The National Australia Bank’s
retail banking executive general manager, Andrew Thorburn, made his
media debut over lunch in Sydney yesterday to talk up his plans to
revitalise his patch, as the SMH reports.

But
the discussion’s corollary inadvertently underlines what a complete
mess the previous bunch of incompetents made of the retail bank. Never
mind the Homeside and forex trading debacles, the clowns weren’t fit to
be tellers – and the board members who fiddled while their core
business was burning must carry a fair share of the blame.

Once
upon a time, the NAB was a very competent bank. Its branches and the
service they provided were a key part of the success. They even had
bank managers. Then management-by-numbers took over and the branches
were gutted. That’s the damage Thorburn is now trying to partially
repair.

Of the NAB’s 813 branches, 87 per cent are glorified
ATMs, capable of doing nothing more complicated than issuing credit
cards and personal loans. The heart and prize of Australian retail
banking, the home loan, is beyond them. The “managers” of those
branches (really little more than teller supervisors) were offered no
leadership training for that role. Thorburn has started to change that,
but it will take time – and money.

Not surprisingly, NAB is coming second last in the retail customer satisfaction stakes and has been losing market share.

Thorburn
came to the NAB earlier this year from St George, a bank whose
reputation rests on its retail offering, and prior to that, New
Zealand’s ASB. His biggest problem is that all the other banks have the
same goals – improve customer satisfaction and some wealth products
cross selling – and they’ve started to repair their own damaged
performances earlier.

Thorburn’s strategy sounds all right, but
this is a very tough race in which to give the opposition a couple of
years’ start. The test for Michael Chaney’s new board is whether they
care enough about retail banking to adequately resource it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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