Southland roots key for bank chief

SBS Group’s newly appointed chief executive Mark McLean at the bank’s head office in Invercargill. Photo: Supplied

MARK McLean banked his first pay cheque at SBS Bank as a 14-year-old – next year he will run it.

It was recently announced the proud born and bred Southlander, who has worked at the bank for the past decade, will take over as chief executive in January, a move he described as “very exciting”.

The SBS Group employs 550 people across the bank and its three subsidiaries — SBS Insurance, Finance Now and Funds Administration New Zealand.

It was started in 1869 by James Walker Bain, who established the Southland Building Society as a financial institution owned by its members to keep their money safe, with a strong focus on securing them mortgages to own a home.

Born in Invercargill to third-generation wool buyers, Mr McLean attended Southland Boys’ High School for three years and then switched to Waitaki Boys’ High School to focus on playing rugby.

His family owned L. R. McLean Co and his school holidays were spent working in the woolstore. That was where he earned his first pay cheque and then took it “straight to SBS”.

With older siblings more likely to take over the business, he did not see a career for himself in the wool trade and decided a university degree would be the best option.

He studied a commerce degree, majoring in accounting, and a postgraduate diploma in marketing at University of Otago — ‘‘and a bachelor of life skills’’, he said, laughing.

Mr McLean believed the time spent in the woolstore provided good experience for building relationships, particularly with farmers, and an experience in office administration gave him good grounding in his degrees and, later, banking career.

His four years studying were “a hell of a lot of fun”, particularly playing rugby for the University and Pirates clubs.

After graduating in 1993, he worked for accounting firm Deloitte in its Wellington-based graduate programme.

He was sent on two overseas secondments, the first to San Francisco to work in banking.

Having acquired a taste for overseas travel, he “got in the partners’ ears” when he returned and said, “I’m ready to go again”.

Deloitte sent Mr McLean to London for 18 months to work in investment banking and it was expected he would move back to Wellington in 1999 to move into the partnership process, but the thrill and excitement left him wanting to stay longer.

He landed a job in risk management with Dutch bank ABN AMRO in its investment banking division in London.

Climbing the ladder at the bank, he became its global head of operational risk management, reporting directly to the chief executive.

At the end of 2007, a consortium of three banks — Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Fortis and Banco Santander — acquired the bank in what was the world’s biggest bank takeover to date.

The large amount of debt created to fund the takeover had depleted the bank’s reserves just as the Global Financial Crisis started and the Dutch government had to bail it out.

Mr McLean was offered a job with the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh but decided to stay to help ABN AMRO’s chief executive through what was “quite a hostile time”.

His role saw him making tough recommendations to its board for it to try to fight the takeover, and that eventually started to take its toll.

Feeling burnt out, Mr McLean and his family moved to Queenstown towards the end of 2009 and took about a year off.

“I had a great ski season that year,” he said.

“By the time we came home, I was reasonably worn out so it was quite refreshing to get back to New Zealand and have a bit of a break.”

In 2011, SBS Bank was looking for someone who could give it advice on its treasury and risk management.

He thought the role would be for a few years and then he would go off and do something else.

It was a big change from his roles overseas, and when he joined the bank it felt different with its focus on its members.

“That was really refreshing and has just grown on me which probably meant I’ve stayed a lot longer than I initially thought,” he said.

During the past 10 years, Mr McLean’s roles had included chief risk officer, general manager risk, IT and support as well as a period as acting chief executive for eight months after the sudden death of Wayne Evans in 2016.

In his most recent role as general manager member experience, Mr McLean was responsible for overseeing the bank’s branch network, contact centre and marketing and customer insight.

Still living in Queenstown, he commuted to the bank’s head office in Invercargill.

The outlook for Southland’s economy, particularly its rural sector, was strong with good commodity prices “on the horizon”, he said.

The region was struggling with housing stock and, much like in other parts of the country, demand was outstripping supply, he said.

SBS Bank was different from any of the major Australian-owned banks as its members were shareholders, and that was what he appreciated most.

The bank did not have the conflict of having to drive profitability to give shareholders a return by taking it off the customer, as its shareholders were the customers.

Ahead of officially taking over as chief executive on January 1, Mr McLean did not see any major changes coming; he wanted SBS to focus on what it did well.

The bank launched a new strategy in August to help first-home buyers, taking SBS back to its core value, which was “very exciting”, he said.

Given the bank’s long history, Mr McLean considered leading it would be a caretaker role.

“I’m there to hold the reins for the next generation and I’m really excited to get started.”