Bankable energy

Steve Jurkovich is a man who thrives on the energy that a sense of progress brings. Everything he does, from his career path to his MEttle interview, it all happens at pace.

Steve Jurkovich certainly has achieved a lot in his life so far: born in New Zealand and raised between Paeroa and Auckland’s North Shore, he graduated from Otago University with a Bachelor of Law, and completed an MBA at the University of Sydney. He began his career practising as a solicitor at Shieff Angland, where he was the youngest and fastest appointment to Associate in the firm's 50-year history.

Transferring to the banking sector as one of ASB’s Legal Counsel in 1998, and soon promoted to Senior Legal Counsel, Steve’s eye was caught by the potential of the online world. He then moved across to become GM Online for the bank, where he led all aspects of internet activity across ASB’s business unit offerings.

Rising rapidly through the ranks, Commonwealth Bank then became an option at the beginning of 2006, and Jurkovich headed off into a national sales leadership role that covered all aspects of customer transaction banking and working capital needs, further widening his skillset. Then, in 2008 Westpac offered him a role back in New Zealand to develop and launch the bank’s local business banking offering, which was followed by a another senior position as Regional Manager for the Northern Business Banking Team.

In 2012, ASB lured Steve back, this time into the role as Executive General Manager – Corporate, Commercial and Rural. He then served as Executive General Manager of Business Banking at the bank, before moving across to become CEO of Kiwibank in July 2018.

Now coming up on his first year as CEO of Kiwibank, he took the time to speak directly to MEttle about his journey.

HOW DOES YOUR BACKGROUND INFORM YOUR JOURNEY TO BE WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

In a lot of ways, mine is a typical New Zealand story. My mother’s side of the family came from the UK, and they have been here for multiple generations. On the other side of the family, my grandmother and father came from Dalmatia. Like many Dalmatians they came to New Zealand in the hope of a better life. They settled in Paeroa, drained a swamp and created a farm out of nothing.

My parents divorced when I was young, so I spent my time split between Paeroa and Auckland. I ended up going to Glenfield College on the North Shore, which was pretty multicultural, a mix of kids and backgrounds, not blessed with the resources of a decile 10 or private school. I also spent a lot of time in provincial New Zealand, which helped me later when I worked in agri-banking.

I was the first in my family to go on to tertiary study. In a bit of a false start, I went to teachers’ college, but it wasn’t for me. I then went for a job in a bank, but decided to go Otago University for what became a life-changing few years.It was the first time I hadn’t been living at home, and Otago was a real melting pot. I met a couple of people who were influential on me; their willingness to reach out, create energy and relationships, and their entrepreneurial outlook, were powerful. As a result they have become lifetime friends.

I believe you get out of life what you put in, and when I came out of law school it was with okay to have average marks, to be fair. I then had a lot of goes at getting a job, getting dozens of ‘no thanks’ responses to my applications, which was sobering.

I probably still have a soft spot from my learnings from my first job at Shieff Angland. In professional services around the world you have to allocate your time to a particular job or file. The question always is: Is your work valuable enough that someone wants to pay for it? Now I work in an environment where there is no billing, but I still think bringing the discipline of asking what adds most value, and is it worth it? It’s a very important lesson.

“I am a massive believer that opportunity comes when you show a bit of energy and enthusiasm for progress”

After four years there at the firm, serendipity. I was ready for a change, and the ASB Legal Counsel job came along. It was a formative time for me, if I think back on the interactions I had. The executive who led the legal team, Linley Wood really encouraged me to branch out into the business, as she recognised I was ready for the challenge. I noticed that when you’re working for big organisations you get opportunities from within – you might not get them from the outside. I am a massive believer that opportunity comes when you show a bit of energy and enthusiasm for progress. These are attributes I look for now in people: a sense of purpose, a bias to action and drive.

Now I look back at the first time at ASB, I recognise how privileged I was to work around leaders like Sir Ralph Norris, Hugh Burrett, Ross McEwan and Barbara Chapman. Each were quite different leaders, but they all brought a unique sense of being part of a team and bringing the team with them, and they were super-clear on their goals. It was a fantastic period. Barbara always was a source of encouragement. The really great thing she imparted was to control your energy as much as your time. She recognises that what gives you energy is to have people around you who can help, while knocking the jobs over. Her sense of passion for people and fairness, and Hugh’s, was and is very impressive.

All great leaders seem to have special magical powers. Hugh had one around clarity, and Sir Ralph helped me to see clearly the marriage of risk management, technology and the customer was a critical range of experience and capabilities for banking careers, giving me concise but very powerful advice early on in this area.

Dr Lester Levy mentored me, which was hugely valuable. He gave me a huge lesson in how Socratic teaching is in the questions that get the best out of you. Then, in terms of lessons, I went and worked in Australia at Commonwealth Bank, that job involved three time zones and many days a week of flying and being away from home too much. While I enjoyed the job and the scale of Commonwealth Bank I also learnt there what not to do – I got my perspective on work and life and family out of balance: a powerful lesson. Interestingly, Hugh Burrett during his time as CEO always emphasised that success is anchored on “keeping your life in balance”. I clearly didn’t take that lesson as early as I could have.

Returning to New Zealand to Westpac, it was a very different organisation and a different role in a different part of the market, with different leadership voices and context. Those different perspectives, leadership styles and expectations definitely helped me to grow and understand that each and every organisation has its own vibe or narrative that is right for them and it takes some time as a leader to orientate to those. Then I went back to ASB for more than six years. Regardless of where I have worked my biggest motivation comes from the customers who take the risk, show the determination and make the economic magic happen in New Zealand. What I love about banking is that it gives you a privileged look inside people’s lives, and the knowledge that you play a small part in helping them is very rewarding – customers who take the risk; their ambition drives things. I enjoy that.

Now I am 10 months into the Chief Executive role here at Kiwibank. It is an interesting time in banking with lots going on, lots of change, in an organisation with a different ownership structure with Kiwis owning the bank. I’m still learning about it, but I do appreciate that this group of shareholders is at the heart of New Zealand; very skilled people with great perspectives. I’m blessed in that sense.

“What I love about banking is that it gives you a great look inside people’s lives, and the knowledge that you play a small part in helping them is very rewarding.”

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP?

What works for me is, I hope that people here think we’re working with each other, not for someone. In my view, the best leaders are on the same team, maybe in different roles but not as master-servant. No one is good enough to have all the answers, and even if you have a good spell somewhere it is only temporary, before you hand the role on to someone to take it to the next level.

I try to create a sense of enthusiasm and energy; a mix of levity and a drive for results. I try and create a sense of possibility and sense of desire to move the organisation forward. People are often attracted to that, so I focus on it. I have tried to stay away from being a leader with an ‘I say, you do’ attitude: I don’t enjoy that style, so I try to avoid it myself. I prefer the growth I got out of really good quality questions through my mentoring time, which lead to an ‘I can always do better at this’ thought process. Therefore, I try to do this with people who work with me.

When I prepared to move into this role, Ross McEwan at RBS passed on a great piece of advice to me: that leaders need a deep sense of curiosity to understand the real drivers of a business and a situation. In an environment where there’s never been more scrutiny, this is very important. A deep sense of curiosity would have solved many banking issues.

WHAT DOES HE SEE AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR KIWIBANK AMID THE CHALLENGES IN THE BANKING INDUSTRY?

We are the biggest of the small banks, the New Zealand owned banks. That’s attractive to many current and prospective customers. The returns we make are for, and by, Kiwis – and for some people that’s really important. Our shareholders think about the world in a long-term manner. We’re well positioned to take a long-term view, with the requisite focus on the here and now, including sustainability and the good customer outcomes, which is absolutely appropriate.

We are focused on New Zealanders and the businesses they own. In a world of distractions that is an advantage, as we can focus on our core group of people and customers. We’re undergoing a significant change in terms of technology and how we deliver for our customers. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we are about to embark on what is an exciting chance to reinvent how we do things.

Kiwibank was formed to be progressive, and this is as true today as it was then. There is no one more all-in for New Zealand than we are, because every New Zealander owns us. While our competitors are trying to create a sense of ownership in and by New Zealand we have it and it’s a privilege and a powerful motivation; I feel a strong sense of obligation, as everyone who works here and lives in New Zealand owns us.

What we and the industry as a whole need to do is bring banking alive in a much more modern way than we have. Everyone would accept it is the interaction of people, process, product and technology that brings banking alive. The poster children for technology – Uber, Netflix and Spotify etc – they make it personal. It’s evolving fast, but in banking for the foreseeable future the marriage of technology and people is the winnable play. However, we aren’t forgetting that there are also moments when it simply relies on the fact that people want to talk to someone with their best interests at heart.

When I started 20 years ago, internet banking was just getting started. The challenge banks have is that we’re still offering a very similar service 20 years later. If I think about our new competitors and the technology companies and how they interact, they know much more about how we all live our lives and they are really leveraging that knowledge to deliver for their customers. If banks don’t get on with matching those really timely, contextual and relevant services we risk being marginalised, so the opportunity is to push forward.

These days products are much more integrated in people’s lives. When you think about broadcast TV versus Netflix for example, both deliver content and escape, but they offer it in very different ways with very different levels of insight, responsiveness to the customers context and situation. If you think about that and how those differences apply to banking, we’re still quite a way off.

“We’re undergoing a significant change in terms of technology and how we face our customers. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

ANY COMMENTS YOU CAN MAKE ABOUT THE ROYAL COMMISSION AND ITS RELEVANCE TO NZ?

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) didn’t reveal systemic issues in New Zealand but it did point to things we have to do better, and that’s fair. It used to be that saying we had good, stress tested frameworks was enough. But now, we have to show the evidence that a framework is working effectively, and how the customer is at the heart of the business. The question really now is “how do you know and evidence that the customer is getting the right outcome?”, that’s at the heart of everything. In a digital world, information spreads fast, so you have to really live up to that level of transparency and scrutiny.

If I zoom out, we are living in a new era of transparency, and that can be uncomfortable sometimes. That said, I don’t think we’re ever going back. For you to have good customer outcomes at the heart of your business, transparency and understanding are the new norm.

In my view, the drive for personal and shareholder return got out of whack with customer outcomes. Across the world, banks have to stare into the uncomfortable truth that they have been overly focused on just growing returns for shareholders and the banks. Things change and we need to do so too: so how we act and our focus has changed. Acting for the good of the customer means the best organisations will adapt.

The less distracted banks will be the winners, so we will all have to re-orient our investment decision towards making sure we have the right balance between our customers, stakeholders and shareholders.

ARE THE RBNZ'S CAPITAL REQUIREMENTS PROPOSALS COMPETITIVELY ADVANTAGEOUS FOR KIWIBANK?

The philosophy that the Reserve Bank Governor has for New Zealand stability is not one we can argue with. There are differences of opinion as to the levels of capital that need to be held – and we are in the midst of consultation now.

Although the spirit is very positive, one area that it is hard for me to understand how a borrower from Kiwibank is more or less safe than one with the Australian-owned banks. The question we ask is how can it be possible for half the capital to be held for the same borrower in the same street with the same income. We are looking for a level playing field. That needs to change. The scale of the Australian-owned banks gives them significant advantages: if you want vibrant competition you need to think carefully about that and the access to capital and capital markets for the smaller players in the banking industry.

ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT NEW ZEALAND'S FUTURE?

New Zealand is a great, safe place to live and work. Our traditional challenges of scale and distance are less and less relevant. We can scale in a digital world and we can be very successful. We do have to work harder in the way we evolve and support the transition of some of our traditional industries, such as agribusiness.

New Zealand has a lot going for it. But as we look forward, our use of resources and their impact need to adjust. We need to think carefully about how we leverage our natural endowments in ways that are sustainable. Today, we are borrowing from our kids’ future. There are big opportunities around green energy and transitioning to that sort of world. We must all have big ambitions to do that.

The world I see in front of me is one where the people that can orchestrate opportunities and partner with people are really developing winning businesses in New Zealand more than anywhere. I don’t believe that any one business can do it by themselves. When companies open up and trust each other, they partner with each other to get better outcomes.

There’s no doubt in my mind: I am very optimistic about New Zealand’s future.

Download MEttle Eleven

MEttle, a collection of stories and interviews with influential New Zealand business leaders, curated by MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

Read Now

Related Articles