Take opportunities: CEO

Westpac New Zealand chief executive Peter Clare. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Westpac New Zealand chief executive Peter Clare. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Westpac New Zealand chief executive Peter Clare may have only been in the country since April, but he has some strong views on the New Zealand persona. He tells business editor Dene Mackenzie New Zealanders should make the most of the opportunities before them.

Earlier this year, Westpac New Zealand chief executive Peter Clare attended the Bledisloe Cup test match between the Wallabies and All Blacks in which the All Blacks demolished the Wallabies 22-0.

Married to a New Zealander, Mr Clare has been involved in some interesting discussions about which rugby team to support, but said he was now firmly in the camp of the All Blacks.

"New Zealand is putting food on my table so I am definitely an All Black supporter," he said in an interview.

"And, for a portly chap, black is a good colour to wear."

Mr Clare said he was surprised, if not astounded, to find out at the match the last time the All Blacks had held Australia to a nil score was 50 years ago.

"New Zealanders should have been jumping up and punching the air in celebration. Instead, the people were saying New Zealand could've played better. In Australia, we bowl underarm and still call it a win."

As a new New Zealander, Mr Clare said the country had so much going for it and he urged Kiwis to make the most of the opportunities.

This week, Mr Clare was in Dunedin hosting the first of three Grow NZ Vision Forums being held throughout the country. The audience was made up of civic and business leaders from Dunedin and surrounding regions.

He hoped the seminars would help unlock New Zealanders' innate conservatism and cautiousness.

While acknowledging New Zealand went into a recession early into the global financial crisis (GFC), Mr Clare said the country had borne up well compared with some others.

Westpac economists were forecasting a rise in New Zealand interest rates in the middle of next year, a sign of an improving economy.

"Now is the best time for New Zealanders to recalibrate their confidence and work out what they will look like in a year's time."

Mr Clare arrived in Dunedin on the day an employment survey showed Otago near the bottom of the pile in terms of confidence. The survey was taken before the announcement Alliance Group planned to lay off 325 workers at its Mataura plant.

Asked about how the run of redundancies would affect his call for New Zealanders to recalibrate their confidence, Mr Clare said survey results were just what they were.

Being open for business now would give organisations the chance to jump-start when the economy improved.

After six months in the country, Mr Clare said he was impressed with the social, economic, environmental and other advantages New Zealand enjoyed.

"I am surprised more people don't want to come and live here."

When it was pointed out New Zealanders continued to flood to Australia for job opportunities, he said the approach was fundamentally different in Australia where the Government "pump-primed" the economy by bringing in about 200,000 immigrants each year.

"Life is not so bad in New Zealand. If you can have a change of heart, and the Government focuses on growth in New Zealand and the population increases, that puts us in good shape in the coming period."

The change in customer behaviour for Westpac NZ had been interesting to observe and was providing good balance for the economy, he said.

There was a deliberate move to reduce debt on company balance sheets and in personal households. Customers were thinking twice before borrowing money. Instead, they were either paying down debt or saving.

Housing lending growth was bubbling along at 1%-3% a year, down from the peak of 10%, but deposit growth was up to 6%-8% a year.

"We are seeing in our own organisation industry positioning with retail deposits supporting lending. That is good for the country, good for the banking system. It makes the system safer and more secure because we are less exposed to international trends."

There was still some way to go, Mr Clare said. New Zealand was near the top of the global personal debt table. That deleveraging needed to be balanced with lower economic growth and activity.

The strength of the New Zealand economy was underpinned by the banking system which had weathered the GFC well.

"Many other countries around the world would like to have the New Zealand banking system."

The banks, mainly Australian owned, had taken a conservative approach to the debt vehicles being offered around the time the GFC started, he said.

It was difficult to understand what the long-term returns would have been on some of the offerings and it was safer not to buy.

Mr Clare acknowledged Australia had a two-speed economy, with Queensland and Western Australia feeling the benefits of mining, and other parts, like New South Wales, struggling in comparison.

He had talked to former Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard about the possibility of New Zealand having a two-speed economy once the Christchurch rebuild was fully under way.

There was a sense tradespeople and businesses were moving to Christchurch to take advantage of the opportunities opening up, at the expense of some other regions.

Westpac was supporting customers expecting revenue growth in Christchurch.

"There is a complexity to managing the economy when you only have [the] official cash rate. In the end, it is better to have one area of strong economic growth in the country than none. It is a problem of complexity, not a problem overall," Mr Clare said.


AT A GLANCE
Peter Clare, Westpac New Zealand chief executive.
• Age, 48.
• Married to Kirsten, a New Zealander from Hawkes Bay
• Two sons, Billie and Ted.
• Committed All Blacks supporter now he lives in New Zealand.
• Coveted the Westpac NZ job for a long time.


- dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

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