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Wealth of experience gained in banking

By John Lewis

It may be difficult to believe now, but there was a time when banks were respected and trusted high street institutions.

A time when there were no royal commissions into malpractice and no multi-million-dollar bonus payments to executives.

A faraway time of friendly bank managers who knew all their customers, and of teenage clerks who were given a bag of cash and a gun to walk up the street.

John Lewis speaks to retired Shepparton bank manager Bryan Gannon about his working life at the now defunct State Savings Bank of Victoria.

If you thought bank work was predictable and safe, think again.

Bryan Gannon was an 18-year-old teller at the Alphington branch of the State Savings Bank of Victoria when he survived his first brush with danger.

He was given a gun and a bag with £10000 in £5 notes.

He put the gun in his pocket and strapped the bag to his wrist.

His mission was to walk up the street to the Commercial Bank and change the notes to £10 ones then bring the bag back to his own bank.

It was all going to plan until the gun went off.

‘‘I was walking back when the next thing I knew the gun went off in my pocket,’’ he said.

‘‘There was smoke everywhere and I checked myself to see if I was hurt. Then I looked around to see if everyone in the street was all right.

‘‘I was shaking like a leaf,’’ he said.

When Bryan got back to his branch office he was still shaking when he handed the gun and the bag back to his manager.

‘‘I thought I was going to be sacked, or at least charged for the bullet,’’ he said.

But something far worse was in store — humiliation.

‘‘The manager walked back into his office and closed the door, and all I could hear was him laughing,’’ he said.

Keen on numbers and saving his pounds, shillings and pence, Bryan joined the State Bank as a 16-year-old fresh out of school in 1958.

He still has his State Savings Bank of Victoria money tin he owned as a 10-year-old.

He also has a collection of bank savings books listing car purchases, loans and personal savings from over the years.

From a fresh-faced but battle-hardened teenager with smoking trousers, Bryan moved through various bank roles — staff training, legal work, accountancy, and a ten-year stint at head office in Melbourne.

He eventually retired after he became the last manager of the State Bank in Shepparton.

Born in Shepparton, Bryan’s carpenter father moved his family of three boys and three girls to Thornbury to live in a house built by the bank in 1941.

‘‘In those days the bank would design and build a house for you. Dad’s mortgage was £1000 for a weatherboard and brick bungalow,’’ he said.

Of course, Bryan still has the contract signed by his father, Thomas, and the legal witness of the State Bank.

During his time at the East Ivanhoe branch, Bryan remembers the most tumultuous, yet exciting time of his career: decimalisation.

The bank closed for two days and staff worked frantically for four days including the weekend leading up to Monday, February 14, 1966 when Australia moved from the old Imperial to the new decimal system.

‘‘We had to manually balance all the ledgers in pounds, shillings and pence, then convert them to dollars and cents. Then we had to balance all the books again ready for opening on Monday,’’ he said.

‘‘It was complicated and stressful, but at the end of the day I ended up just three cents out,’’ he said.

Then things got interesting.

‘‘People would bring in really old bank notes that had been stuck under the mattress — some were so old I had never seen them before. Then other people would bring in thrupenny bits with Christmas pudding stuck to them. There were tins of them,’’ he said.

Bryan said his happiest times at the State Bank were at the little South Gippsland town of Mirboo North.

‘‘The people were really friendly and it was beautiful countryside. I was secretary of the school council, and my wife was in the mother’s club. You knew everyone and felt you belonged,’’ he said.

However, life wasn’t all beer and skittles at Mirboo North.

He said the notorious Morgan twins, otherwise known as the ‘‘after dark bandits’’, were abroad in the area during the autumn of 1979, and banks at Heathcote, Maffra and Mirboo were on high alert.

It was Bryan’s first week on the job as manager at Mirboo North.

‘‘One day I got a phone call from the police in Sale telling me they believed there was going to be a hold-up at our branch on Friday, April 27.

‘‘They said, ‘don’t worry — we’ll have a police car outside’,’’ he said.

‘‘They gave us a number to call if anything happened. They told me not to tell the staff in case they panicked.

‘‘Then a policeman who was new in town came in on Friday and said to everyone, ‘what are you lot going to do when the bullets start flying?’

‘‘Well, that did it. We waited all day, and I was a nervous wreck by the time I got home,’’ he said.

Luckily for Mirboo North, the robbers hit Heathcote instead, and Bryan lived to tell the tale.

When the State Bank of Victoria was sold to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1990, following the Tricontinental fiasco, Bryan only lasted another three years as manager at Shepparton.

He said the bank culture was changing.

‘‘I was never a salesperson. I used to know all the valuable customers, and all the others too, but you looked after everyone, they were all important.’’

He’s disappointed at the way banks have become large sales-driven machines.

‘‘When I turned 70 I got a letter from the bank offering me a loan. Who’s going to take a loan out when they’re living on a pension? I do feel sad about it,’’ he said.