Banker records his final tally

BY ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 13:39 29/12/2009
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ROBERT CHARLES

Looking back: Retiring TSB Bank managing director Kevin Rimmington enjoys one of his final days in the bank boardroom overlooking central New Plymouth.

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It's difficult to imagine mild-mannered Taranaki banker Kevin Rimmington as a gun-toting security heavy, but that's what he once was. Sort of.

Mind you, he was also once responsible for the complete shutdown of the terminal at Wellington airport, where his briefcase was blown up by an anti-terrorist squad.

In the past 48 years he has progressed from being an office junior at the New Plymouth Savings Bank responsible for such minor tasks as changing ink blotters at customer counters, to being the managing director of what is now known as TSB Bank and which holds more than $3.5 billion worth of depositor funds.

During that time the bank has grown from being a little savings bank not allowed to operate outside a 42 kilometre radius to an institution offering full banking services throughout New Zealand.

Within the bank there has also been remarkable change - and Kevin Rimmington has seen it all.

"Way back in 1961 when I started work as an office junior, the banking industry was so regulated that it was illegal to use ballpoint pens," he recalls. That was because of concern within a conservative industry that forgers could pick up the transfer of a signature that resulted from the downward pressure needed to make a ballpoint pen work.

"So one of my earliest jobs was to fill the ink wells at the bank counters, make sure the nibs of the pens weren't worn out, and change the blotters.

"We juniors also had to do such things as sweep the floors and wash the windows. So you can imagine I was keen to progress up the ladder a bit and become a bank teller."

And there was an added attraction - he was issued with his own revolver.

Before that, the only time he got access to any of the bank's Smith and Wesson revolvers was when he and other office juniors were required to carry cash and cheques to other banks in New Plymouth. Whenever that happened, they carried a gun under their jackets as they headed up Devon St carrying a leather bag with all the money.

Nothing ever happened, though. Just as nothing ever happened behind the teller's desk after young Kevin Rimmington got his promotion. The only fun the staff had with the revolvers was when they headed out to the Rewa Rewa rifle range near the Waiwhakaiho rivermouth for practice.

Back in the bank, the only remotely scary occasions were when someone inadvertently dropped their gun, he says.

"So we always had to make sure there was never a bullet in the barrel, so it couldn't fire when it hit the floor."

But this policy almost led to disaster at the bank's Waitara office, he reveals. One day, when the bank's manager was out, one of the tellers convinced another teller that he could pull his revolver's trigger, and because of the lack of a bullet in the barrel it wouldn't go off.

"What he didn't realise is that when the trigger was pulled, the revolver's chamber fed a bullet into the barrel. The gun went off - and the bullet parted the teller's hair and then went straight through the back window.

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"Nobody told the manager, and the bullet hole remained in that window for years."

In the early days of Mr Rimmington's banking career, there were savings banks and trading banks. The savings banks - and at that stage there were only five, at New Plymouth, Auckland, Hokitika, Dunedin and Invercargill - were cash and savings oriented, while the trading banks were the cheque- based business banks.

The early 1960s were also when pounds, shillings and pence were New Zealand's official currency, and each time a bank customer deposited money, tellers had to manually calculate the interest to be paid to March 31 the following year. "Banking was very administrative based in those days," Mr Rimmington recalls.

"We held ledger cards for every customer. On April 1 each year we would calculate the interest to be paid over an entire year, and as the year progressed every customer transaction had its interest adjusted and checked by another staff member.

"So banks spent a massive amount of time in administration. Remember there were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound, so each transaction could be very complicated."

To help tellers manually calculate interest, a series of charts were prepared covering an entire year, and on the seventh day of each month an office junior was required to replace these charts with the fresh ones.

"And look out if the junior forgot to do it, because it meant the tellers had to re-calculate the interest on all the day's transactions," says Mr Rimmington.

And did he ever forget? "I did once - but only once," he says.

July 10, 1967 was a big day, because that was when New Zealand changed from the old imperial currency to the new dollars and cents. But while the change promised to vastly ease staff workloads by simplifying transactions and interest calculations, the changeover was anything but simple.

"The conversions weren't exact - there had to be some rounding out," Mr Rimmington recalls.

"Not only that, but there was some resistance to the change. Some customers insisted on continuing to use what they called the Queen's money rather than the American currency, so we had to continue to use some of the pounds, shillings and pence for a short time."

