Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our top businesspeople and politicians, in their own words.

Antonia Watson became acting chief executive of ANZ New Zealand in May 2019 after David Hisco left the top job amid an expenses scandal. Her position was made permanent in December. Watson had been chief financial officer at the bank as well as head of retail. She joined ANZ from Budapest, where she was general manager of Morgan Stanley’s business services and technology centre, and had various finance roles in Sydney and London before that. She has a bachelor of commerce degree with honours from the University of Otago.

I guess you could say I had a privileged upbringing. I went to a private school and my parents had a successful small business – a pharmacy.

My mother had a previous career as a lawyer and she was the only woman in her class in the mid-1960s who was admitted to the bar. So, part of me felt that I could do whatever I wanted to do.

My two younger sisters would say I was bossy; some would say that was an early sign of leadership.

If a typical experience at Otago University was living in a flat with an outdoor toilet, I had two other typical experiences: drinking at the Cook and the Ori and eating at Poppa’s Pizza.

My OE was fantastic. My parents met on the boat to London in the 1960s, so overseas work was always going to be part of my journey.

I wasn’t a banker first, I was in finance, so had more of a back-office role, but it was very much of the time. I did P&Ls for traders and you would have typical traders shouting at you on the phone as they looked at their screens.

My husband and I always planned to come home but we just kept getting exciting other things to do.

Finishing up in Hungary was a real eye-opener. We were living in such a large city but it lacked the culture of Sydney or London or Auckland. We missed eating out and seeing diverse people on the streets.

Mostly I walked to and from work or used the tram and my colleagues would see me and ask why I didn’t have a chauffeur-driven car. But I didn’t even have a car!

Antonia Watson circa 1994

 

The hardest part of coming in as acting CEO at a time of crisis [when David Hisco stood down] was a lot of our staff felt let down, and some of the commentary, it was clickbait probably.

It was a challenge getting used to being in the public eye. When you are in a central role and this happens, you have to separate Antonia the person from the person who is acting CEO of ANZ. That took me a bit of time to get used to and to develop resilience, knowing that journalists were writing not about me but about my role.

When I got the actual chief executive job, it was by sheer coincidence that the whole leadership team was at our home when the chairman rang to let me know I’d been successful. We have a pizza oven at home and were doing a Christmas thing and I took the call from Sir John Key in the bedroom and went back out and said, “That was a job offer”. So, it was great to celebrate because we had been through a lot together.

My best advice is to be authentic with yourself. I remember a group of people saying when I was appointed chief financial officer, “Oh, it’s good that someone like you got that role”, and what they meant was that I am more of a consensus person than an orders person and I’m open about myself, so I try not to turn myself into what is a typical CEO.

It’s been hard to splurge this year.  We’ve had our house painted inside and out, which has been timed perfectly because this year, we are spending more time at home.

We’ve got a bit of art, including a very large painting as a souvenir from Hungary. It is floor-to-ceiling and completely irreplaceable. It’s a big splashing waterfall of textured paint. When we renovated, we put in a wall just so we could display it.

Women in business have a real connection with other women in business because we are a minority.

I used to sit at our board lunches and the conversation was about cars. When women become a bigger part of the table, it becomes about clothes and shoes.

As told to Victoria Young. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.