25/10/2016 - 11:29

CEO lunch with Gary McGrath

25/10/2016 - 11:29


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Business News sat down to lunch at Julio’s with Gary McGrath, the well-travelled GM of corporate banking at the Commonwealth Bank.

General manager of corporate banking at Commonwealth Bank Gary McGrath. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Business News sat down to lunch at Julio’s with Gary McGrath, the well-travelled GM of corporate banking at the Commonwealth Bank.

Growing up in working class area of Dublin, Gary McGrath played the Irish game of hurling at school – a fast, physical game played with great passion.

His calm demeanour and affability helped him thrive on the sporting field (and later in his business career), in tandem with a strong desire to compete and follow a plan.

One of four sons of a firefighter/electrician father and machinist mother, Mr McGrath is the only one to have travelled out of Ireland or the UK. His arrival in Western Australia eight years was no accident, with thoughts of the world beyond Ireland’s borders developing during his school years.

“I went to the local public school, with brothers and Marist nuns,” Mr McGrath said.

“I remember a geography teacher, Mr McCabe, who had a passion for the world, and travel, and he was a big influence. I wanted to be a teacher and travel the world like him.”

When Mr McGrath told his careers guidance teacher that he wanted to teach so he could work overseas, he was counselled to play to his strengths and do an international business degree instead.

“So I went off to Trinity College, Dublin, and while doing that did a lot of part-time work,” Mr McGrath said. “I started up my own printing business. By the end of my university I was supplying T-shirts and other printing to nearly all the Irish universities.”

On graduating, Mr McGrath was keen to move overseas and start his career proper, so he took a placement with a bank in Brighton on the southern coast of England.

“It was pure graduate placement, as a teller, manager’s assistant, but I wanted to move on,” Mr McGrath said.

“So I went off to work for American Express, who were headquartered in Brighton, and were looking for accountants who spoke German.

I had done German as a speciality during my degree, and spoke it with a funny Irish accent, so said ‘I’m your guy’.”

Over the next few years Mr McGrath spent a day a week in Frankfurt, and passed his chartered accountant qualifications.

Another mentor was Mike Kennedy, the American Express CFO in Frankfurt. Mr Kennedy told Mr McGrath he needed more control experience to become a CFO, and that he could do this through audit. Before too long Mr McGrath was sent to Hong Kong as an auditor, all within four years of his graduation.

“The job out of Hong Kong was 100 per cent travel,” Mr McGrath said.

“We covered Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe and Africa. We’d spend six weeks in each country. After three years I’d visited 43 countries.”

The outcome of an audit in Indonesia led to the departure of the country manager and CFO. Mr McGrath was 28, and his seniors asked him if he’d be the CFO of the Indonesian bank and card business.

By this time, Mr McGrath had met his wife, Susan, in Sydney, who also worked for American Express.

After Indonesia, and then some time in India, he became the regional CFO, and then the regional head of strategy, based out of Singapore.

When the GFC hit in 2008, Mr McGrath and his family decided to move to Perth, where his wife is from. As it happened, Westpac was looking for a GM, so he took that job. After a couple of years there, Mr McGrath went over the road to be GM of Commonwealth Bank, and spent four years in SME banking before becoming GM of corporate banking last year.

“It was always the plan to come here,” Mr McGrath said. “I just love Perth, and Susan is from here. I am never leaving Perth. Our children are now aged 14, 12, 10 and 8.

“If you put my wife’s name and the four kids together it spells ‘small’. ‘Small’ time is in my diary, and everyone knows that never gets moved. That’s my anchor. That’s family time.”

Mr McGrath’s advice for those wanting to climb the corporate ladder is to have a plan, seek out a mentor, and follow good advice.

“I wanted to be a CFO, and that was my path,” he said. “I sought out mentors and asked specifically what I should do. I followed their advice. But you also have to be flexible. When I became a CFO at 28 I realised I wanted to be a GM and a country manager. When you’re a CFO, you are defined as a CFO. You’re the steady, finance guy.

“It’s quite hard to then move to be a country manager, which requires marketing and sales skills. So I took on negotiations and deals, and then strategy work in order to make that transition.”

Mr McGrath describes the current economic climate as ‘challenged’, and believes it may remain so for a couple of years.

“At the bank, we’re trying to get really close to our clients and supporting those that need supporting,” he said. “It’s all about relationships, and face-to-face communication. Now is the time for relationships. Most of our clients will be ok.”

Mr McGrath argues that encouraging diversity is critical in business.

“Your team should look like the market, and then you’ll find the best opportunities,” he said. “A few years ago I launched a program here called CAN Flex. How and where you work is up to you. We focus on outcomes.

“I’m delighted to say that half the corporate banking staff at CBA are now women. And the program has gone national.

Outside of work and family time, Mr McGrath is a non-executive director of the Ability Centre, and non-executive director and treasurer of West Cycle.

While the Ability Centre is a sizeable not for profit, West Cycle is more a personal passion.

“I got into cycling six years ago,” Mr McGrath said. “Cycling is the new golf. Cycling for me is about wellbeing, keeping fit and the mental benefits. I feel better, more focused, and have clarity of thinking. I believe Einstein said he was the happiest when he was cycling.”

Legend has it Einstein also thought up the central notion of relativity while on a bike ride.

Mr McGrath uses social media and online news to stay in touch and up to date.

“You have to use social media; your clients are using it,” he said. “I use Linkedin and Facebook for work and personal connections. I don’t have email on my phone, as I want to be present in the conversation.

“I am a big consumer of daily email reports from Business News and The Australian Financial Review. I do read the papers, too. I am also listening to the podcasts, such as your ‘Mark my Words’, when in the car. I wish it was longer.

“I also draw real value from attending seminars and events such as the Business News Success & Leadership series and others.”


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