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Kiwibank needs NZ control, says outgoing boss

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington, May 26 NZPA - The outgoing boss of Kiwibank is adamant the state-owned business needs to remain under New Zealand control.

Talking to reporters after announcing his retirement today, Kiwibank chief executive Sam Knowles said he did not have concerns about the future of the business, which has passionate customers and staff.

"The reason I'm confident about the next years is that we've defined where we want to go in the next years, we've got the people to do it. We're just going through a process of making sure the shareholder (Government) also supports it."

Kiwibank's future has been highlighted in recent days after Finance Minister Bill English was questioned at a meeting about the possibility of the Government changing its policy and selling state-owned assets.

Kiwibank was mentioned, and Mr English said he thought "mum and dad investors" would be keen to buy shares if it was put on the market.

Since then Prime Minister John Key said the Government was a long way from making any decisions about changing its position, and if it did voters would be told about it before the next election.

Mr English said Kiwibank had reached the size where it needed either a government guarantee or an "awful lot of capital". An option could be to keep majority crown ownership and raise the rest of the capital from the market.

Mr Knowles said nothing in the comments he had seen from Mr English caused him concern.

"There are a lot of business people continually approaching us and saying they would like us to be in their markets, and we've got the view that would be sensible, in a controlled way, for us to expand into some wider business markets that we're not currently in," Mr Knowles said.

"We have a vision of an organisation that competes on an equal basis with the current Australian banks."

The recent talk about Kiwibank's future was not behind his decision to resign, which he had been mulling for a year or two.

It was the right time for him to leave Kiwibank for several reasons, he said.

For one, Kiwibank had come through the recent recession with the best outcome of any of the banks in terms of credit.

"So we've been proven in terms of the strategies we put together," he said.

Secondly, it was 10 years since he started the process of looking for New Zealand Post to develop a business case for Kiwibank.

"We've delivered well beyond that business case," Mr Knowles said.

During the past year work had been done on a business case for the next 10 years, and it was the right time for him to stand back so someone else could take over for the next decade.

Various options were available for Kiwibank to follow, and the amount of money needed from the Government would not be "large", Mr Knowles said.

"We're talking certainly less than $100 million."

The debate was more about risk and return and whether the Government was comfortable continuing to reinvest dividends in the business, as was happening now.

Mostly, for Kiwibank to keep growing, the company needed to continue to make good profits and to be allowed to reinvest those profits.

He thought Mr English's comments had been reflecting on the dividends that would not be paid to the Government.

"This is nothing unusual from a commercial perspective that you talk with your owner as to whether they want their money invested in your growth, or in some other part of the economy," Mr Knowles said.

Recent comments had shown the passion in the way New Zealanders embraced Kiwibank, which was behind its success.

"Kiwibank is a bank for kiwis," he said.

"So keeping New Zealand control of Kiwibank is part of the value of Kiwibank, so obviously personally I believe that New Zealand control is important."

Kiwibank chairman Jim Bolger also emphasised the importance of Kiwibank remaining in New Zealand control.

It would be a different organisation without the authentic kiwi base which had given Kiwibank its strength, Mr Bolger said.

Asked whether selling shares in Kiwibank to New Zealand retail investors would undermine those aspects of the business, he said it "depends what was proposed". Comments made so far had been "musings" with nothing firm stated.

"I think the Prime Minister has moved carefully to say mom and pop investors. I think you've got a lot of territory to be covered before anything happens."

He thought it would be "extraordinarily" difficult, given Kiwibank's profile and drive, for it to be led by anyone other than a New Zealander. That could be a person who had lived in this country for many years, Mr Bolger said.

"Recruiting someone from a different cultural perspective to lead something that's so aligned with New Zealand would be difficult."

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