Terry Teller raises his eyebrows at this “profile” in The Weekend Australian of Commonwealth Bank chief, David Murray – Which banker on road to reinvention?

As a piece of spin doctoring it was okay. The Weekend Australian’s story was only written after the CBA realised that a business magazine was doing “an unflattering profile” of Murray and his management style at “which” bank.

Well, everyone in banking certainly knows the morale and operational problems at the CBA.

The current edition of BRW carries the offending report (from the CBA point of view). Unfortunately it’s in the premium section on the BRW website, so unless you’re a member or subscriber, we can’t help you read it make your mind up.

But the article looks at morale inside the bank. They’ve done some research, including reading various Crikey stories this year on Murray’s management style, the exodus of talented executives in recent years, his authoritarian approach, cultivation of “yes” men style of executives and favourites.

Terry Teller’s story – More on CBA’s fallen “golden boy” – was the latest in Crikey’s reports on Adrian Consenza, one of the executives who was favoured by Murray but has disappeared for at least six months. He was the executive used by Murray for quite a few important tasks, including the abortive and costly bid ($43 million in losses) in trying to take the bank’s Australian mortgage business to Britain.

Adrian was the man originally charged with Murray’s biggest and most riskiest change so far, the $1.5 billion three-year revamp of the heart of the CBA, retail services. But for reasons unexplained he and his number two are no longer at the bank, gone or on leave.

The Weekend Australian article, while a nice read, had all little of substance, seeing as it was thought up to counter the BRW attack.
Some access was granted to chairman, John Ralph. But very little discussion with others in the bank, or with former, departed executives, such as Gail Kelly at St George or John Mulcahy at Suncorp.

If The Weekend Australian had trawled through people like that and the many mid-level executives retrenched in recent years in Murray’s various restructurings, the picture would have been different and deeper, without the one dimensional feel of the finished article.

In the feature Murray is shown to be a good Catholic lad, the son of a CBA employee back when working in a bank was a professional and an objective for life, not a word that in many peoples’ minds now rhymes with —–? But is that the complete picture?

It’s all right talking about background and where you come from. But very little about what sort of person Murray is now.

A nice picture of Murray preparing an “Italian dish”, comments on how much he likes to cook these days to get away from the rigours of -anking. No mention of family. No mention of his divorce from his first wife and remarriage and second family, or the move from Epping, in Sydney’s middle class north-western suburbs, to the very exclusive and expensive Hunters Hill area, much closer to the city.

I know some Crikey subscribers won’t like these matters being discussed, but when someone trots out “family” background to sell themselves and their background, a more complete picture is called for. Omissions often tell as much about the person as do confessions.

But Crikey has received a number of reactions to the various stories on the CBA. One that came in last month looked at what David Murray has created lately in terms of executives, starting with the man slated to be his successor by those still surviving in “Which” Bank.

This person says the head of retail, Hugh Harley has a lot of similarities with Adrian Consenza. Hugh Harley was Murray’s personal assistant. When Hugh was given his first major appointment he personally employed three chief managers to lead up the divisions within the Business Banking side of the business. Within three years two had been marched and one moved sideways yet Hugh moved onto to head up the Retail Division of the bank.

He spent millions on the reboarding exercise “make it happen” then dumped it to revert to the well-worn “which bank”. At this time it became apparent that Hugh Harley had clashed with the then head of marketing Graham Ford over the strategy. Once again Murray’s man survives despite having responsibility for the marketing function.

The one common factor about some of these people Murray supports is that they have very little in the way of people skills, very little experience outside the bank and exhibit a very confrontation management style. Just like Mr Murray himself who knows no other life other than The Bank.

The other factor is an unswerving loyalty and obedience to their boss. Some of those who have departed, such as Gail Kelly, Andrew Thorburn and John Mulcahy were more independent-minded (although Mulcahy, being a former engineer, is a more command and control type of person). They were the opposites in terms of their management style and ability to communicate with staff than the Murray template.

During Murray’s last few years staff morale has been badly undermined, at times unwittingly by Murray and his management style. This has helped make the process of rationalisation more hard-nosed than necessary according to some insiders and much tougher for those remaining.

Murray forced many staff onto contracts then capped their superannuation at levels way below their salaries (1995 levels actually, as many of the managers departing in the current wave of retrenchments have found out). He removed the staff magazine, sold off holiday flats, chopped home loan benefits. He even introduced a staff fee for bank cheques. A former colleague tells of having to pay for drinks at a bank dinner.

He contributes nothing to staff Christmas parties yet puts on a large Christmas function for retired staff. None of these cost much or had much relevance but collectively, in a period where morale was weak, they were silly, petty little annoyances that were easy to avoid. But they weren’t, which says a lot of about the man.

Now, according to The Weekend Australian Murray is attempting to reverse some of these attitudes and ease the pain inflicted on the surviving staff.

In the words of Paul Keating, the man who gave Murray his big kick along by starting the privatisation process and signing off on his appointment as CEO, its time to flick the switch to vaudeville for the CBA CEO.

And wasn’t there some nice tap-dancing in The Weekend Australian?

Peter Fray

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