che Guevara beret and replaced it with a salmon-coloured tie."

Others, like Malcolm Maiden, are more impressed. The Fairfax veteran says NAB's changes are "no less important for not being unique".

"The big four local banks are all reconfiguring for a world where customers prefer to do their business digitally, and usually online. They are investing more than average as they put systems in place, but will be lower-cost operations when the process is complete: even after some of the savings are redeployed elsewhere, the digital shift will be a key driver of productivity and profit growth in a post-global crisis environment of low credit demand and heavier capital support for lending."

At The Herald Sun, Terry McCrann seems to agree:

"Now NAB has to re-orient for a slow-growth, possibly low-interest future, and the answer in a word is: technology. Only technology offers a pathway of lower costs and not just service maintenance but value-adding improvements for customers."

While The Australian Financial Review's Michael Smith welcome's Clyne's first management shakeup, the Chanticleer columnist thinks it's more reminiscent of something a new chief would do rather than something announced four years into the top job – one Clyne is lucky to still hold.

"Notably, Clyne himself has survived the management shake-up. He was not expected to step down today although chairman Michael Chaney was forced to defend his performance in meetings with investors last year after the bank delivered a $1 billion in 2012 earnings, largely because of an increase in bad debts at its Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks in the UK."

Business Spectator's Stephen Bartholomeusz thinks those bad debts played more of a role in the announcement than others have guessed.

"The weight of the UK baggage means Clyne has no real option but to try to drive the Australasian businesses harder in a low-growth environment, particularly as his major competitors also have major cost-reduction and technology-driven business simplification programs of their own."

Then there's Andrew Cornell, at The Australian Financial Review, who senses hints of "mission accomplished" in NAB's update. After four years steadying the ship – rebuilding the bank's balance sheet and customer franchise, establishing a modern technology platform and strengthening revenue streams – he says Clyne has successfully closed the first phase of his leadership. He's now ready to make his mark.

"Of course, implementation is the real challenge. The next phase will determine whether Clyne is an NAB hero or another journeyman."

After all that, there are only a handful of jotters who aren't fixated on finance.

Fairfax's Elizabeth Knight details the complex web of self interest behind the media's varied response to Labor's proposed media reforms. And The Australian Financial Review's Jennifer Hewett says Communication Minister Stephen Conroy's handling of the bill has been just as questionable. 

In resources news, The Australian's Robin Bromby examines Japan's potentially transformative plan to tap into a giant natural gas deposit off its coastline. If the technology works, he writes, "it is going to change the energy commodity balance in East Asia. 

Also in the region, the newspaper's Asia Pacific editor Rowan Callick says Papua New Guinea carries a lessons in "how difficult it can be to build and maintain a mining industry, and how relatively easy it can be to lose one." Australia should listen up.

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