01 March 2013

Confessions of a former classroom bank monitor

Much as they'd like to be a central part of our lives, the banks we use to house our funds and borrow money from are functional aspects of our lives with minimal emotional ties. It's hard to feel close to a corporate entity that's gouging you with excessive fees. This is particularly true in Australia and New Zealand, both of which are dominated by the Australian-owned banks, about which a 2011 Australian Senate inquiry report observed that 'their very high profits are ultimately paid for by households and small businesses. They are also a reflection that competition is not as keen as it should be'. In New Zealand few banks are locally owned, so the profits from most are repatriated to Australian owners, which is another reason to feel something less than loyalty to banking brands.

Nevertheless, until today I have spent 34 years with the same bank. I joined the Auckland Savings Bank in 1979 and that commercial relationship has persisted for my entire adult life. Its name has changed in the meantime, of course. First it shifted to 'ASB', which is fair enough, and then to the tautological 'ASB Bank' (where the B stands for 'bank'), and then back to ASB when everyone realised that they were being made fun of.

I was never particularly fussed about the peculiarly stereotypical and therefore somewhat creepy 'Goldstein' adverts for ASB that ad companies with a vested interest assured us that New Zealanders 'loved'. Actor Stephen Mellor did a perfectly decent job as the bumbling but likeable American banker parachuted into faraway New Zealand, but the whole notion of depicting a banker with a presumably Jewish name struck me as strange, even in isolated and innocent New Zealand.

My first advertising connection with the brand was of course the cheerful Kashin the elephant, whose trunk-tied cartoon image appeared on the cardboard envelope that protected my first bank booklet. My early banking history revolved around school at Mairangi Bay Primary, where I had an early taste of responsibility as the class bank monitor. ASB's school banking service had been instituted in 1926 to encourage young savers to start banking and hopefully stay with the bank. My role in this multi-generational corporate indoctrination campaign involved the not particularly onerous duty of collecting my classmates' Kashin envelopes with booklets and deposits safely folded within, tying them up in the red canvas bag provided for the purpose, and delivering them to the school office, where presumably a lowly-ranked bank clerk collected them. The booklets were later returned to us and we were able to admire the steady growth of our bank balances, in keeping with the noble virtue of thrifty accumulation. I don't know what other children were saving - it didn't occur to me for a moment that I might've illicitly snooped into their sacrosanct envelopes - but my own contributions were a steady 50 cents a week, at least for the first few months while I could still convince my mother to stump up the Endeavour-stamped coin.

The early indoctrination certainly worked. I stayed with ASB. And stayed, and stayed some more. In primary school I had memorised my bank account number. Now that's convenient.

I almost never withdrew money from my account when I was young. For starters, there wasn't much of it. But in addition, why would you? If you withdrew the money then you wouldn't have any left! One rare exception was for a demolition derby car set, the main attraction of which was that the two cars had detachable plastic parts that flew off when they smashed into one another. It was a bonus in my eyes that the two cars were also cleverly designed to resemble the General Lee (which I never knew was a Dodge Charger until this very moment) and a VW Beetle. That required a trip to the bank to withdraw a whopping thirty dollars, an unthinkably huge sum in my mind at the time.

Later during my university years I stayed with the bank because there were convenient 'money machines' (does any other country refer to ATMs in this quaint way?) around the campus. And, if I remember correctly, because at some point in the 1990s the bank introduced transaction charges but due to a clerical error my account remained listed as a fee-free youth account. Every little bit helps when you're a student!

During my time in the UK I used HSBC, and for some reason I quite liked the historical associations of banking with the venerable Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, established in 1865. Although in actuality that status was thrust upon me, because I was initially a customer of the similarly historic Midland Bank, which was founded in Birmingham in 1836 and swallowed up by HSBC in 1992; the Midland brand was 'retired' by HSBC in 1999, and its customers suddenly became HSBC customers. While it managed to keep its own name, a similar change in ownership happened to ASB when a 75 percent share was sold offshore to the Commonwealth Bank in Australia in 1989, and the remainder sold to the same owner in 2000. It hardly inspires much loyalty when ownership of a New Zealand institution founded in 1847 goes overseas.

This is part of the reason I joined Kiwibank for my recently established mortgage. For the time being at least, Kiwibank is 100 percent New Zealand owned, which creates a more tangible economic link to the local economy than a foreign-owned revenue generator. And as we recently saw when Australian owners closed down the highly-regarded National Bank brand in favour of the unloved ANZ brand, it seems that Australian bank owners are often out of touch with what New Zealand customers want. Witness their demonstrative, wearisome new ads featuring the very shouty Brian Blessed - these are the sorts of chest-beating ads that go down well in Australia.

On the foundation of the Auckland Savings Bank, the newspaper The New Zealander observed (in its edition of 2 June 1847):
Whatever may be our differences of opinion on other subjects, municipal, political, or religious, we can surely join with respect to this, in approval and hearty good wishes for success. Even our congratulations on that success would be hardly premature, for such institutions are no longer a doubtful experiment. With respect to their own internal economy, the soundness of the system upon which they are conducted has been ascertained; and they have been found of assured and proved efficacy in ameliorating, not only the worldly condition, but the morals of those classes for whose benefit they are especially designed. 
Their peculiar influence in checking, not only waste and unthrift, but likewise intemperance, and the crapulous manner of life induced by what is commonly called "living from hand to mouth"; their power in raising that feeling of self-respect, that consciousness of a position in the world, to be maintained and even bettered, which generally follows hard upon the acquisition of property, has been too long acknowledged to need being insisted on here by us.

This lunchtime I popped into the Lambton Quay branch of ASB and closed my accounts for good. So farewell then, ASB. You kept my money safe for a third of a century, and I suppose I emerged having well and truly checked any rogue elements of waste and unthrift, which is not a bad thing.

See also:
Obituary: Kashin the Elephant (1968-2009), 24 August 2009
Advert: National Bank - Henry Marries Teller, 1969
TV: 'Enos', Dukes of Hazzard spin-off series, 1980-81
TV: Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Enos' (clip)
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