One thing the arrival of decimal currency achieved however, was that it opened the way for the introduction of computerisation.

The earliest versions, introduced in 1972, were computers that didn't have any memory and instead transferred information on to magnetic strips on customer ledger cards. But the computers electronically calculated interest rates, so they were welcomed by bank staff.

Four years later advances in computer technology allowed the bank to become the first in New Zealand to develop and use bank- wide, real-time computer processing. "I'll always remember that. We set it all up in conjunction with the Waikato Savings Bank, and we'd ordered the necessary equipment when I received a letter from the Reserve Bank saying that it did not see any need for real-time on- line banking then, or at any time in the future.

"It also said we had no legal right to operate jointly with any other bank, or to set a separate company up. Basically, the legislation of the day didn't allow us to do what we wanted to do - which meant the law had to be changed retrospectively to allow us to purchase the equipment and to jointly operate with Waikato."

Mr Rimmington, who by that stage was the bank's chief accountant, says the letter from the Reserve Bank wasn't one he enjoyed getting.

"But we may have exceeded the speed limit a little in ordering that system," he admits.

Unfortunately, Mr Rimmington no longer has the letter - years later it was blown up by anti-terrorism officials at Wellington airport.

He had been at the airport to catch a flight back to New Plymouth, and had been waiting in line at a bookshop when his flight was called. He was still in the line when the flight was called again, so he decided he had better rush to the plane.

"When I got aboard I discovered I'd left my briefcase behind. I told the air crew, who said they needed to take off and suggested I get Air New Zealand to ring Wellington airport after we'd landed at New Plymouth.

"But when we called from the airport, we couldn't get through. Then when I got home there was a call waiting from a representative of a bomb disposal squad who accused me of being responsible for taking down the whole of Wellington airport.

"And they'd blown up my briefcase, which among other things, contained that letter from the Reserve Bank."

Taranaki Savings Bank's legal fight with the Reserve Bank was worth it, though. That was because its early entry into computerised banking, and the subsequent retrospective legislation, allowed the bank to be the first in New Zealand to install ATMs.

"We'd ordered four - two for central New Plymouth and one each for Fitzroy and Hawera," says Mr Rimmington.

"At around the same time I visited the Bank of New York which had also installed the automated teller machines. I asked the people there how many ATMs they thought were necessary - and they replied that they considered one ATM was needed for every one million people.

"And we'd just ordered four for a Taranaki population that in 1981 was around 104,000. I can distinctly remember telephoning home and saying that we may have over-ordered slightly."

The project went ahead, however, and in one respect it was made easy because the Taranaki bank had already developed and distributed the Cashflow card.

"We hadn't developed Cashflow as a plastic card to push into ATM machines - but as a customer identification card for use by our tellers. But it was ideal for use with the ATMs as well."

Mr Rimmington remembers the first ATM to be installed, which was in the Devon St East shopping arcade known as Centre Court. The bank was worried that some people might attempt to dishonestly use the machine, so a movie camera was installed that took a single frame every time someone inserted a Cashflow card.

"Then we worried that although that system would work well enough, we wouldn't know what time it was. So we installed a clock that also showed the date in the background so that it could also be caught on camera. And then the new ATM proved so popular that the camera quickly ran out of film anyway."

The computer network that included Cashflow was also used by other trustee savings banks throughout New Zealand, but later in the 1980s when all the other banks merged and left Taranaki's bank independent, there was no way this could continue because the former technology-sharing banks had suddenly become competition.

So the staff of the newly named TSB Bank set up their own computer system, which became a major financial success.

"The computerised banking package we developed sold all over the world - everywhere from Malaysia to Ireland - and it earned the bank millions of dollars," he says.

That, says Kevin Rimmington, spoke volumes about a bank that has always valued its independence. "Taranaki people are very independent. I think we tend to be a lot more secure about ourselves than people from other regions. Call it pig-headed if you like. But in the case of our bank, it has worked.

"Look at what's happened over the last two years. The world has gone through a major economic crisis - but TSB Bank has experienced its greatest level of growth. We've thrived at a time when other banks have either gone backwards or collapsed.

"I feel very privileged to have been able to be a part of all of that."

- Taranaki Daily News

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