It was no surprise that the media zeroed in on NAB chair Ken Henry and chief executive Andrew Thorburn when the Financial Services Royal Commission final report was handed down on Monday. Although none of the Big Four or the AMP was spared in Kenneth Hayne’s final deliberations, the former High Court judge reserved his most acerbic comments for Henry and Thornton.
“Having heard from both the CEO, Mr Thornton, and the Chair, Dr Henry, I am not confident as I would wish to be that the lessons of the past have been learned … I was not persuaded that NAB is willing to accept the necessary responsibility for deciding for itself what is the right thing to do,” Hayne said.
It was blunt and it was accurate, immediately sparking media speculation about the future of both at NAB.
For this scribe, it bought back memories of two NAB advertising campaigns, both under the stewardship of former CEO Cameron Clyne.
The first, “More Give, Less Take,” proffered a more customer-oriented bank. Although some media cynics saw it more as a bank scrambling to regain market share after rivals CBA and Westpac stole the march on their Melbourne rivals in the home loan market in the wake of the GFC, the fact this ad campaign was accompanied with some fees being axed and cheaper home loans did give it some customer substance.
About 18 months later, and on Valentine’s Day no less, the NAB launched an even more audacious ad campaign by telling Australians they had “broken up” with rival banks and they should do the same (Clyne stepped down in August 2014 for “family reasons”, a decision, one quietly suspects, he is not regretting right now).
It was backed by an aggressive pricing campaign, abolition of more fees, improved access to ATMs and a pledge to support local businesses when other banks wouldn’t step up to the mark.
And it was hardly a subtle campaign, involving an open letter, titled “It’s over between us”, that was published in major newspapers which hung down the side of its Melbourne headquarters like creeping ivy. As one wit said at the time, it read like a “dear John” letter.
Although this move by NAB hurt margins, investors liked it, with the share price appreciating. But with hindsight, it was all window dressing, with a capital W and capital D. Certainly Clyde’s parting comments on stepping down and handing over to Thorburn, “I am proud that I leave NAB as a strong, customer-focused bank,” ring about as hollow as a lifesaver.
This is the “customer-focussed bank” where Thornton treated fees for no services (that’s theft in layman’s language), in Hayne’s words, “as nothing more than carelessness combined with system inefficiencies”. That’s hardly focussing on the consumer.
As for the other “Big Three”, one suspects Hayne’s decision to single out of NAB for special condemnation would, in these very dark days, bring a wry smile to those executives who remember “More Give, Less Take,” and “It’s over between us”. The reality was NAB was taking more and giving less, and, as for it being over between us, well, good riddance.