From dairy farm to banking leader: CEO Marnie Baker shares her ‘sliding doors’ moments

La Trobe alumna Marnie Baker describes the choices that led her to become the leader of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. From opening her first bank account, to learning to calm her inner critic, Marnie’s story shows why having a strong community around you is key.

With each step toward a cashless economy, the banking industry has undergone tremendous change. Automation, online banking and e-commerce have led the charge in recent decades. Now, a global pandemic has made contactless payments the new norm.

La Trobe business alumna Marnie Baker (La Trobe Distinguished Alumni Award, 2020) has lived the transformation firsthand. On her path to becoming Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, Marnie has acquired over 30 years’ experience in the financial services and trustee industry sectors. Today, she’s responsible for around 7,000 staff and one of the top 10 most trusted brands in Australia.

The bank’s vision has always been community-driven: to help strengthen local communities and ensure they prosper. It’s a purpose that Marnie, a proud regional Australian, is passionate about – it even features in her earliest banking memory. Long before she became leader of one of the largest retail banks in Australia, Marnie walked into her local branch in Cohuna, regional Victoria, to meet the bank manager in person.

‘The bank manager was really important in small country towns. I can remember going into the bank to open my first bank account. And it’s interesting to think about all the identification checks required today to open an account, something that wasn’t a part of the process back then. As part of a local community, the bank manager knew me – he knew my name.’

A career built on ‘sliding doors’ moments

As the second eldest of four children and the daughter of dairy farmers, Marnie blazed a trail from her small high school class in Cohuna to La Trobe’s Bendigo campus, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Business. She describes her decision to study business as the first of many ‘sliding doors’ moments in her life and career.

‘My mother was a primary school teacher and from a young age that’s all I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to study in Bendigo, because my mother had studied there. But at the end of high school, as I was filling out my preferences for university, I realised there just weren’t any jobs for graduate teachers. So, in that split second I made a decision. I was quite good with numbers, so I chose to major in accounting,’ she says.

‘It was like in the movie Sliding Doors – abandoning teaching and going through a different door to become an accountant. Since then, I’ve had a number of sliding doors moments, a number of opportunities, which have led me down the path to where I am today.’

The decision was ultimately a great choice. Marnie soon realised business was an area she was proficient in. Looking back now, as COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria cause temporary school closures, Marnie feels a mix of relief and respect.

‘I’ve developed an even greater admiration for teachers. I think about it now, with all the home schooling going on because of COVID-19 lockdowns, and I’m not too sure teaching would have been for me!’

Marnie’s second sliding door moment was her resolution to start working while studying. Around 18 months into her course, she walked into an ‘impressive-looking building’ in Bendigo and asked for a job.

‘It seems strange now, but in those days you could do that. And they had a job going!’

A role model for women executives

The historic building Marnie walked into was Sandhurst Trustees. With its arched entry and wood-panelled interior, the building remains a Bendigo icon.

But even more impressive is what Marnie achieved there. Through hard work and determination, she advanced her career from Lending Secretary to become Sandhurst Trustee’s first female CEO and Managing Director.

Marnie recalls her satisfaction the day her photo was added to the building’s gallery of Board Directors.

‘Sandhurst Trustees started in 1888 and I became CEO in 2005. It spent a long time as a male-led organisation, in a male-dominated industry, and the walls were peppered with older bearded men. So, to be a female up on the wall made me really proud. I felt I was setting a pathway for other females to follow.’

Marnie’s career is also a testament to loyalty within a company. When Sandhurst Trustees was acquired by Bendigo Building Society, she moved with it. When, after a few years Bendigo Building Society became Bendigo Bank, she again stayed on, seizing new and challenging roles. Now, the organisation has evolved into Bendigo and Adelaide Bank – and Marnie’s once more at the top.

In addition, she’s Deputy Chair of the Australian Banking Association and sits on the Business Council of Australia, the Mastercard Asia Pacific Advisory Board and the La Trobe Bendigo Regional Advisory Board. She’s also a member of Corporate Executive Women, and of the Stronger Greater Bendigo 2030 Economic Development Strategy implementation committee.

Through her responsibilities, Marnie has earnt a reputation as a resilient, technically adept and community-focused leader. Yet she’s humble about how she got to where she is today.

‘Everyone asks me about my story, which I think is quite unremarkable. And perhaps that’s what makes it remarkable, in the sense that I could be anyone. I wasn’t from a privileged background. I’m from a regional area. I didn’t necessarily aspire to be the CEO of an ASX 100-listed company. If I can do that, then anyone can,’ she says.

Marnie’s advice: calm the inner critic and stay curious

Along the way, Marnie admits her biggest challenge was her own self-talk. The inner critic was loudest when she became a mum to three sons.

‘When I was having children, I was thinking “I don’t know if I can balance this. I can’t do it all. I can’t be a mother and have a career.” And all the way through my career I wondered, “Am I the best person for the job? Surely there’s other people that are better than I am,”’ she says.

‘Your own self-talk can get in the way sometimes. Don’t listen to it! It’s like a lizard on your shoulder – and if you can turn down the volume on it, you will realise you are capable of doing anything you set your mind to.’

Marnie recommends surrounding yourself with people who are open and honest with you, who won’t just tell you the things that you want to hear, and who’ll help you in the areas you’re trying to improve. Cultivating this positive people circle not only helps in your professional development, but also holds you accountable when you’re unsure whether to take on the next challenge.

‘It’s important to listen to them when they tell you you’re ready: when they tell you yes, you can do that job. I was lucky to have great people in my circle to be able to draw on. Even the CEO role I’m sitting in today was because someone told me: “Yes, you cando this.”’

Given how important a supportive community has been to Marnie’s career, it’s no surprise some of her strongest memories of La Trobe are of campus social life.

‘Coming to Bendigo opened up a whole new social world. I made a lot of new friends. I have such fond memories of the Student Union and of the parties we had. I remember Paul Kelly playing in the Student Union, I remember the Circular Theatre, and O-Week. It was such a fun time!’ she says.

But what Marnie’s most grateful for is the sense of wonder La Trobe instilled in her.

‘Studying through university provides you with great technical skills, but more so it curates a curiosity in you. That thirst for research and knowledge – is something you learn and hone through university. And it provides you with a curiosity that you take into everything in life.’