Hanging in the corridor of Newcastle Permanent’s office is a photograph of every past CEO. There are many – the bank has a nearly 120-year history – and Bernadette Inglis will be the first female to appear on the wall.
“I am proud to be the first female CEO in 12 decades in this organisation, and I’m waiting for my photograph to go up,” she laughs. The bank was formed as an alternative way for the community to achieve home ownership and has become Australia’s second-largest customer-owned financial institution.
Bernadette says that one of the company’s greatest attributes is its willingness to reshape itself for the future. “Oftentimes when organisations have been successful over a long period, they are not easily open to change,” she explains.
“This organisation is open to change.” The CEO Magazine spoke to Bernadette about her experience managing the industry leader since 2019 and the opportunities it is embracing for a prosperous future.
Tell me about your experience leading to your current role?
I’ve always been career-minded and intensely keen to expand my horizons, take on new challenges, learn and continuously grow my interests and expertise, which has underpinned my career choices. I’m attracted to roles where the workplace values align with my values.
Although financial services is an industry that I love, I started my career in the marketing of financial services. At the time, I thought my career might completely rest in that customer marketing area, but I was attracted to broader business management in financial services and that has led me to a CEO role.
Marketing was a valuable skill for me to learn because it helped me understand the customer and I continue to use those early skill sets today.
My career aspiration hasn’t been around a specific role or job, but it has been to work for brands and with people who encourage, challenge and help me grow, and I’ve been energised by roles that combine people leadership and a customer focus.
We’re championing digital awareness with our customers.
With that, I’ve been privileged to work for exceptional leaders through my career, and they’ve role modelled holistic leadership, and they have helped me see and achieve my potential.
What new initiatives and strategies have you put in motion?
One of my first priorities was to work with the board to redefine our long-term strategy, underpinned by a three-year road map of initiatives. Now, we are well progressed on achieving our strategy and delivering the initiatives.
We’re focused on delivering excellent service to our customers by optimising our branch network, realigning our locations and reinventing our branch design to bring together digital and human touch.
At our Hunter-based contact centre we’ve introduced new technology with integrated Google AI that enables new and easier services for customers.
We’re championing digital awareness with our customers, so we’ve employed digital coaches who help our people and our customers understand how services like mobile banking can make their banking easier on a day-to-day basis.
We have embraced partnerships in the past 12–18 months. Banking is an ecosystem that brings together your own expertise with that of your partners to deliver innovation, continuous improvement and a sustaining organisation.
One example is our Athena partnership. We stand for helping Australians to purchase homes, be it directly through our Newcastle Permanent channels, through our broker partnerships or through partnerships with like-minded people. Athena is one of those like-minded people.
What would you highlight as your most outstanding achievement?
Well, first up, being the first female CEO of this iconic organisation, wouldn’t you say? I’ve also had the opportunity to bring together a great team.
And in many of my roles, success has been achieved by bringing together great teams able to reshape the future of an organisation of division, and achieve better people and customer outcomes. I feel like we’re doing that at Newcastle Permanent. Our strength is our people, they are passionate about our purpose and help us listen to our customers.
We don’t always get it right, and our people tell us when that happens too! But we are making significant progress in offering the banking options our customers want today and will need tomorrow.
Our people are passionate about the service we offer, so I’m proud that we have been able to provide the opportunity to develop themselves and to see exciting career options in our organisation over these past two years. We’re continuously evolving to adapt.
We listen to our customers and our people along that journey with us, and I’m loving the role of leadership in that context.
What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how have you worked to overcome them?
I have often been asked to go into new roles that have meant a learning curve around a different business, while at the same time setting new direction, strategy and seeking opportunities for success.
What has helped me is establishing trust-based collaborative relationships, which is sometimes a significant challenge as a new leader in an organisation, but it’s also one of the greatest joys and rewards of leadership, because you get to see the fruits of your labour and how you bring that team together for the betterment of its people and customers.
For me, their success is my success. One of the things I have found when faced with challenges is the value of diversity of thought and perspective in my team and the people around me.
The special ingredient in a culture is a team held together by values and mutual trust.
There will be times where a strategy or an opportunity has not necessarily gone to plan. Even if that’s for external factors, I believe it’s how you deal with the situation that matters. How you gather diverse views on solutions and are open to a broad spectrum of suggestions.
My mantra is that if something unexpected happens, focus on what you can influence, bring that diversity of thought to bear, have a learning mindset and provide clear and unambiguous leadership.
How influential is the culture at your company, and how do you instil this in your employees?
Being a customer-owned organisation, with strong community ties, culture underpins our ability to live our purpose. We have defined values – share the success, do the right thing, embrace the opportunity and give a damn every day – which underpin our behaviours.
Our leaders must set the tone from the top; they must reflect and role model our values. Through all of our people hearing, seeing and acting in ways aligned with our values, we’ve developed a really positive, cohesive culture at Newcastle Permanent.
For me, as a CEO, the special ingredient in a culture is a team held together by values and mutual trust. That’s incredibly important in embedding a resilient organisational culture, especially when we’re in a time of change like we are at present.
How does Newcastle Permanent fit into the major banking trends while ‘building societies’?
We have seen a tremendous change in the past 12 months in terms of our customer preferences as they adapted to a COVID-19 environment. We’ve seen a difference in how people want to do their banking, and digital and mobile banking is now the norm for many more customers and we’re introducing new services like online account opening to enable that change.
The continuous digital transformation is inevitable, and I think it’s positive for customers. We’ll continue to adapt, but our digital transformation won’t be at the consequence of our human touch. It is also critical to strengthen environmental, social and government policy and practice.
They are crucial issues influencing our current and future decision-making. So digital transformation with a human touch, partnerships, strengthening environment, social and governance policy and practice is top of mind for me as the CEO of Newcastle Permanent and critical to how that engages our people, our customers and communities.
One of our most excellent strengths as a customer-owned banking organisation is that customers remain at the centre for us through Newcastle Permanent and the Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation.
And you only have to look to our recent, and humbling, naming as the top Australian owned financial institution in the Forbes ‘World’s Best Banks’ survey for validation that our customers value our approach.
Our customer satisfaction measures are also consistently higher than that of our competitors. As Newcastle Permanent continues to go from strength to strength, our future success relies on the commitment of our people to our customers.
I feel very fortunate, as a CEO, to lead an organisation with that foundation, and that makes my leadership much more enriching, both personally and professionally.