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When ASB relocates to brand-new headquarters at Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter mid-year, chief executive Barbara Chapman won’t have an office, or her own desk.
Instead, the bank’s boss will be found alongside her 1400 staff in "activity-based working" – an arrangement where staff choose where they sit each day, grouped around their current activity or project they are working on.
Personal items and files will be stored in lockers overnight, and in the morning staff find a workspace in the “home zone” for their department – for example, marketing, HR, finance or risk.
Ms Chapman will be based in the "executive zone", but says there is plenty of flexibility to move around and use all the spaces in the new, open-plan waterfront building.
“If you’re working on a big project, your group might take themselves and camp in a 'neighbourhood' for a while until that project is finished. Then they might go back to their home zone and be with a different part of the team,” Ms Chapman says.
Activity-based working is popular in some large companies in Europe and proving to be efficient in two of the larger offices of ASB’s parent the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
New arrangements at ASB North Wharf will be fresh and energising, and Ms Chapman expects to be more in touch with the team than in her current office suite on level 28 of ASB Tower on Albert St.
“There’s been lots of planning and new technology to get ready for the new way of working. I think it is going to help teamwork and collaboration, and will definitely help flexibility.”
ASB staff were recently asked to choose an iPad or a laptop for their mobile work station to get them ready for the move.
“With the new technology tools you don’t have to be in the building. You can work more remotely.” She adds: “The technology has to be good enough to find you, so we know where you are.”
Initially, staff had some uncertainty about adopting such a different way of working.
“Some people like their personal things around them and I think initially there was some trepidation about that.”
Staff might choose to keep photos of their families and other personal items in their lockers and bring them out each day. Although it is now more common to store photos as digital files or screensavers.
Two years at the top
ASB’s relocation to new headquarters approaches as Ms Chapman nears two years as its chief executive.
She was appointed from CBA in Sydney, where her family still resides and where she returns to spend most weekends.
Commuting across the Tasman each week provides valued thinking time to focus on and prioritise the balls she has in the air as a chief executive.
“I spend a lot of time just in my own space on the plane, and to me that’s great because that’s the moment when no one is talking to you.
“I’m very focused at work Monday to Friday. When I’m at home in Sydney with my family it’s the weekend and I’m very focused on our family and what we’re doing and relaxing, and in that space in the middle – the commute between one and the other – I get a lot of time to myself and I find that really valuable.”
She describes the job as constantly balancing of the short-term needs of the bank with the long-term capabilities.
“You talk about capabilities and people’s eyes glaze over. But in reality, we have to start building today the things that are going to deliver the performance in the future. And you make some pretty big bets when you do that.”
Mobile banking is changing the dynamics of how banks operate at a phenomenal pace. ASB now has 150,000 customers using its mobile technology, registered on 200,000 devices. And 30% of all logins to ASB’s Fastnet internet banking now come through mobile phones.
“The adoption rate is four times faster than the adoption of internet banking at the same duration of its lifecycle,” Ms Chapman says.
Technology was also shaking up the way the bank regarded its competitor set – the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook have reach into similar markets now.
“We’re very mindful that who we are playing with is changing. It’s going to get more ubiquitous and customers are going to demand more from us through this type of technology.”
In February ASB posted a 7% gain in its first-half cash profit, which excludes some one-time items, at $348 million.
“Our history has been towards retail banking historically, but the momentum we are getting in rural and commercial is really strong and just proves to me the opportunity for ASB in those markets is growing.
“What we’ve landed on is a state where we are growing in all parts of the business at above the market growth.”
Super profits are out of context
Popular criticism of “super profits” among the major Australian-owned banks is out of context, she says.
“If you think of banks in New Zealand in general, our return on assets is about 1%, and if you look at the NZX top 10, ROA for that group is about 6.5%, so are we making super profits? No.
“I think the banks’ combined return on equity is about 14.5% against the NZX top 10 at about 13.5%, so we’re making 1% more. Considering the risks the banks take, and we’re in every part of the risk part of the business, I don’t think a 1% premium over that is too much,” she says.
