International

Pacific: Banking on a Shaw thing

New Zealander Bernadette Shaw has been carjacked in Papua New Guinea and ducked drunken fights in Darwin, yet it’s in leading a small Pacific bank through the Covid crisis that this risk averse financier is exploring her wildest frontier. Jonathan Milne reports.

On a wide, second-storey verandah looking over the Rarotonga Golf Course and out to the Pacific Ocean, Anna Shaw shows off her bike. It’s a pink and blue Malvern Star, with white-wall tyres. The verandah is big enough to ride around on, when she chooses.

But this engaging, confident seven-year-old prefers to go out for a bike ride with her mum at weekends. She’s learning tennis too. And over summer, she and her mother clambered up Te Rua Mangu, the distinctive volcanic outcrop that towers 413 metres over the island – a stiff climb for most adults. “My legs are strong,” Anna says brightly.

This self-confidence is a trait she shares with her mother. The two of them rattle round in this vast five-bedroom apricot-tinted mansion provided by Shaw’s employer, the ANZ Bank. The very fact that Bernadette Shaw chooses to live here tells a story in itself.

This was also the residence of a previous ANZ country manager, Gayle Stapleton. On the night of October 6, 2004, Stapleton returned home late with takeaways.

While she was in the bathroom, three masked men climbed up a ladder onto that same wide verandah, and entered through the open balcony doors. They grabbed Stapleton at knifepoint and threw her in the back of her own maroon Toyota RAV4, intending to force her to open the bank vault.

At the bank, though, they ran into another employee who raised the alarm. Foiled, the men drove up an inland road, where they dumped Stapleton and fled in her car. The men got away with nothing – but they did get away. It’s thought they may have boarded the 2.30am flight to Auckland that same night.

Stapleton remained in the job another 18 months – but she was never able to live in that house again. 

For Shaw? It’s not a problem.

Managing risk 

Bernie Shaw is a banker. She calculates risk. She manages risk. She is risk averse, but she’s not scared of it.

That should perhaps be reassuring for the 4500 people and businesses whose futures may be decided in meetings across her desk at ANZ Bank. She tells the story of an Aussie boat-yard owner who came in expecting to be foreclosed; instead the bank took a risk on getting him through the tough times.

The 42-year-old New Zealander moved to Cook Islands in September last year to run the local bank. She didn’t want to be like some of the “old school bankers” that had gone before. “I don’t need to go out and drink every night to socialise, I don’t need to throw really massive parties, I just need to run a really good business and look after our customers.”

ANZ’s leadership team with country manager Bernadette Shaw, right, at the tourism industry meeting that first revealed the scale of the economic devastation.  Photo: Losirene Lacanivalu/Cookislandsnews.com

Five months after she arrived, Covid-19 hit. 

Tourism – 87 per cent of the country’s GDP – shut down overnight. 

There was one morning in March when people realised just how bad things were. It was the big, quarterly Tourism Cook Islands breakfast. At the start of the meeting, marketing leaders put on a brave face as they forecast a 50 per cent decline in inbound tourists, from 14,000 a month to 7,000.

Then people’s phones started beeping with news: New Zealand was closing its borders. By the end of the meeting those same marketing leaders were ashen: we’re now looking at a complete shutdown of our industry, they said.

Shaw’s turn came to speak, and she stood up. The bank had crafted a hardship package that would be tailored to the customer and their business. “Rest assured we are going to support them,” she told the 200 worried tourism operators, many of them heavily leveraged. “We are not the enemy. We are part of the solution.”

Shaw had never before been a country manager, responsible for 39 employees and thousands of customers. But she did have experience across the Pacific, leading her staff through a major economic slowdown in Papua New Guinea, the aftermath of the Kaikoura earthquake that wrote-off her BNZ team’s glass-clad offices in Wellington, and the devastating category 5 Cyclone Marcus that caused $100 million damage in Australia’s Northern Territory.

She needs every bit of that experience and more, to guide her as the Pacific economy grinds almost to a halt. 

Just days after that tourism meeting, Cook Islands Finance Minister Mark Brown announced an economic support package – including three-month debt repayment holidays for everyone. 

The trouble was, the banks hadn’t agreed to this and indeed, ANZ was tailoring its own hardship package. “It was a very interesting learning curve, that one,” Shaw says diplomatically.

Shaw has lived and worked and holidayed widely enough around the Pacific that she has some insight into the potential for different nations to recover from Covid. 

She puts a brave face on Cook Islands’ recovery prospects, despite ANZ’s Pacific economist Kishti Sen describing the country as “particularly vulnerable as tourism accounts for 87 per cent of GDP”.

