Ralph Norris knows what it’s like to be the most hated person in Australia. Just ask any tabloid newspaper editor; he’s greedy, overpaid, an enemy of the Aussie battler. But he also knows what it’s like to wield serious clout.
The head of the country’s biggest bank is without doubt one of the heavy hitters of finance. When he does something, the entire country knows about it.
Like the time he played national party pooper and spoilt last year’s Melbourne Cup, after the Commonwealth Bank raised interest rates on the first Tuesday in November by almost double the Reserve Bank increase. Much newspaper ink was used attacking Norris for that supposed misstep, shouting him down for daring to inflict rate pain on the race that stops the nation.
And the politicians lined up to have a crack as well: “Instead of giving us the four-pillar policy, the banks have given us the middle-finger approach,” Senator Nick Xenophon told reporters at the time. “Everyone had to tighten their belts during the global financial crisis, but it seems the banks have just taken the money and run.”
But Norris stood firm, saying the rate rise was necessary and even demanded a correction when The Daily Telegraph ran a damaging and supposedly misleading front-page story which reported him saying he thought it “was better to see a few foreclosures than have an economy hamstrung by a low-profit banking system”. Not satisfied with the correction, Norris took out full-page ads giving his side of the story.
It’s clear the man knows how to protect himself. A skill he put on show again when he was forced to defend his enormous $16.2 million pay packet in 2010, the highest of any CEO in the country.
Norris says the whole rate-rise affair took its personal toll on him. He admitted this year that his house had been vandalised and that angry customers had intimidated his wife. And maybe that has led to his future departure from The Power Index. Because by all rights Sir Ralph should probably not be in our top 10. In fact, in a few months he won’t be.
But until November, when he steps down as CEO, the head of Australia’s biggest bank is still here. And that means he’s still in charge of more than $330 billion worth of mortgages, if only until CEO-in-waiting Ian Narev takes over.
Right now, Norris’ bank juggles some $646 billion in assets, controls 26% of the home loan market and not long ago absorbed BankWest into the fold. Whichever way you look at it, CBA is a juggernaut of finance. And Norris has been at the helm of the black-and-gold behemoth for six years.
Big, balding and slightly buck-toothed, Norris gives off the vibe of a geeky uncle. A father-of-three, he’s friendly and personable; and takes his nickname from movie star Chuck Norris. He’s also a diagnosed diabetic. But just like his action hero namesake, Norris knows how to be ruthless, even if it loses him popularity points.
Norris has performed his job well in steering CBA through the GFC. The bank’s share price has made decent gains under his stewardship, and many watchers believe the bank is stronger for his presence — especially after the takeover of BankWest.
“Walk into a CBA branch and you’ll get a sense of how far the bank and its staff have come during the Norris era,” says Stephen Bartholomeusz from Business Spectator, who praises Norris for improving the bank’s level of customer service.
It wasn’t immediately apparent that Norris was destined for big things in banking.