Brown cardigans might well inspire the corporate imagery at Ron Walker’s new bank, assuming the Melbourne businessman can organise the resources and approvals to take on the four or five firms which control Australia’s financial sector.

The cardigan crowd are the former ANZ heavyweights helping Walker with his new venture, namely John Ries and Achut Bommokanti.

For Ries, at least, it’s a chance to undermine his former employer. ANZ’s board passed over Ries for the job of managing director in 1997, instead selecting John McFarlane to replace Don Mercer at a time the board was agitated at the investment market’s ranking of the group as Australia’s fourth bank with a dated strategy.

Bommokanti held a fistful of top level jobs at ANZ, including as treasurer and head of the south Asian Grindlays business before leaving four years ago.

Ries and Bommokanti peddle their skills in semi retirement through Ajay Financial Services are are no doubt pleased to count Walker as a customer.

Walker, however, really already was Ries’ customer.

As the executive in overall charge of ANZ’s wholesale banking business, Ries championed Walker’s Crown Casino as an ANZ customer, providing construction finance and then term loans for Melbourne’s controversial – and extravagant – entertainment complex in the city’s Southbank precinct. Ries spoke up for Crown as a credit when poor trading in 1998 proved how excessive was the investment in the complex by his mate Lloyd Williams, who actually ran Crown.

Walker’s big idea seems to be a simultaneous attack on Australia’s fast growing telecommunications and financial services markets. His new telco and new bank will hold cross shareholdings (probably 15 per cent each way) and cross promote products in a fashion its planners are yet to finalise.

Walker found financial support from the Lowy family (of Westfield fame) for the telco and had hoped that US ‘super regional’ bank Bank One would provide a core shareholding and technology for the bank.

Walker needs to show credible shareholder commitment and competent management to warrant the approvals from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority – and ultimately Peter Costello – for a banking licence.

Bank One is attractive because of its large – though hugely unprofitable – internet banking business, Wingspan, and its related First USA credit card business.

Unfortunately for Walker, Bank One’s strategy is undergoing a significant rethink. US investors lost patience with its loss-making online strategy and poor earnings.

Since reports of his plans hit The Australian Financial Review last month, its become clear Walker’s failed to entice Bank One to the table.

Walker then tried French insurer Axa for backing, without success. Axa’s trying its own tilt at banking anyway together with the union super funds.

Walker’s broad plan is to build a new bank with the best of the latest technology. Unencumbered by the costly, legacy systems of the big banks, a new entrant, in theory, will have much lower costs and thus be attractive for reasons of price and service.

As most Australians moan about their banks and service levels, the potential is high. The flip side is that big banks are spending up on improvements (such as new access options for customers such and centralised support centres) while customers don’t show too much inclination to move on.

Banking start-ups tend to lose money, though. Just look at AMP.

For the time being, Walker’s telco seems more likely to get off the ground, while he hits the phones to find the money his crack at banking.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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