Andrew Thorburn: Getting the balance right in Australian banking



When people talk about the role that banks play in the Australian community today, the conversation rightly focuses on how we can be better.

As CEO of National Australia Bank, that is my focus too.

I’ve been a banker for more than 30 years and NAB has served Australia for more than 150 years.

We understand that long-term relationships with customers are built on trust, honesty, integrity and always acting in their best interests.

I’m proud of what we do, but I know we are not perfect.

We have made mistakes in the past, but what matters is what you do about it. That when you see problems you fix them.

That is my accountability and one I take seriously.

Everyone at NAB also understands we have a responsibility to the wider community to help build the economy.

This requires a complex and delicate balancing act that meets the needs of all our stakeholders – homeowners, businesses, depositors, mum and dad shareholders and superannuation funds representing millions of Australian workers, and retirees.

As Australia’s biggest business bank, one of NAB’s key focuses is to back people who are prepared to “have a go” – this drives economic growth and creates jobs and wealth.

People like Emma and Gary Nicholas-Jennings who have a gelato shop in Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale South.

They had a dream of owning their own business and through NAB they got a $20,000 loan.

Less than two years later, their business Miinot Gelato provides a future for Emma and Gary and full-time employment for three other Victorians.

Each day we connect Australians who need access to credit with those who want a safe and secure place to put their money.

If banks get that right – and it requires the right culture, values and leadership – then business can grow. Australians can borrow for a home, people can save for retirement and the whole economy benefits.

When the economy grows, there’s more opportunity for our generation and the next.

That’s why strong and sustainable banks are so important.

Each month NAB lends $2 billion to businesses – small businesses like Emma’s and Gary’s, and bigger companies that employ thousands of people and are the builders of our schools, hospitals, housing and new transport infrastructure.

Each month we lend $4 billion to help people realise their dream of buying a home.

We have access to this credit because we are strong and sustainable and provide a safe and competitive return for depositors.

NAB has 4.5 million retail and business customers who have deposited $320 billion with us.

Global investors have lent us $240 billion because they had confidence in our economy and the Australian banking sector.

There’s our 584,000 mum and dad shareholders who invest their hard-earned savings in NAB shares.

And importantly the superannuation funds invest in banks to boost the retirement pool of millions of Australians.

Almost three-quarters of NAB’s profits are distributed in dividends – more than $4.5 billion last year. The remainder provides capital to lend or is invested in better services for customers.

Over the past year we’ve spent billions:  $3.6 billion to our suppliers, $4.3 billion paying our 35,000 employees (including superannuation and other personnel expenses) and more than $2.5 billion in tax to the Government.

This is achieved by striking a balance with all our stakeholders while participating in a competitive and highly regulated market.

If we don’t achieve the balance, the potential impacts are extremely serious.

We witnessed this during the GFC when, while the Australian economy and banking system was the envy of the world, other economies were crippled, some banks collapsed and thousands of people lost their jobs and businesses.

Some countries are still experiencing the impact of high unemployment, few opportunities for young people and little or no access to credit for businesses or home buyers.

We are proud of what we achieve each day at NAB but we know we have work to do.

We need to listen more, explain our decisions more clearly and communicate better.

My drive is to serve customers and to do the right thing by them. It’s an ambition shared by all of NAB’s 35,000 employees – many of whom live in the same community where they work.

Every day we spend time listening to customers and reading what people are saying on social media. And when we hear or read complaints we take them personally – because we should.

Banking is a profession that requires trust, honesty and integrity and doing the right thing.

We need customers and the community to have confidence in us and respect us.

That’s why the NAB Executive Leadership Team has signed the Banking and Finance Oath and why we strengthened the integrity of our whistle-blower program. If one of our people finds a problem, we want to know about it and deal with it.

We recently appointed an Independent Customer Advocate to represent retail and small business customers and help them resolve the more serious complaints with the bank.

These are part of the six key Australian Bankers’ Association industry initiatives, which all the banks have committed to.

As an industry, we want to be more transparent and give people confidence in our accountability to regulators – to ASIC, APRA, the ACCC and the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Next month, the major bank chief executives will appear before the House of Representatives. This is an opportunity to explain the decisions we each make and the fine balancing act we must achieve to ensure all stakeholders’ needs are met.

The banking profession has been an important part of society for centuries. We help people do important things for themselves and others.

At the heart of banking is people. That’s why there is a need for trust, integrity, honesty and accountability.

This has motivated me to devote my entire career to this industry and, while we need to get better, I remain proud to be a banker.

  • If you have any feedback or comments, I’d like to hear from you. Please email me at or tweet @nab
  • Andrew is also Chair of the Australian Bankers’ Association.

Andrew Thorburn is the CEO of NAB. This piece first appeared in the Herald Sun on Wednesday 7 September 2016. 



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