One of the first things Cameron Clyne did when arriving at NAB was pull down the partitions separating workers. And there’s no glassed-in corner office with city views for the youngest-ever head of the big four bank — Clyne likes to tell people he works at a desk, just like everyone else.

It’s this kind of approach that sets him apart. Sure, Clyne might look more like a nightclub bouncer than a big-time banker — at 198 centimetres, with shoulders as broad as a barn door — but the former rugby union lock-forward’s style is all soft touch.

He says he relishes people telling him where he has gone wrong, just as long as it is constructive: “If you have to get past five secretaries and three security doors to find me, staff are very unlikely to bring me a problem,” he once told The Sunday Times.

He must be on to something because this consultant-turned-banker is enjoying one of the most stratospheric career paths in the country; just take a look at his CV. At just 26, he was anointed youngest-ever partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. And, at 40, he was made NAB’s youngest ever head. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he’s making an audacious bid to pinch as many mortgages from his rivals as he can.

Clyne has been the driving force behind NAB’s aggressive “break-up” strategy, the advertising campaign it launched on Valentine’s Day this year to try to woo customers from the other banks. Recently more of a business lender, Clyne’s push to bulk up NAB’s retail banking — based on a promise that NAB is “different” from the other majors — has so far been a success.

Some 225,000 customers shifted their allegiance to NAB in the five months after the break-up, a big win for the bank. As a result, Clyne was able to book a 22% increase in first-half profit this year, helped along by a 1% rise in its share of home loans.

Clyne says the thinking behind the campaign came down to two things: increasing the bank’s credit growth in difficult conditions and tapping into a growing mood of distrust towards banks. “It was the cheapest advertising campaign we’ve ever run, it was very reliant on social media,” he told an Australian Business School Meet The CEO event recently.

But there is a risky side to Clyne’s big play. NAB is still smarting from having to write down more than $1 billion worth of investments during the US subprime mess. It also faced investor anger after revealing bad debts arising out of Britain.

Meanwhile, housing prices have been stagnant in Australia for a while now, while economics figures haven’t been much better. And don’t even mention the state of the market. If the economy starts to tank and NAB’s bold move comes back to bite it, Clyne could be in the gun.

“The residual question mark is whether Clyne can sustain what is ultimately a discounting strategy and come up with other strategies for differentiating NAB’s brand,” says Steve Bartholomeusz from Business Spectator.

But regardless of what happens, you can be sure the affable 43-year-old will keep on fighting.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey