Former ANZ chief Mike Smith’s greatest legacy has been his aggressive push into Asia. Hired by HSBC in 2007, Smith wanted to expand ANZ’s global presence and commissioned Whelan to develop the institutional bank.
Whelan was sent to Singapore at the height of the global financial crisis, when large foreign banks abandoned Asia to focus on their own markets. “As a bank, we were investing in Asia while a lot of others were pulling out,” says Whelan.
The global retreat made Whelan’s job easier, as high quality clients and staff were left behind. Operating in 14 countries in Asia at the time, adapting to each diverse culture was a challenge Whelan took on.
“Doing business in Vietnam is very different from doing business in Hong Kong, China, and very different from doing business in Indonesia. So we were learning a bit on the job, but we hired a lot of really good people who helped us navigate this area. “
Australia was largely protected from GFC thanks to China’s insatiable demand for iron ore. As China opened up to the world, ANZ wanted to become the link for businesses to send capital and goods to the world’s second-largest economy.
The bank recruited thousands of new business customers, which was exciting at the time, but was later described as a catastrophic failure, causing loss of capital and skyrocketing costs.
“If you treat people with respect and authenticity, you can talk to anyone.”
Mark Whelan, ANZ
Whelan is quick to defend Smith’s strategy of expanding into Asia, which he says was and remains “a smart thing to do.”
“We have always been the most international of all banks, from day one. We were built as a commercial bank in 1835 in the sheep business, which is why this bank was created, ”he says. “Mike and Alex [Thursby] and others have taken it to a new level…. Shayne Elliott was there, pushing us. “
But he readily admits that cracking the retail market in Asia, where customers have remained loyal to local banks, was misguided. “To be successful in retail, you really need to have big branch networks, a much bigger infrastructure. Digital banking was starting to bite and you had to invest heavily in that… It stretched resources in Asia for us, we were never going to win that.
Today, China’s deteriorated relationship with the West has impacted a number of ANZ customers, especially those dependent on exports, but Whelan says this has created an opportunity to focus on d ‘other markets.
“Everyone seems to think Asia is just China. It’s not. India is growing, Vietnam is growing, Indonesia is growing, Japan, South Korea. These are countries with big, big, big economies with big opportunities and very big customers who want to trade and move capital across Australia, ”he said. “China is definitely a monster country, but there are opportunities elsewhere.”
‘Talk to anyone’
Whelan’s leadership style is influenced by his upbringing in Heidelberg West, a northeastern suburb that was once home to Melbourne’s poorest residents.
His father was a warehouse keeper at the Spicers stationer. Her mother worked as a cook in kitchens in Melbourne, such as Northcote Lawn Balls. With three older sisters, Whelan was the first in her family to attend college and says her ability to engage with people from all walks of life has been important “throughout my career.”
“It could be a cleaner, it could be a trader, small entrepreneurs. And even dealing with the business moguls in Hong Kong… If you treat people with respect and authenticity, you can talk to anyone.
That same trait could soon help him land the first job at the nation’s fourth largest bank. But Whelan is adamant he is not leading the pack. “At the end of the day, they’re spoiled for choice,” he says. “Am I one of the potentials?” I hope so. But that would very much depend on what the board wants for the future. We will see how it plays out.
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