Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people, in their own words.

Catherine McGrath became chief executive officer of Westpac New Zealand last November. She has more than 25 years’ experience working in financial services and, before joining Westpac, she led large-scale transformations at some of the world’s best-known banks, including Barclays Group and Lloyds TSB in the UK. Earlier in her career, she worked at BNZ, ASB and the Prudential Group. She has law and commerce degrees from Canterbury University. 

My happiest memory of my grandparents was on farms in the Wairarapa and at the Mount, spending time with them either feeding out from the back of the tractor or helping my grandmother to garden and cook. She taught me how to air layer [propagate plants] when I was too young to even know what that was.

I was pretty quiet at primary school. I found my stride, I guess, a bit more at secondary school, as you get a bit more of that independence and sense of who you are.

I went to Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington, I was into debating, I played netball. I liked English and history more than I liked sciences. And I had a great group of friends the whole way through.

To start off with, I wanted to be a farmer, then at some point at secondary school I was probably impacted by TV shows, so I thought being a lawyer would be a good idea.

My sister, who is 14 months older than I am, lived in a certain hostel at Victoria University, so I applied for another because I didn’t want to follow in her footsteps. I didn’t get in. So, in that moment I decided I would like my own space and freedom. I chose Christchurch.

In the summer between my fourth and fifth years at law school, I had a job in the Bank of New Zealand. It was then I changed my mind about working in law.

When I was in the UK, my NZ connections included Tom Gallagher. He was at the Bank of NZ and then at Yorkshire Bank with Rob Fyfe (former CEO of Air NZ).

A lot of people went over on working holidays and did less career work. I did more of the career and work and less of the holidays, so it was less typical, but I absolutely did the whole "which European city should we go to this weekend" thing.

One of the things you learn at law school is that at the start of every bit of NZ legislation, there's this thing that talks about its spirit and intent. And that sort of shapes how you should think about it. I think the spirit and intent are really important things to focus on. And then be clear, what are the guardrails?

Catherine McGrath on a recent holiday in the Lake District of England. (Image: Supplied)  

I think if you just follow the dots, sometimes you get to the perfectly wrong answer.

I led the Barclays frontline team for the first year of covid. It was a team of 16,000. I remember standing in a greetings card shop, having done the maths based on what they were estimating the death rate among the population would be, and pondering how many of that team of 16,000 could die. And I remember sitting there thinking, 'I need to buy cards'. It was just the weirdest, most surreal moment.

I had an old boss once who said to me: "I see you with the senior people, when you come across as very hardworking, very straightforward, boring. I then see you with your own team. With them there’s this warm, slightly irreverent person. You've just got to work out how to be yourself."

But I know that if I'm having a bad day and I let that show to the team, the ripple effects of it can be way bigger. But, equally, I’ve been prepared to talk about things I’ve done and mistakes I’ve made.

Money for me is about spending time with those I love. So, I would be more inclined to spend money on holidays and go to cool places, rather than on things, because I think we're going to always have the stories about the amazing holidays.

I give to charities that mean something to me. Cystic fibrosis is one I support because there's cystic fibrosis in my family. Myelodysplasia [a rare blood cancer] is something that dad had, so I give in that direction. And most recently, obviously the Westpac chopper funds.

As told to Victoria Young.

This interview has been edited for clarity.