The perennial question in all profile interviews is: What do you enjoy most in your time outside of work? Baker laughs at the question, saying banking is a full-time role. However, her great joys in life remain her three boys and “the other boy” in her life – her husband. “Spending time with my family is very important of course particularly as my boys get older and start to leave home. It’s precious time and I make sure I make the most of it.”
She is also passionate about genealogy, using every spare moment of her time researching her family tree – which includes a lot of time on her tablet searching on ancestry.com. So far, she has been able to trace lineage right back to Robert De Bruce – the King of Scotland who led his country during the First War of independence against England.
That was back in the 1200s, fast forward to 2018 and while not a direct royal descendent, like her distant family member, Baker is also tasked with a leadership role, spearheading the country’s fifth-largest lender.
Baker took over the helm of longrunning CEO Mike Hirst - coinciding with the year that Bendigo and Adelaide Bank celebrates its 160-year history. An internal appointment, she has been with the bank for 30 years. It’s also a hire that comes when just 13 women run the top 200 companies in the ASX – 5.7 per cent of financial and insurance CEOs are women. She is disappointed that its still unusual for a woman to spearhead a large organisation, adding that we “will only get its right when we don’t need to talk about it anymore”.
However, for Baker, her own experience has been different in terms of a businesses’ commitment to supporting diversity. “The organisation I have grown my career in over the last 30 years has been an absolutely inclusive organisation. I have never had any barriers to being able to progress in my career. We take diversity and inclusiveness very seriously and it is more than being gender-based.”
According to Baker’s numbers, half of the bank’s management team are female. The bank continues to invest and develop the next phase of leaders both male and female. Importantly she notes that the bank – both its business and leadership, needs to reflect the customers it serves. “For us to be able to represent our customer base, we need to reflect the same demographic makeup”. Her immediate remit is to challenge the perception that second tier banks are unable to meet the needs of customers from the big banks. “Research has shown that 70 per cent of customers of the big four don’t believe any second-tier bank has the capability to meet their needs. That is a perception we know is incorrect.”
Re-thinking top line growth The new CEO acknowledges that it is a challenging period for financial services “but the greatest opportunity for us is to get more people to understand who we are as an organisation”. Part of this will do go down to trust issues being played out amid the “shadow of a royal commission” as well as technological changes.
"We are well placed to compete with any of the banks. Our deep connection to customers – which has been reflected in our 160-year history - holds us in good stead."
“There has been a deep discussion about culture and reputation. Given the current pace of disruption, banks today will look very different in the future. We are well placed to compete with any of the banks. Our deep connection to customers – which has been reflected in our 160-year history - holds us in good stead,” Baker said.
She cites Roy Morgan’s Net Trust Score as evidence of high trust levels the bank has among Australian consumers, in fact in its latest survey it was the only bank in the top 10 brands with the highest trust score – the business ranked third behind the ABC and the NRMA.
“Trust goes to the core of the integrity in an organisation. We are focused on creating awareness and reinforcing our positioning that we are doing the right thing by our customers,” Baker said. The bank of course came under scrutiny recently at the Hayne Royal Commission over its lending practices from its Rural Bank business – a business it bought in 2010. Baker still believes the bank has a very strong proposition to the market. “What we have seen in the royal commission related back to a decade ago. Any issues raised at that point in time, we have worked to remediate and put in place changes in policies and processes”.
"We are very confident that Rural Bank has the best interests of their customers at heart."
“That was lost in the royal commission. Instead, the focus was on what happened a decade ago. We are very confident that Rural Bank has the best interests of their customers at heart. I expect the bank will continue to grow and continue to do the great work it does which is ensuring farmers are getting financial support,” Baker said.
She also recognises that in an increasingly challenging environment, banks will have to rethink where top-line growth will be coming from. “Over the last decade there has been a big focus on residential lending, but we have seen not only a decline in lending but regulators now starting to manage the level of growth. We are unlikely to see that level of growth in mortgage books continue. The sector will have to look at how it diversifies – either into other asset classes or other forms of revenue streams.”
Citing competitive sensitivities, Baker wouldn’t disclose what specific revenue streams Bendigo will be focused on but in terms of immediate focus for the bank, innovation will be key. Working with its long-term fintech partner Ferocia, the bank is set to launch a digital bank aimed at students and millennials she calls the “digital natives”.
"We have learnt that there is a certain cohort of customers looking to move into a digital bank environment. If we are going to be responsive to customer needs, we need to have this type of offering."
“Our approach is to listen to our customers. We have learnt that there is a certain cohort of customers looking to move into a digital bank environment. If we are going to be responsive to customer needs, we need to have this type of offering.”
In her previous role as chief customer officer, Baker was also key in getting the bank to support the New Payments Platform. Bendigo which was the first bank to offer all types of mobile wallets including Apple Pay and Google Pay will also remain focused on how to innovate further in the payments sector, using platforms like the NPP, that make it easier for our customers to do business with us”.
Boosting its small business portfolio will also be a key strategy for the bank – a unit that has been struggling recently. Consistent with its strategy to increase awareness among consumers, the bank will also be ramping up its efforts in business banking.
“We are still new to business banking. Coming from a building society background we only converted to a bank in 1995 but we have all the products, skills and capabilities including great business bankers to engage and meet the needs of businesses."
"Given our reach into 500 communities across Australia, there is a real growth opportunity to tap into the small businesses across these communities. The Community Bank model will underpin this strategy.
This model will remain a core part of the bank’s strategy. The business also celebrated a milestone – a 20-year anniversary. To date, the network returns more than $5.5 million in shareholder dividends and $183 million in profits back to local communities. In the next 12 months, the bank plans to set up six more locally owned and operated branches.
On the funding and capital management front, Bendigo remains well capitalised – it has met APRA’s “unquestionably strong” benchmark – and Baker adds that funding is not an issue for the organisation, highlighting that the bank’s retail funding sits at 85 per cent – the strong level of retail funding a “testament to the strength of the franchise”.
Baker is still awaiting any further potential changes in relation to risk weighting and capital adequacy in the final wash-up of the Basel changes and while there is yet a decision to be made from APRA’s review of its application for advanced accreditation, Baker said the process has been “absolutely worthwhile for us in relation to lifting our risk management systems and getting more granular” in the way the bank assesses its customer and business risks.