I guess it’s no surprise I ended up working in banking, having watched my Dad climb the ladder at the Commonwealth Bank until his retirement/redundancy in 1994. The idea of professional services and wearing a suit as a uniform always appealed, with my parents telling the story over the years of me as a 15 year old pulling on one of Dad’s suits and heading down to Claremont town centre to walk around, just to see what it felt like.
I can admit it now, but as a high school kid in the late 1980s it would have been social suicide to tell people I thought Paul Keating was awesome, with his sharp double breasted suits and stinging wit. Call me an idealist but I imagined that one day when I went to work for a big corporation I would find an inspiring leader like my Dad or Keating and work for them forever.
Life has a funny way of throwing distractions in your path, and I didn’t join the banking industry until the ripe old age of 34. Before that I spent too much time in hospitality management, then as a tennis professional teaching the wealthy of Perth and their kids how to play the gentleman’s game, and finally as a public servant.
Somewhere in there, amidst countless boozy evenings and long Perth summers spent either chasing or belting little, fuzzy yellow balls I also managed to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Western Australia. I still have a recurring nightmare that it’s the last exam of my degree and I have been told I can’t complete it because I didn’t attend a high enough proportion of tutorials, or didn’t hand in the last big assignment. This should give you some insight into my work ethic at Uni.
This eclectic background seemed to me to have served no purpose at other than a nice lifestyle, an even tan and good knowledge of wines, until I started working for big banks.
Having managed some profitable small businesses I knew what life was like in the real world. I knew how to run a business to make money, and that the number one priority in any industry is taking care of your customers. I knew how to talk to people and more importantly, how to listen.
I spent some time in the public service working as an investigator for a bloke who was an ex-Detective with WA Police, who taught me how to conduct an investigation and an interview. Lots of whats, whos, whens, whys and hows….and lots of silence on my end. And the funny thing was I realised I already used these types of questions and had been for years, since my time as a tennis coach.
After all, the easiest way to have a chat with someone is to ask them about them…
It didn’t take me long to realise that most people who work for Big Banks have no idea how they work, and this didn’t sit well with me. I am probably too analytical and I want to know in a deep sense how things work. Not long after starting in banking I was “piggy backing” with a guy in the team that set up loans on the bank’s computer system (piggy backing…sitting next to someone while you watch them do their boring, repetitive job. How long do you reckon you could do that for before falling asleep?).
This guy set up a $5m commercial loan and I asked him “Where did you get the money from?” He said “What…?”
So, a guy setting up loans has no idea where the money comes from? Not good enough.
That’s when I realised that all the reading, watching and listening I had done over the years; talking to my Dad, following Federal economic policy, reading about successful business people, reading about finance and economics and wanting to know how things worked; actually meant I already knew more about this industry than many insiders who had been there for years.
I started reading and asking more questions.
I set a goal: to be a commercial manager running my own portfolio of customers within 5 years. My first boss, a good bloke I have stayed in touch with told me most people had been in the industry for 10 years before they got to that level. Some of the guys I looked around at had been there for 20 years and weren’t there yet.
It took 3 ½ years.
Then I jumped banks, which is a fairly common move for industry veterans. You know “The grass is greener” mentality? Well, it isn’t. One bank is much like another.
It was around this time I worked out I really respected the majority of the self-employed people I got to meet as customers. Not liked them all; let’s not confuse respect and affection. I respected them as they found something they were good at, proceeded to learn a lot about it via a number of sources and sold it at a profit over a long time.
They accumulated wealth, and strong relationships. They had clear ideas about their plan for the next 12 months and beyond and had numbers in mind they could use to measure their progress.
And as my customers, they needed my help.
I found it perverse that a lot of the time these self-made people had to bow and scrape to get what they needed from executives, who are by definition just looking after someone else’s stuff.
So, I started taking some of the data provided by the bank’s Chief Economist and sending it on, with a little personal commentary.
Then I looked at the way the mainstream media presented financial and economic data and news, and realised it’s presented in a way designed to sell copy: alarmist, controversial and always seeking the next scandal or disaster.
And a lot of the time the people providing the quotes and opinions are, once again, executives. Not people actually involved in day to day operations, or owners of businesses producing goods and services, but talking heads being politically correct while promoting a particular viewpoint.
The whole financial system can seem either bizarre and pointless, or Darwinian and savage, depending on where you stand and what story you are hearing.
Despite all this, I like observing it as economics and finance is really just a study of human behaviour where we keep score with dollars and cents.
So, now I sit outside the banks, but inside the system, watching as the madness unfolds. Passing judgement and trying to lift the veil to a certain extent.
Hopefully this helps. Hopefully it provides some food for thought.