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Community focus in perspective from the top

WHETHER it was the move to Perth, the wisdom that comes with age, his strong Catholic convictions or a combination of all three – Challenge Bank managing director Tony Howarth has a new perspective on life with an emphasis on balance.

In an exclusive interview with Business News, Mr Howarth, who recently turned 50, said he felt he had to put something back into the Perth community, which had served him and his family so well.

“I think at this stage of my career there needs to be a balance between work and doing something for the community. I’m very much a committed Christian and it has a big bearing on my philosophy of life,” he said.

“I care about the society and I think it’s important to give back to the community.”

Mr Howarth strongly believes that people should use their talents for the betterment of others.

“I think you are given skills and responsibilities which you shouldn’t take lightly. I do things because I like to do them and I hope that I can give value to someone else,” he said.

“The problem for me is not being able to say no to things.”

This philosophy has resulted in Mr Howarth taking on directorships on various community-based and business boards (like Mermaid Marine and AlintaGas), and pursuing his passionate interest in the Cottesloe Rugby Union Club, which he was quick to point out had just won the minor premiership and still hoped to win the grand final, despite a loss to Nedlands in last weekend’s major semi final.

He has become involved in a stream of organisations in the business, education, philanthropy, education and religious world.

It marks a new era in Mr Howarth’s professional life, having spent all of his working life within the banking system.

Born and raised in Bathurst in New South Wales, Mr Howarth left school at 16, moving to Sydney to join what was then the Rural Bank of Bathurst which, in 1980, became the Bank of New South Wales.

He stayed with the bank for more than 20 years, moving up through the organisation before being head hunted to join Challenge Bank in 1991. His period at Challenge included overseeing the merger of the WA bank with the Westpac Corporation.

Much of what Mr Howarth has learnt has been from life experience but he also completed an accountancy qualification at TAFE in the earlier part of his career and in 1982 undertook an advanced management program at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania.

Today the banker has become a State figurehead for Westpac, with most of the hands-on management of the bank’s various business streams being run from the eastern states.

He now represents the bank at the corporate and political level in WA. Networking in corporate circles fits nicely with his new job description.

Having been in the industry for more than three decades, Mr Howarth has witnessed some trying times for the banking industry, most noticeably in the late 1980s when a series of high flying entrepreneurs’ businesses collapsed.

“I think that the cycle we went through in the late 1980s was quite a deep one and I think there is a lot of corporate memory, which will be around for a long time over that,” he said. “Everyone would agree that Australia as a whole got carried away during the late 1980s. Those lessons have been well learnt.”

From the crisis of the 1980s the banking system has emerged stronger than ever – this was one of the reasons Australia pulled itself through during the Asian crisis as unscathed as it did.

Ever optimistic about the future of the WA economy, Mr Howarth still believes some shortfalls need to be tackled before it can reach its full potential.

“I don’t think WA sells itself as well as we could. Sometimes we just do things which makes us look a little bit silly,” he said.

Mr Howarth said world-class industries like Woodside and Austal Limited needed to work together more with Government and industry bodies like the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry to present a uniformed view of WA to the world.

The government in particular had to take a leadership role, rather than play into the hands of minority interest groups.

“We elect political parties to get on and lead and then we can take a decision three years later on whether they led or not,” he said. “Part of the problem in this country at the moment is that it doesn’t matter what government gets in power it is really hard to hold them accountable because of all the minority interests and trade offs that they have to make.

“In that sense I think the political framework of Australia is letting us down because, irrespective of what party gets into government, no one can govern and it’s a series of compromises.

“We are, as a nation, a bit too consensus driven. We need to put some sticks in the ground and say this is who we are and this is what is important to us. We try to be the good guy all the time. Consensus often delivers to you the lowest common denominator.”

Mr Howarth can see that the major driver for change in the political leadership stakes will come to the fore when Australians’ expectations will be beyond what we as a nation can afford. Australians will then need to reassess their priorities, he said.

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