She thinks the Cooks’ close relationship with New Zealand (“We’re almost like a suburb of New Zealand”) means they’re better placed than other Pacific nations like Fiji, where she sometimes travels for work. Fiji earns more from tourism than anywhere else in the Pacific, though it also brings in foreign dollars from remittances, sugar exports and more. ANZ forecasts Fiji will lose more than 600,000 tourists this year, at a cost of more than NZ$1 billion.

Te Rua Mangu.

Shaw is also familiar with Timor-Leste, where she and Anna holidayed last year, hiking in the hills behind Dili. With an absolutely archaic health system entirely unable to respond to even the 24 Covid cases the country has had thus far, observers say the government made the only viable decision – to entirely shut down the country and its borders. Timor is 90 per cent reliant on oil and gas exports, and global crude oil prices hit a 21-year-low last month – but now they are picking up, and Timor will be motivated to get its oil rigs pumping again.

Then there’s Papua New Guinea, where she worked for five years. Papua New Guinea earns 78 per cent of its revenues from oil, gas, gems and other minerals. ANZ believes private investment will fall sharply this year, sending the economy into recession – every country has its own unique and, at present, overwhelming problems.

‘I WANT TO HELP’

Port Moresby is a frontier town with 16 to 19 percent unemployment. Shaw remembers a customer coming in for a meeting, unpacking his bag and placing a gun on the table as he fossicked for the papers he needed. 

“In any other country that wouldn’t be normal,” she says. “Moresby only attracts a certain adventurous type.”

Shaw is quite small, with blonde hair. Kids on the back of trucks would point at her as she passed. On the way home from work one Friday, she had forgotten to lock her car doors and someone tried to carjack her when she stopped at an intersection. “It’s funny, in those situations you don’t know what to do. So I started screaming.”

Extraordinarily, she felt safer living with other families in a gated compound in crime-ridden Moresby than she did as a single parent living in the insular isolation of suburban New Zealand.

The fact is, she loves Moresby – because it was there that she adopted Anna.

“I’m risk averse. So I’d had wonderful relationships, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I’d had children with someone, and then there’s a 50 percent chance of that not working out. As bankers, you know, we look at risk! 

“You look at risk, and then you look at ways to mitigate risk in your life. And I wanted to be able to help in my own little way. I thought, if I can give one person an opportunity, then that’s my way to make a difference.”

Adopted as a baby from her Filipino birth mother, Anna was that one person she could help.

“It’s just been an absolute miracle with Anna. We’re so bonded. I can’t imagine life without her. She’s the funniest little human, she’s just hilarious, she’s amazing company, she’s inquisitive, she’s resilient.”

There are aspects of the adoption Shaw doesn’t want to talk about publicly – but that’s only because she’s still explaining to her daughter. “She had a bit of a leap in understanding this year and she asked, can I meet my birth mother? And I said yes, absolutely. It’s important for her to know everything.”

For the past month Anna has had a nanny, Mona, a Filipino whose usual employer left the country when the Covid crisis hit. Anna is learning some of the language. “They sing a bit together. Anna’s very musical.”

Shaw laughs at questions about the challenges of being a sole parent, moving from country to country. Her grandfather died the week his eight child was born; her grandmother brought up eight children on her own, working nights. So this is nothing.

Shaw, herself, grew up the youngest of 10 children in rural Wairarapa. When she flew down to Christchurch to study commerce at university, it was the first time she’d ever been on a plane.

By contrast, 7-year-old Anna has already been to four schools, lived in three countries, and visited another nine.

All parents wonder whether the decisions they make are the best ones for their children. So does Shaw second-guess herself?

“Absolutely. There are a billion rule books for parenting, but you don’t know which one’s right. When she was a baby I Googled everything, because I didn’t have anyone around.

“We came here from Darwin which was quite hard on her. There are some really visual social issues – it’s quite confronting and it’s everywhere and it’s every day. Homeless, drunk, fighting, it’s a massive problem. So she observed that for two years and became quite frightened. 

“Here, sometimes we drive around the island just for fun, on the weekend. And just out of the blue she’ll be looking out and she’ll go, 'Mum, I really love it here'.”

On Friday nights, Shaw comes home from the bank and the two of them make pizza together. Then they curl up on the couch to watch a movie.

Shaw tries to turn her phone off at 8pm. Does she succeed? Anna smiles. “Umm …”

Anna says she has loved moving from country to country with her mum. “We get to travel. We get to see more of the sights.”

But this time, they plan to settle down for a while – probably five or six years, until Anna is ready for high school.

Staying in suburban New Zealand, going to the same school right through, playing with the same friends – it wouldn’t teach Anna about the world. “She wouldn’t learn the resilience – of what it takes to move to a different country, to start a new school, in a new community that is not her own.”

And yes, there are some numbers even a banker can’t calculate. “You can’t put a price on what this experience teaches your children.” 

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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