Westpac: Bankers Working with Indigenous Communities in Remote Australia

The remote Cape York region of north-eastern Australia is home to approximately 14 000 people, most of whom live in communities of about 800 people. It is one of the most remote and poorest regions in Australia, with high levels of unemployment and poor job prospects, high rates of preventable disease, poor participation levels in education and high levels of substance abuse.

Westpac is one of Australia’s largest banks, with a number of retail brands as well as insurance, superannuation and commercial banking businesses. It employees 37 000 people and has over 10 million customers. Westpac became actively involved in the Cape almost a decade ago.

Business insight

Following financial difficulties in the 1980s, Westpac found itself in an aggressive cost-cutting path to survival. However, it became evident that this had been done at the expense of its customers and the community. Employee morale and customer satisfaction were low. Recognising that it had fallen out of step with community expectations was the beginning of Westpac’s sustainability journey and its transition to a more stakeholder-led organisation.

Although the organisation already had some association with Indigenous banking, a trip to the Cape by Ann Sherry, then head of Human Resources, in 2001 saw this take on a new scale and level of understanding. Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson emphasised the need to move away from passive welfare dependency and for Aboriginal peoples’ right to take responsibility.

It was clear that the trip had had a profound effect on Sherry, who said, ‘You can’t go into those communities and walk away thinking that it’s okay for a very affluent society like ours to have people live on rubbish tips … Those things happen in our own backyard but it’s very invisible.’

Sherry formed Westpac’s Indigenous Working Group and engaged other senior leaders in support of Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships (IEP), a partnership between companies and Indigenous communities.


The partnership is based on a change from a philanthropic mindset to one that puts communities in charge, and the program was developed following extensive dialogue with communities to help them establish their own strategies for improving their circumstances. Importantly, Westpac employees who go to the Cape, some 50 of them each year, are called secondees, rather than volunteers or mentors; they provide capacity-building and support on programs directed by the local communities.

Recruitment is also a careful process, with a strong focus on attitude and aptitude, through a series of confronting hypotheticals. Once selected, secondees undertake extensive pre-reading, including Pearson’s book as well as alcohol- and substance-abuse management plans, economic strategies and guidelines produced by Aboriginal people on how to consult with Aboriginal communities. Upon arriving in Cairns, there is a week’s induction training, primarily on cultural understanding, before making the two- to three-day drive to a community.

While there, secondees work on one of the two programs Westpac is involved in: Family Income Management to assist in individual budgeting skills; and Business Facilitation, which provides advice for new or existing businesses. These programs were chosen because they best draw on the skills of Westpac’s employees. Placements last between one and 12 months. As an indication of the strength of the program, all shorter-term placements are covered by the business, so individual line managers must pay for a replacement employee or manage around their placement. Longer-term appointments are jointly funded by Westpac and IEP. A great deal of attention is placed on cultural understanding. Indeed, the entire program has been designed with cultural sensitivity in mind.

It is also a life-changing experience for the employees involved, full of challenging but also rewarding experiences. As put by the then CEO of IEP: ‘For a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve been allowed or able to serve the community, and I think that rebuilds a person’s spirit or confidence … they’re not just being put in a safe room to pack boxes; they’re being put at the forefront of Australia’s biggest alcohol epidemic and most serious social problems.’

The focus of the broader IEP program is about creating a critical mass of projects that support Indigenous initiatives in a coordinated way, which include youth, health, social and economic programs. In this sense it looks at the more systematic processes and dynamics between them. For instance, it considers that the creation of more wealth in a community is likely to fuel the alcohol epidemic unless action is taken to address the entire system.


To date, more than 400 employees have participated in secondments in Cape York, providing the equivalent of 50 years of continuous employment. In 2010 Westpac announced an expansion of the program to include the inner-city Sydney areas of Redfern and Waterloo, which have large urban Indigenous populations.

While it is true that there are still social problems in the Cape, those who have been involved in the program from the outset say that the improvements are noticeable.

Source: Article 13.com, www.article13.com/A13_PrintablePages.asp?strAction=GetPublication&PNID=1521


Black, L., Westpac Australia and the Cape York Indigenous Partnership (2006) http://www.unglobalcompact.org/case_story/478

Westpac website, www.westpac.com.au


1 Briefly, describe Westpac’s sustainability journey since the 1980s.


Criteria Required:

Students should be able to detail Westpac’s sustainability policies and practices since the 1980s through their review of the case facts presented; essentially, the company embraced the ‘greed is good’ profit motive of the 1980s, to the detriment of its customers and Indigenous Australian communities. This detriment may have increased profits for the company in the short to medium term, but the reputational damage suffered by the company in the long term outweighed these short-term profit increases. Once the social consequences of the ‘greed is good’ profit motive were evident to the company, it took measures to invest in sustainability practices that benefited Indigenous communities immediately (and Westpac’s reputation and profitability in the long term).


2 How did this journey affect Westpac’s stakeholders?


Criteria Required:

Students should be able to identify the following stakeholders evident in this case: Westpac employees; Westpac shareholders, Westpac customers and Indigenous Australian communities. Students should be able to list the benefits and burdens that each of these stakeholder groups experienced as a result of Westpac’s sustainability journey since the 1980s. Answers should include (but not be limited to) the following:

 increased cost to shareholders in the short term, outweighed by increases in share value in the long term


 increased social capital in Indigenous communities

 improved reputation for the company in the medium to long term

 increased levels of employee satisfaction and commitment to Westpac.


In sum, students should be able to discuss how the short-term profit motive (that was focused only on shareholder returns) fundamentally undermined Westpac’s position and performance in the Australian banking market; similarly, students should be able to discuss how the medium- to long-term stakeholder perspective improved Westpac’s position and performance in the Australian banking market.

3 If you were appointed Westpac’s CEO, would you continue, enhance or reject this sustainability journey? Support your response and argument with theory derived from the chapter.


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