“I don’t shy away from the fact banks are a strength in this country and people should be pleased with that.
“We employ 26,000 people and we haven’t been bailed out by the government. Imagine if we had been bailed out and shouldered the taxpayers with all that debt. People wouldn’t like that, either.”
Class action against banks
Ms Chapman declined to comment on the hot-topic proposed class action against banks’ exception fees, maintaining the stoic silence of the major banks since Fair Play on Fees was launched last month.
Auckland barrister Andrew Hooker, leading the campaign, says banks have unfairly charged more than $1 billion in default fees over the last six years and is inviting New Zealanders to test the legal basis of the fees in his class action.
Ms Chapman indicated to NBR ONLINE the no-comment stance would at least be maintained until at least any formal next steps in the proposed litigation are taken.
Diversity – people need to step up
As New Zealand’s top female banking executive, Ms Chapman is often held up as the poster girl for gender diversity in the workplace.
The former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust and current member of the 25 Percent Group, Ms Chapman is frustrated gender imbalance attracts more talk than action.
“In New Zealand what I can see is activity in this space appears quite splintered which, in a country our size, is not going to lead to the best outcome.
"There are a number of groups (and you can be sure she gets asked to be on all of them) all working hard to improve the gender diversity balance and from what I can see, to be honest, not a lot of progress is being made.
“And if I hold the report card up to myself in the mirror – am I making enough impact in this area? Well, I’m having the best go I can, but I can’t see the results of that yet, either.”
Ms Chapman is not a fan of setting quotas for female executives and directorships for listed companies.
“But if we don’t make any progress I think my views on that will change and I will become a fan of quotas if we can’t break through this any other way.
“I’d much rather see a regime where you have to report your results around diversity and have to set yourself a target.”
More male champions needed
She hopes more New Zealand businessmen will step up and become “male champions” of gender diversity.
“In Australia, male leaders such as [CBA’s former Kiwi chief executive] Ralph Norris really stood up and made a difference and I don’t see quite that leadership happening in New Zealand.
“From what I can see there is no unconscious bias among the men in the business community I deal with. I think I could smell a rat if there was and there isn’t one. But still, progress is far too slow.
“If senior businessmen really put themselves on the line and said they were going to do something about gender imbalances, it could make a real impact," she says.
She quickly identifies Goldman Sachs NZ chief executive and convener of the 25 Percent Group Andrew Barclay, NZX chairman Andrew Harmos and secretary to the Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf as businessmen who have put a firm stake in the ground on the issue so far.
Bridging the gender pay gap at ASB
Ms Chapman the executive team at ASB have taken a hard look at pay equity within the bank and awarded pay rises had been given when a gap has been identified.
“That’s step one in building equality –people of equal calibre doing equal jobs should be paid the same. There’s a gap here [at ASB] and we need to fix that.”
Ms Chapman has also insisted on having a man and a woman on the interview panel for senior roles within the bank.
“Because if there is a woman on the interview panel, a women is more likely to apply. It’s just a simple dynamic, but the more that apply, the more that get interviewed and the greater the odds of hiring [women] change.”
Multi-disciplinary career banker
When Ms Chapman joined ASB in late 1994, were her sights set on becoming its chief executive?
“No. I’ve always wanted to do really well at the job I was in at the time, and put a lot of energy and focus into that, and I have always believed that is the way you progress through an organisation,” Ms Chapman says. "It’s about performance and delivery more so than ambition.”
Two previous chief executives played a big role in developing her career: Hugh Burrett, who she worked under as head of retail before taking up her first chief executive’s role at ASB’s sister company Sovereign Assurance; and Ralph Norris, who shoulder-tapped her In 2006 for CBA in Sydney, where she ran the marketing, communications and human resources teams for the group.
“I’m still in touch with both and still value their counsel and feedback,” Ms Chapman says.