When Mike Smith lines you up, he doesn’t miss. The plain-speaking ANZ CEO has a propensity to run his mouth off when things don’t agree with him. Just ask any business editor looking for a quote on a slow news day; he’s not your typical boring banker.
He has regularly attacked the country’s much-vaunted four-pillar banking system for resembling “two pillars and two stumps” and once slammed shadow treasurer Joe Hockey for “taking economic lessons from Hugo Chavez”. Earlier this year he savaged prime minister Julia Gillard and Labor for being apart of the “weak government club”.
With his ruddy complexion and inch-perfect combover, the 54-year-old Briton is the perfect candidate for a banking cartoon caricature. Except, that is, for a bullet wound to the thigh. But more on that later.
As a Big Four banking CEO, Mike Smith is a member of the exclusive coterie of institutions controlling the majority of financial transactions in this country, so his word carries plenty of weight. And with 30 years in the game and plenty of experience in difficult markets (he’s done time in Hong Kong, the UK, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and the Middle East), he’s hoping to expand his clout by taking ANZ headfirst into Asia’s economic boom.
Despite possessing all the tropes of a British businessman — charm, wit, a love of Aston Martins — Smith’s style means he has a nasty habit of making enemies, even ones that carry guns. During a six-year stint as chief of HSBC operations in Argentina, Smith implemented some personnel changes the locals didn’t like. The result was a bullet to the thigh.
“In a South American way, they thought if they removed me, they removed the problem, and they’d all go back to the way it was,” he told an Australian School of Business Meet The CEO event last year. “They had a good attempt, shot up my car, and I got a bullet though the leg. But I got away from them.”
Aside from collecting the bullet, Smith says he learnt a lot from his time working as a banker in Argentina in those tough conditions. He was in charge of HSBC during the country’s financial meltdown in 2001 — “the banking equivalent of having survived Stalingrad” — and says making it through to the other side with the company’s 8000 staff was one of his proudest moments.
“Getting through that crisis, it took a lot out of me. I’ve got to say,” he said last year. “But the effect of them retaining their jobs, being able to continue to live, was extraordinarily important. It needed a lot of bravery.”
And perhaps a little bit of help from his friends.
In the riots that subsequently engulfed Buenos Aires during the economic crisis, Smith’s head of security at the bank, Jorge Varando, was alleged to have shot and killed 23-year-old Gustavo Benedetto. According to The Guardian, Varando, a retired elite military officer, also faced claims of being active during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s, when thousands of opposition Argentines were “disappeared”.
There was some speculation that the riots (during which protesters tried to burn down the HSBC building while Smith and 1000 staff were inside) had been motivated by allegations government officials tried to solicit bribes from foreign banks. Police raided HSBC offices and the house of a senior spokesperson looking for evidence of the claims. In his testimony, Smith denied HSBC had paid any bribes, but said government kickbacks were commonplace in Argentina.