From teacher to bank teller to Big Four CEO. Not a typical CV sure, but there’s not much that’s standard about Gail Kelly. With nearly 13 million customers and 40,000 Westpac staff to her name, Kelly is the lone woman of the money movers top ten.

Westpac is huge; as Australia’s second biggest bank it has a $300 billion home loan book and commands a market share of 20% in home lending and deposits. Last year, the company posted an annual profit of $6 billion, with assets of $618 billion.

Kelly can be as tough as nails. Smart, fierce and energetic, she has sacrificed plenty to get where she is today. She left her home country of South Africa in 1997, in the shadows of apartheid, to bring her family to Australia.

But Kelly’s power may be slipping. Some say she has underperformed during her time as Westpac CEO, that her halo may not be shining quite as brightly as when she took over. Some finance watchers particularly point to her handling of the takeover of St George as an example of where things might be going wrong.

Westpac’s merger with St George at the end of 2008 could have been a boon for Kelly. The $15 billion takeover transformed Westpac into a lending behemoth, far and away the country’s second-biggest bank. Kelly had also been CEO of St George for several years (where it’s rumoured she rode in to the staff Christmas party as Cleopatra), so it was thought she would know the ins and outs of the business well.

But St George has not been performing well for Westpac. The bank revealed recently that it had suffered a substantial drop in residential lending last year, something Kelly hopes can be revitalised by a bout of cost-cutting and a restructure. A new regional rebuilding approach — including rebranding St George branches in Victoria as Bank of Melbourne — is also being employed to bring the bank out of the doldrums.

“Gail’s particular dilemma is that Westpac, with hindsight, over-paid for St George heading into the crisis,” Business Spectator‘s Steve Bartholomeusz tells The Power Index.

Despite such hiccups, Kelly still has influence in spades. Australian banks are enormously powerful institutions. And anyone who is in charge of one of the Big Four — no matter how they are performing — still commands great power.

It’s been a long journey for Kelly to Big Four CEO. She initially started her banking career in her native South Africa at Nedcor Bank in 1980, eventually making her way to Sydney with husband Allan to take up a role with the Commonwealth Bank in 1997. It was a move, she later told The Australian, that was “the most important” the couple ever made.

Then, in 2002, she became the first female CEO of a major bank, taking the reins at St George. It was there she brought her retail expertise and customer-centric focus to the bank (some say she was answering customer complaint emails personally) before being headhunted for those skills by Westpac.

With her brightly-coloured suits, silver pixie haircut and white picket fence-sized teeth, the 54-year-old Kelly has an unmistakable presence in the corporate world. And inevitably, “first female Big Four CEO” gets included in every profile written about her, along with all the implied responsibility that entails as one of the few women in her game to smash through the glass ceiling.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey