The smiling assassin returns for his biggest hit

The smiling assassin returns for his biggest hit

Bernard Hickey

ANZ Chief Executive Officer David Hisco felt entitled to claim around $50,000 worth of personal chauffeur and wine storage costs as business costs.

So (ANZ Chairman) Sir John Key pushed out his friend and New Zealand’s  most successful banker to protect ANZ’s position and try to avoid a Royal Commission here.

David Hisco just joined a long list of loyal and often friendly colleagues of John Key who exited their jobs in often surprisingly quick and career-ending ways. It could be said Hisco’s exit is Key’s biggest yet.

The Former Prime Minister and now ANZ New Zealand chairman became known in his corporate life before politics as the ‘smiling assassin.’

Strict Administrator

Despite an affable and collegial style, Key rose to the top at Merrill Lynch in London as first the currency trader and then the executive able to cut his losses and move on the people and the trading positions that he saw as endangering the number one position of his company or his party.

Repeatedly, while Prime Minister from 2008 to 2016, Key was able to quickly and cleanly cut out people who he saw as having failed or erred, and were dangerous to National’s success in Government. There’s a long list, and they rarely returned to fight another day.

Richard Worth, Phil Heatley, Kate Wilkinson, Chris Tremain and even Judith Collins were exited or demoted in fairly unceremonious fashion after various controversies or perceived poor performance threatened to distract or hurt National’s grip on power. Even his own surprise departure as Prime Minister in December 2016 showed a ruthlessness that was designed to both protect his own reputation as a winner and, he hoped, extend the life of the Government.

Any closeness or loyalty to Key personally did not block or delay any action.

Biggest surprise

The shock removal of Hisco as CEO of ANZ and his replacement with acting CEO Antonia Watson was perhaps the biggest of the surprise exits, especially given Hisco’s apparent closeness to Key (Hisco bought Key’s Omaha holiday home) and his mana as New Zealand’s top banker.

Hisco was arguably the most powerful and influential CEO in the country for nine years and had even been touted as a contender to succeed ANZ’s group CEO Shayne Elliott, who is another New Zealander.

Hisco took over ANZ in New Zealand in 2010 after a turbulent decade punctured by ANZ’s takeover of National Bank and the Global Financial Crisis, when ANZ, like the three of the big four, had to ask for help from the Reserve Bank to fund their 90 day loans overseas when those bank wholesale markets froze in London and New York.

Engaging and pugnacious

I have interviewed Hisco five or six times over the last decade. He is an engaging, pugnacious and no-nonsense Australian banker who took ANZ by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a powerhouse united competitor within three years.

He moved ANZ’s head office from Wellington to Auckland when he realised ANZ needed to compete much more aggressively in the fastest growing mortgage market in the country. Essentially, ANZ ramped up its lending in Auckland through 2012 to take market share off ASB. In the process, Hisco helped fire up the Auckland housing market again from 2012 to 2016.

The ANZ-National Merger

Hisco then built up ANZ’s momentum throughout the country so it was flying going into its branding and computer systems merger with National Bank in October 2012.

ANZ remained as the brand, but the two banks combined on the National bank computer system. Bank mergers like this are often a nightmare for customers and an opportunity for competitors to pluck the lowest hanging fruit out of the disrupted banks.

Hisco successfully managed the merger with barely a blip in customer service and market share. He also quietly presided over a reduction in ANZ’s exposure to dangerous dairy loans, flicking on some of the weakest lenders to other banks.

For example, ANZ let Allan Crafar move his more than $200 million of loans to Westpac before the poorly managed farming group collapsed under a welter of animal mistreatment allegations and effluent treatment fines. Westpac suffered heavy losses in the subsequent receivership and sale of Crafar Farms.

But Hisco’s reign was beginning to look messy in recent months.

The above article, which appeared in the Newsroom website ( has been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement. This is a highly reacted version. For full text, please visit


Photo Caption:

  1. Prime Minister John Key in December 2016 shortly after telling his caucus he had decided to resign. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.
  2. David Hisco (File Picture)

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