Born in: United Kingdom
Foes: Joe Hockey
Home Town: Melbourne
When Mike Smith lines you up, he doesn't miss. The plain-speaking ANZ CEO has a propensity to run his mouth off when things don't agree with him. Just ask any business editor looking for a quote on a slow news day; he's not your typical boring banker.
He has regularly attacked the country's much-vaunted four-pillar banking system for resembling "two pillars and two stumps" and once slammed shadow treasurer Joe Hockey for "taking economic lessons from Hugo Chavez". Earlier this year he savaged prime minister Julia Gillard and Labor for being a part of the "weak government club".
With his ruddy complexion and inch-perfect combover, the 54-year-old Briton is the perfect candidate for a banking cartoon caricature. Except, that is, for a bullet wound to the thigh. But more on that later.
As a Big Four banking CEO, Mike Smith is a member of the exclusive coterie of institutions controlling the majority of financial transactions in this country, so his word carries plenty of weight. And with thirty years in the game and plenty of experience in difficult markets (he's done time in Hong Kong, the UK, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and the Middle East), he's hoping to expand his clout by taking ANZ headfirst into Asia's economic boom.
Despite possessing all the tropes of a British businessman — charm, wit, a love of Aston Martins — Smith's style means he has a nasty habit of making enemies, even ones that carry guns. During a six-year stint as chief of HSBC operations in Argentina, Smith implemented some personnel changes the locals didn't like. The result was a bullet to the thigh.
"In a South American way, they thought if they removed me, they removed the problem, and they'd all go back to the way it was," he told an Australian School of Business Meet The CEO event last year. "They had a good attempt, shot up my car, and I got a bullet though the leg. But I got away from them."
Aside from collecting the bullet, Smith says he learnt a lot from his time working as a banker in Argentina in those tough conditions. He was in charge of HSBC during the country's financial meltdown in 2001 — "the banking equivalent of having survived Stalingrad" — and says making it through to the other side with the company's 8000 staff was one of his proudest moments.
"Getting through that crisis, it took a lot out of me. I've got to say," he said last year. "But the effect of them retaining their jobs, being able to continue to live, was extraordinarily important. It needed a lot of bravery."
And perhaps a little bit of help from his friends.
In the riots that subsequently engulfed Buenos Aires during the economic crisis, Smith's head of security at the bank, Jorge Varando, was alleged to have shot and killed 23-year-old Gustavo Benedetto. According to the Guardian, Varando, a retired elite military officer, also faced claims of being active during the "Dirty War" of the 1970s, when thousands of opposition Argentines were "disappeared".
There was some speculation that the riots (during which protesters tried to burn down the HSBC building while Smith and 1000 staff were inside) had been motivated by allegations government officials tried to solicit bribes from foreign banks. Police raided HSBC offices and the house of a senior spokesperson looking for evidence of the claims. In his testimony, Smith denied HSBC had paid any bribes, but said government kickbacks were commonplace in Argentina.
While Smith may sound like an action hero ("real James Bond stuff," is how he once described the attempted carjacking to Time magazine), he doesn't exactly resemble one. Middle-aged and a touch on the corpulent side, the father of three looks exactly how a banker should look.
He's also got banker's tastes; the 54-year-old lives with his wife and family in a $10 million Toorak mansion and loves wine, tennis and golf.
But Smith's power as a money mover is clear. He's loud, he's smart and, most importantly, he's controlling a Big Four bank. And domestically, he's made a few waves. Last year, when the Commonwealth Bank controversially jacked up interest rates higher than the RBA increase, ANZ followed suit. It was also the first of the majors to sniff the political winds of change and abolish mortgage exit fees.
However, much will hinge on whether Smith's bold expansion into Asia can lift the bank's hopes.
"It's a bit like winning the lotto, first you've got to buy the ticket," says Smith of Australia's position in the Asian region. "I think we've bought the ticket, we just have to collect the winnings."
And the bar has been set high. It was originally hoped that by next year some 20% of earnings would be delivered by ANZ's new "super-regional strategy", which involves an aggressive push for market share in Asia. Even before it was achieved, that goal was upped, to a target of 25-30% by 2017.
Smith and his team have spent the past few years identifying acquisition opportunities throughout the region. As a result, they now have a presence in 14 countries and seem set to cash in on Asia's boom. In China, they have even changed ANZ's name to mean "bank of prosperous waters".
But despite Smith's high expectations, analysts are unsure as to how the strategy is progressing. Last year, just 14% of ANZ's earnings came from the Asian region. Some have argued that ANZ is too focused on Asia, ignoring local opportunities. And its share price has fallen 5% in the past 12 months (although that compares favourably with the sector's collapse of 8.1%).
And in terms of The Power Index, Smith ranks lower than some of his Big Four counterparts because of the size of his bank. ANZ is the third-largest bank by market capitalisation, and ranks fourth-largest with $155 billion in the all-important home-loan sector.
It's undeniable that it has been a tough time to be a banking chief during the past few years. Since Smith took the reins from former CEO John McFarlane just before the GFC in 2007, the company's share price has fallen about 30%. When asked about ANZ's performance last year, in difficult conditions, Smith says it's all about the long-term:
"Earnings per share growth doesn't interest me. What we should look at is what valued is being added to the business. I think too many institutions have moved to a short-term view," he said last year.
With economic fault lines rippling throughout Europe and the US, Smith is betting big on Asia. It could either make or break him. Let's just hope there are no bullets this time.