It was a 10,000 pound sterling bet that got John Loebenstein into computing. During the 1980s as a specialist in reinsurance and risk management, Loebenstein was visiting an insurance company in England, watching rows of people inputting information from travel agents into an insurance company system. Loebenstein told the manager he could write a program that would cut the number of people needed by 90 per cent.
"The manager said: 'Ten thousand pounds you can't'," Loebenstein says. "But I did, and I got my 10,000 pounds by writing a simple program. I got him to invest in XT computers, which we put on the travel agents' desks, and they recorded onto these big eight-inch floppy disks and a motorbike used to go and fetch them." Today as chief information officer of St George Bank the solutions that Loebenstein manages are perhaps more elegant - but he believes no less practical.
The son of tobacco and cattle farmers in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Loebenstein had trained as a chemical engineer, but swiftly ditched it as a career choice in favour of working in risk management, initially focusing on the risk management issues associated with building nuclear power stations. After some time in the UK, he came out to Australia in 1988 and quickly took on a management role at FAI, which eventually evolved to general manager of the management information division.
Under his stewardship, Loebenstein says he and his department designed information systems that supported the FAI managers' needs, unlike his predecessor "who said he'd decide what information [the] managers had". At the same time he cancelled his predecessor's plan to build FAI a bespoke information system, which Loebenstein parallels to Mainstream or CS90.
Taking over the IT reins fully, in 1990 he oversaw what was then the largest non-government outsourcing contract in Australia when FAI's computing (with the exception of PC development) was outsourced holus-bolus to PMSC [Policy Management Systems Corporation, which was acquired by CSC in 2000]. He still considers outsourcing a valuable technique in some instances, although counsels against seeing it purely as a cost-cutting exercise. That said, he does benchmark St George's internal IT operations against best practice elsewhere, while ruling out nothing in the future.
Loebenstein left FAI in early 1995 and moved to St George as the bank's CIO. Three years earlier the bank had shaken off the mantle of building society to become a bank. Although there had been a St George CIO prior to Loebenstein, he was the first CIO who reported directly to the CEO, then Jim Sweeney. "Jim Sweeney was at that stage putting together a team to break loose of the building society shackles and really grow the bank," Loebenstein says. "We had a vision to become much larger than a building society, but not to lose the values of the building society."
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