For Chris de Bruin, Westpac’s new chief of consumer and business banking, providing hundreds of thousands of customers with loan repayment deferrals to offset the financial pain from COVID-19 clearly hits home.
Sure, the industry’s decision to offer deferrals was made almost a year before he joined Westpac in February after completing hotel quarantine with his wife, an experience he describes as “very positive” in light of the obvious challenges of spending two weeks in a room. But the banks’ support during a once in a century pandemic resonates with de Bruin’s views of the world, ingrained from his upbringing and career across several countries, including emerging markets.
“I’ve lived my life mostly amongst people who don’t have the benefits of privilege and for me it’s really important we level the playing field and do the right thing,” says the Dutchman, who grew up in South Africa as the nation came out of apartheid.
“And I’ve tended to choose roles where there’s something to do, something to fix and where there’s a greater purpose.
“If we (banks) had chosen a different path during COVID and had the values of banking more generally in Australia been ones of profit first … that would have been a calamity in our society because having a home is one of the most fundamentally empowering things.”
By the time de Bruin joined the bank, the 149,000 of mortgage deferral packages provided since the height of COVID a year ago had dropped to 26,000 at the end of January, with small business packages also down dramatically. Other banks have experienced similar declines as the economy bounces back faster than expected.
De Bruin, a scientist by training who joined Westpac from Middle East non-bank Deem Finance, says deferrals have continued to decline ahead of the packages soon rolling off and the bank was committed to working with struggling mortgage customers on options, noting Australia was in the “fortuitous” position of enjoying a buoyant property market.
“The response here to COVID has been very strong and kept people in their houses,” he says.
“And we’ve seen tremendous progress in people being able to return to repayment. For the relatively small number of people who are still struggling, we’re working very hard with them on an individual basis on the best solution, which in certain circumstances may be to sell to retain some equity, but our priority is to keep people in their homes.”
De Bruin is well placed to comment on COVID.
‘Science has served me well’
Not only has he experienced other countries responses and the flow-on economic impacts firsthand, he’s well versed on the intricacies of the virus thanks to his science degree from Stellenbosch University about an hour outside of Cape Town, where he grew up after being born in the small town of Springbok.
A few decades on, his career has spanned consulting, banking, fintechs and digital start-ups around the world, including 13 years at Standard Chartered Bank across Asia and the Middle East.
On the side, his philanthropic pursuits have focused on helping his father build a 200-bed hospital in Eastern Uganda to treat displaced refugees from the Congo.
“My father was a civil engineer, he knows how to build roads and buildings, and that’s what he does in his retirement so I’ve been helping him finance the building of the hospital,” says de Bruin, whose family originally hails from Holland and have a rich history helping communities.
“Banking can rightfully get negative headlines at times, but the positive impact we can have on people’s lives is sometimes underestimated and assisting people with economic progress is really satisfying and what actually attracted me to Westpac given its more than 200 years of supporting Australia.
“But COVID has also taken me back to my science roots, as I’m a scientist by training, which has served me well. You learn scientific discovery methods, you learn how to be immersed in data and that really helps in banking. Biochemistry also sets you up really well to understand what’s going on with COVID, so I did physiology, immunology and biochemistry, so I get what this is doing to people and how the epidemiology works.”
Joining Westpac in February as chief of the Consumer Bank, de Bruin’s responsibilities have quickly grown after the bank last week combined the consumer and business banking divisions – which make up the bulk of earnings – under his leadership.
It’s a big role as both seek to rebuild market share, navigate the pandemic and strive for digital leadership. It’s also his first executive role in Australia, although de Bruin – a father of two children – notes he’s travelled to Australia several times and has family here.
In a note to employees upon the announcement of the new division, de Bruin said: “I know the past few years have been tough for everyone, but…we have a fantastic franchise. I want us to be the bank of choice for Australians, whether it’s someone buying their first home in Melbourne, a small business in the heart of Adelaide, or a farmer in Longreach.
“Bringing Consumer and Business together gives us a great opportunity to take a single view of the customer. We know many of our business customers also hold consumer products and use consumer channels. With our new combined division, if we see that something isn’t working, we can fix it quickly because we’re all part of the same team.”
In terms of the bank’s heartland of mortgages, de Bruin says positive results continue to flow from the fixes being undertaken to systems and processes. While not quite back at system growth, he says customer attrition has declined and turnaround times are improving.
“We’re close to being back at system and that’s come off the back of improving our pricing so it’s more in line with the market, but more so making sure the customer journeys are great and faster for individual customers and brokers,” he says.
“We’ve made a big technology investment to improve the mortgage process and we’re continuing to work on that, but already the process is much easier in our first party channels and we’re now rolling that out to the broker channels which we think will produce further improvements.”
Innovation important, relentless execution key
With a deep and varied background in technology, de Bruin is the first to acknowledge the importance of innovation and digital solutions in banking, now more than ever. He sees Westpac’s starting point as solid: there’s the new app, key products like mortgages are being fully digitised via the Customer Service Hub and the consumer division recently hired a new chief digital officer.
COVID has only given fresh impetus to the need for action, accelerating the shift to digital and demand for new offerings, such as buy now pay later players. De Bruin acknowledges the changing demands in how customers engage with financial services, including using branches less, but says the bank is taking its time in terms of how it responds to changing consumer preferences.
But he says the bank can’t just rely on innovation to win – “relentless” execution and simplification is key to success. “The best version of us is as good as anyone, so it’s all about relentless execution to ensure that’s what customers experience every time, with innovation along the way,” he says.
Property market hot but early days
And as a newcomer to Australia, what does he make of the nation’s property market and fresh talk of a brewing “bubble”? While he says it’s too early to speculate on regulators stepping in with macro prudential tools to cool the boom, he says prices are likely to remain supported given supply is low and demand is hot.
“The economists are clearly optimistic, but it's early days,” he says, referring to Westpac’s economists forecasting a 10 per cent jump in house prices this year and next.
“But we don’t talk about bubbles as much as trying to really understand the difference between the supply and demand picture. There’s been a lot of constrained supply, if you look at Sydney for example every house that comes up gets bought so there’s clear demand driving the market in the right direction.
“What's important for us is to ensure that when we engage in that market with our clients, that we are lending to them in a way that is safe and affordable for them.”