John McClusky: The next challenge came with the realization and learning that my current role is incredibly different to anything I've ever done before

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A believer of change is a good thing, John McClusky fits in and stands out naturally in the global banking world where changes are constant and sometimes disruptive. John is the General Manager, Head of London Branch at the National Australia Bank. He’s one of the driving forces powering and building connections between Australia and the UK through financial services.

Two years ago, the Melbournian landed at London, an exciting move after stints in Asia and New York. This is a not just a career change, but also presents opportunities for John to leave his comfort zone and take up new challenges professionally and embark on a new adventure in London.

Advance caught up with John who’s indulging his London experience to talk about his career path and the opportunities London has afforded him.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

What made you move to London?

Two reasons: career conversations that drove me to think of professional development, and personally that I thought it was a time for change.

I've worked offshore before. I'd worked in New York for nine years. I've worked around Asia for around four years. My kids are at different stages, they were sort of out or had finished school and university. So I was open for another move.

I'd always liked working offshore. It's a big market place. There's always lots of stuff going on and all quite different. And I thought it was probably time for a rotation and a change. I'm sort of a big believer that change is a good thing

What was your first impression? Did it meet your expectations?

I'd sort of been to London a lot before my relocation. I told my wife that this opportunity came up and we made the decision that we were going to move. We were going to become empty nesters quicker than we'd anticipated. So we left our children and some elderly parents behind.

London is a pretty easy place to live. There's some great people here. My job is about connecting the London branch more to the Corporate Institutional Banking (CIB) Strategy and to get people to really get tied to the strategy and to understand its purpose. Help people understand their contribution to it and get excited about, I suppose, its tangibility and the growth prospects around that.

Can you tell us more about your role and what's your typical work day look like?

My role is the head of the London branch and we have about 270 people here. There are four main things that I'm responsible for. One is to the local regulators, the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which I am responsible for the system and the controls of the overall business, and working with our Leadership Team that all aspects and   activity of the business is compliant with local regulation

I am responsible for the staff, creating a more positive culture, higher staff engagement and better work environment. My third responsibility, as one of our offshore branches, is to again work with our leadership team to create the environment that enables a  larger and more consistent contribution to the global CIB strategy and most importantly remaining within that  strategy.

And lastly, we are all responsible to support our clients  who operate globally, in the places we operate and where we can support them.

How do you stay motivated?

Sometimes it's not that easy to do stuff where you think you need to create change to grow. There's certainly sometimes a lot of change required . Sometimes it's difficult, but I think the motivation comes from when you get it done and you've grown something sustainably that has real longevity around good strategy, with a great team around you then that end game is truly motivating. 

You have worked in the banking industry for quite some time. How has technology affected the industry? What was the biggest change you've witnessed?

Without a doubt, technology has changed and impacted how we interact with our clients. We see it everywhere in absolutely all client segments, whether it's in banking, institutional, mid-market or at retail level. And the only certainty is it's just going to keep changing. When I started in the business we used to have 10 to 20 people, talking to a range of different investor clients and varying forms of deal execution. Most if not all of that interaction and execution with clients  was really by voice. Now there's only two to three people in some product and client segments where , the client reach can actually be much larger  but the interaction can be extremely limited.

As the industry is striving for more efficient execution, straight through processing, it's also trying to comply more with regulation and market rules.

I think everything that's happened is positive and an evolving challenge, but the reality is it's trying to reduce friction, costs and be more compliant with regulatory change.

I think that customer interaction and maintaining great client relationships  is the change and sometimes the biggest challenge. The danger  in all of that, and what I've seen, is that you don't want to lose great relationships with the client but it has become more challenging as the industry has changed.

So a lot of change is positive change but it's a real danger going forward as well.We provide an array of services including liquidity, risk transfer, deep specialization,  across multiple assets and asset classes.  I think if you lose that deep interaction with your clients you do lose the opportunity to really show how you're providing added value by providing different insights, strategies, research, great execution and support and everything else that goes along with that.

What’s the growth opportunities for Australian firms into UK/Europe and how are you supporting UK/European companies back into our Australian markets?

The biggest opportunity, is for our Australian and New Zealand clients  to find other opportunities in offshore markets and in turn our UK and European clients to find opportunities in our home markets.  How we then support them and that two way investment flow ,  creates our opportunity,

The UK is Australia’s second most important investment destination and the second largest investor in Australia, each investing over A$400 bn of Foreign Direct Investment and Portfolio Investment in each other.

 At around £2 trillion, Australian superannuation funds are the largest funds pool in the Asia Pacific region and the 6th largest in the world.

 The rapid growth of these funds is expected to reach £3 trillion in 2030 and double again by 2040 meaning Australian Funds Under Management continue the trend of increasing their offshore exposures and searching for new opportunities.

In a nutshell, a lot of the Super Fund companies in Australia are looking for investment opportunities to help Australians get a better return and more diversity on their super. And that's why they look outside of Australia, for example, tapping into the UK, Europe  and other markets where we operate  for opportunities.

What's the most important lesson you've learnt from living overseas?

I think you learn so much. You get to meet and interact with people with such diverse backgrounds and experience that you wouldn't normally get access to.    I’ve always felt that the clients you deal with and really most interactions  are really collegiate, in terms of their willingness to share knowledge, experience and insights.

I remember a range of the first meetings I'd  had when I first arrived in New York for my first posting  in North America. Over the first few weeks I got a chance to talk to a range of  offshore asset managers and was so pleasantly surprised at how open and forthcoming they were with their time, views , insights and feedback. They were really prepared to share that global experience with you. That first impression has stayed with me for over twenty years and again repeats in my time here in London.

You used to work in New York. How does London compare to New York when it comes to work culture?

I really love both. Both are big cities with massive markets. I think the work culture is pretty similar, but I think the overall culture, London is probably closer to Australia. Maybe it's a commonality in sport and the sense of humor, but probably London's more aligned to the Australian culture for obvious reasons.

What's your favourite city and why?

Well, it's probably not because I'm here but  It's probably London again.  We've been here two years... It's gone really quickly. Sometimes it feels like 22 years. There is so much to see and do here. We've been to a lot of different places, love them all, but we really do like living in London.

What's the biggest challenge at work you ever came across?

One of the challenges was changing roles. The last business I had built a team and a business from ground-up. As you are aware, there’s a lot of setbacks in building a new business. But then eventually there will be a lot of wins. It was challenging to leave that behind but the right thing for me and probably the business. Change creates opportunity for everyone

The next challenge came with the realization and learning that my current role is incredibly different to anything I've ever done before. In this role you don't own a direct business line. But, you are responsible and certainly accountable to the local regulators for the whole thing. So when I started it, I felt 30% in my comfort zone, 70% out. I think I moved that quite a lot in, in nearly two years. But as I say, I'm not quite declaring victory yet. So it was changing roles, to something we built to start a new role that was very much out of the comfort zone.

Your go-to places for Australian coffee in London?

My wife and I found about 20 places that have Australian coffee in London. There's a little place in South Kensington called Brown and Rosie's. We'll spend some time there on a Saturday morning catching up on the week. .

What do you miss most about Australia?

Without a doubt, my wife and I both very much miss our kids.