Technologist snatches Australia"s top bank job

Von Michael Crawford

In a cultural watershed at Australia"s largest retail finance institution, the board of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia has replaced card-carrying IT critic David Murray with technology evangelist and former CIO, Ralph Norris.

Currently CEO of Air New Zealand, Norris still has six months to go on his contract with the airline, with both companies are still negotiating a commencement date.

Yet it is the difference in strategic vision between the two men that has set tongues wagging in Sydney"s cloistered financial circles. While both Murray and Norris started their careers as bank tellers, Murray chose the traditional route through the finance division. Norris reached out and embraced IT while it was still in its embryonic stages.

Having an IT veteran at the helm of Australia"s second-largest bank is likely to have a profound impact on strategy and is in stark contrast to Murray"s take on the technology landscape which became legendary with his 1999 IT World Congress epiphany that IT "over-promises and under-delivers."

And rather than blaming financial market mania for the dotcom bubble, Murray"s take on it was that "the IT industry in the US has single handedly wrecked the world economy."

And then there was his warning at a banking IT security conference that an erosion of trust in a banking sector dependent on technology could lead to a run on the banks.

In contrast, Norris has spent some 30 years within the information systems division of the now CBA subsidiary Auckland Savings Bank. After rising to CIO, Norris was promoted to CEO in 1999 until 2001. In 2002 he moved to Air New Zealand and was lauded for arresting the airline"s terminal decline and steering it back into profit.

While at Air New Zealand, Norris abolished business class and meals on domestic flights in favor of Express Class, and made Internet sales the airline"s primary ticket outlet.

Domestic bookings increased by 23 percent and Norris quickly achieved a reputation as a business leader who could harness technology and make it generate a profit for his business rather than the vendors that supplied it.

A senior banking analyst, who declined to be named, said there is no doubt Norris will re-evaluate and bring discipline to IT supplier contracts when he arrives.

"He"s probably already scoped it, but the difference will be that he actually [understands] the IT deliverables whereas Murray was always suspicious - and understandably so after it crippled payroll and landed the bank in court over staff transfers to EDS. Norris is a change agent," the analyst said.

Norris" remuneration package is understood to total A$7.6 million (US$5.9 million) a year, a massive rise on the NZ$1 million (US$715,000) he earned in 2004 as CEO of Air New Zealand. CBA spokesperson Brian Fitzgerald was unable to confirm whether or not current outsourcing arrangements will be revisited.

"When contracts are already in place there is no chance to change them, but Norris will assess the whole position for the bank," Fitzgerald said.

"I think we will see that he is tech focused and will look to provide customers with the best levels of service, through using technology or otherwise.

"While at Auckland Savings Bank, he launched the first Internet banking portal in New Zealand, but he was only appointed yesterday and is still working at air New Zealand."

Norris is a fellow of the New Zealand Computer Society and chair of New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development"s influential Information Technology Advisory Group. He is 56, married and has three children.