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BSP & Robin Fleming: Too big to fail in Papua New Guinea

Robin-Fleming
Robin Fleming

ERIC ELLIS | Euromoney | Extracts

You can read the full version of Eric Ellis’s fascinating Euromoney article here

PORT MORESBY - As might any banker who sports the startling nickname of ‘porn star’ among his colleagues and associates, Robin Fleming is almost destined to confound in person.

For a start, Euromoney waits 75 minutes for a long-arranged meeting with Fleming to discuss the bank he runs, the Papua New Guinea-based Bank South Pacific (BSP). It is the region’s biggest bank; BSP’s systemic 60% to 65% market share keeps its home economy afloat; and it has offshoots in Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Samoa. 

Unusually for a bank, BSP is also PNG’s biggest taxpayer, so there is a lot to talk about, except Fleming lingers in the office next door, chatting and laughing with colleagues. And PNG’s fabled coffee has not made it to his waiting room.

Admittedly, we are unlikely to be the most important engagement in his diary. In small-town Port Moresby, that would be, as Fleming would admit, PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, Fleming’s former boss.

Queensland-born Fleming’s moniker apparently derives from his trademark handlebar moustache, and the nickname says less about him than it does about PNG’s blokey business community.  His office overlooks the raffish pivot of commercial life in Port Moresby, the expatriate-heavy Royal Papua Yacht Club, where the main bar seems culturally marooned in the 1970s.

Not that Fleming sails, nor is he a lion on Port Moresby’s boozy business circuit. A devout man in a deeply Christian country of which he has become a citizen, the quietly spoken Fleming claims to work long hours and to prefer the home life.

A BSP lifer, Fleming first came to PNG from Brisbane in 1980 on secondment from Australia’s then government-owned Commonwealth Bank, which sent staff to BSP’s state-owned forerunner Papua New Guinea Banking Corp (PNGBC), which Commonwealth once owned.

Then in his early 20s, Fleming says he had a choice of working at PNGBC or in a Commonwealth branch in outback Queensland.  “I decided that if I was going to do a hardship post, at least have something a bit more exciting and get paid a little bit more,” he recalls. “There was a sense of adventure.”

Fleming has had adventure in spades in PNG, a country notorious for corruption, crime and boom-bust economic cycles. An early posting with PNGBC was to restive Bougainville, where separatist tensions in the 1980s escalated into a civil war, which has kept closed what was then the country’s biggest earner, the Panguna gold and copper mine, for 28 years.

In 2010, Fleming was arrested and charged with fraud in a dispute with a regional potentate, which was later dismissed in court. His job before becoming chief executive was chief risk officer.

Fleming has led BSP since 2013, taking over from Australian emerging market specialist Ian Clyne. But although he has been BSP boss for more than four years, it is still the ex-Indosuez and ING Clyne who seems better known in Port Moresby for modernising and internationalizing the bank. Indeed, as Euromoney moves around Port Moresby’s corporate offices, reviews of Fleming’s performance are mixed.

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His predecessor Clyne was forced to leave the country at one point during his term as chief executive because he learned he was being targeted by crime gangs. Fleming says his travelling around BSP’s far-flung branches “is not something I publicise widely because there’s a fair bit of risk associated with it. You’ve just got to be careful where you go, when you go, take precautions.”

Crime in PNG, he claims, is overstated, even though the bank frequently suffers robberies and staff kidnappings. Fleming says he has a workday personal security detail, which he dismisses as “for show”.

“Everyone knows where I live,” says Fleming. “If someone wants to get me… you’ve got to pay (off) a security guard.” T

Though Fleming seems to dismiss crime levels as exaggerated, he insists his staff escort Euromoney back to our Port Moresby hotel after our evening meeting. Says Fleming: “Maybe businesses that make 30% return on equity, like BSP, overstate that risk issue so they don’t have too much competition.”

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