Rumours are swirling that former New South Wales premier Mike Baird could be in line for the top job at the troubled National Australia Bank, after two bosses confirmed their resignations.
Mr Baird was hired less than two years ago as NAB consumer bank boss, and is tipped to step into Andrew Thorburn’s role when the chief executive steps down at the end of February following a scathing report.
NAB chair Ken Henry announced he will also resign once a new CEO is appointed, after the two were singled out for particular censure by the royal commission.
2GB Radio host Alan Jones said on Tuesday that Mr Baird “would be a very good CEO”, while current NSW Premier and his former treasurer Gladys Berejiklian called him “an outstanding individual”.
But Mr Baird is a deeply divisive figure, after his meteoric rise to become the most popular man in politics was followed by a fall that was just as swift.
After studying to become an Anglican minister in Canada, he worked as an investment banker for NAB in Sydney and London, and for Deutsche Bank and HSBC in Australia and New Zealand. The son of a NSW MP who headed Australian trade commission in New York, he unsuccessfully ran for preselection in the seat of Manly in 1999, before winning it in 2007.
He became NSW Premier in April 2014 after Barry O’Farrell’s sensational resignation over a $3000 bottle of Grange. The likeable leader’s star continued to rise after winning the 2015 election and was named Australia’s most popular politician.
He was lauded for going against Liberal Party colleagues on causes close to his heart, even doling out concessions to asylum seekers, and became a hit with young people on social media after live-tweeting an episode of The Bachelor.
But from December 2015, the fortunes of the man once tipped to become prime minister took a turn following a series of unpopular decisions — and his approval rating plummeted.
Most controversial was his work to introduce lockout laws in Sydney, seen by many as the death-knell for the city’s night-life, and earning him the nickname “Casino Mike” after The Star was named as exempt from the tough new rules.
Mr Baird was also attacked for selling off the state’s electricity assets, forcing unpopular council amalgamations and — most damaging of all — a backflip on the greyhound racing ban.
His faced ferocious criticism for his initial kneejerk decision to shut down the state’s greyhound racing industry after the exposure of live-baiting and other dodgy practices in the game.
But he made matters even worse when he backed down after complaints from the industry and his party, allowing racing to continue with fewer races, heavy restrictions and tougher animal welfare measures.
Mr Baird’s critics were left to question his character as a conviction politician; his reputation was in shreds as his days appeared numbered.
After the loss of the Orange by-election was blamed largely on the greyhound controversy, Mr Baird announced his resignation in January 2017, citing family reasons.
“There is a strong personal cost that comes in public life,” he said in a tearful statement. “I’ve probably felt that more than any other time in the past few months.
“My father and my mother and my sister are going through a very serious health challenge and, to be honest, at times I have been in pain not being able to spend the time that I should.
“Serving as Premier of NSW has been a tremendous honour but I have made clear from the beginning that I was in politics to make a difference, and then move on.”
After the shock exit, Mr Baird said he received a “deluge” of job offers, and in February 2017, he joined NAB in an executive position as chief customer officer for corporate and institutional banking.
He earned $900,000 in his first five months, and in October 2018, he was appointed chief customer officer for consumer banking, leading NAB’s retail banking business, which includes more than 700 branches, 7000 bankers, broker partnerships, direct banking, and digital UBank.
Mr Thorburn and his fellow senior executive took a large pay cut last year under a new system introduced by Dr Henry in response to the royal commission.
The chief executive’s take-home pay was slashed by $2.1 million to $4.3 million for the year to September.
Mr Thorburn said in the remuneration report that he had “accepted accountability for NAB’s failure to fix mistakes quickly, remediate customers promptly and set things right. These failures have impacted NAB’s reputation.”
But Commissioner Kenneth Hayne wrote in his report released on Monday that he was not convinced the NAB executive team had learnt any lessons, standing the bank “stands apart” from the other three major lenders.
“More particularly, I was not persuaded that NAB is willing to accept the necessary responsibility for deciding, for itself, what is the right thing to do, and then having its staff act accordingly,” he wrote.
“Overall, my fear — that there may be a wide gap between the public face NAB seeks to show and what it does in practice — remains.”
Mr Thorburn said leadership at NAB “clearly needs to get better”, noting that “we’ve fallen short”. He cancelled the remainder of his two months’ leave on Tuesday, but refused to accept claims his absence showed a lack of commitment. “I’ve got a marriage, I’ve got children, I’ve got elderly parents: they’re the people who I want to spend some time with,” he said.
“I think that it is important for mental and physical health to lead in a sustainable and long-term way; I want to role model to people inside the company that that’s OK to do.”
He would not be drawn on speculation that Mr Baird could replace him.
Dr Henry said he had “had to reflect in recent times overwhelmingly on our inability to meet community and customer expectations”.
He said a global search will be conducted for the new permanent CEO position, but said the board is “very confident there are a number of high quality executives on our current leadership team”.
He said he would have a “very strong role” in the selection of the new CEO, but it would ultimately be a board decision.