Peter Nicholl

When Peter Nicholl embarked on a career in banking, never in his wildest dreams did he imagine his signature would feature on Bosnian banknotes.

Peter Nicholl, from the RBNZ to Bosnia

The Victoria University of Wellington graduate, who completed a Bachelor of Commence and Administration with Honours in Economics and Accounting, worked for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand for 22 years, including as deputy governor, before taking up a two-year role as an executive director with the World Bank Group in Washington DC, representing 12 countries.

At the end of his tenure, he was asked whether he was interested in becoming governor of a central bank.

"When you've been deputy governor you're always interested in being governor, but when they told me it was in Bosnia I said 'ah, I’ll have to think about that'," he laughs.

"People told me it'd be the most frustrating and stressful thing I'd ever done, as well as the most interesting and satisfying, and that turned out to be true."

When Peter took up his new role in 1997, the central bank in Bosnia was split in three. There were four currencies in use and three payment systems.

"Bosnia had faced hyperinflation, bank notes with 13 zeroes on them, war, bank collapses—every type of instability you could imagine, and nobody knew how to work together," says Peter.

"I was the neutral one who brought everyone together but it was very difficult. I didn't know who to trust and people didn’t tell me things.

"I had just as many frustrations with the international representatives as the locals, who tended to intervene then disappear."

At the conclusion of the Bosnian War in 1995, the law decreed that the first governor of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina could not be a citizen of Bosnia or of a neighbouring country.

"I used to joke that that's why they chose a New Zealander," says Peter. "There was no danger of me being accused of coming from a neighbouring country!"

Peter worked with three local vice-governors—one Bosniac, one Croat, and one Serb—as well as three local board members, also with one from each of the three main ethnic groups. Only one of the vice-governors spoke English at first so Peter relied heavily on his translator and press officer.

"I don’t think I could have survived without the law either," he says. "When arguing with local politicians I was able to say I’m not going to do that because the law doesn't allow me to.

"After a couple of years they left me alone. The Central Bank became quite popular because it introduced stability in an area that had known the worst instability you could imagine."

In his sixth year as governor, the Bosnian presidency granted Peter and his wife Glynyss citizenship to enable them to stay on longer.

"I agreed to remain in the role a further 18 months as a local governor as long as they named my successor at the beginning of my term. During that period I gradually stepped back and handed things over.

"My local replacement is still in the job, and the Central Bank is still one of the few institutions in Bosnia that works normally."

Throughout his time as governor, Peter often took what he calls a 'DIY New Zealand approach' in order to move projects forward.

"It's not a sustainable management style but it does get momentum," he says.

One of the issues he had to push through was the design of the Bosnian currency, which had involved months of arguing.

"Finally, I said I’m not discussing this anymore, I’m going to design it myself."

Using the names of Bosnian writers, Peter and Glynyss (who Peter says was his chief 'unpaid advisor') asked printing experts to design mock-ups of the banknotes, and eventually it was agreed that they should bear Peter's signature.

"Doing that established our reputation, we got things done. The currency became very popular and was one of the few unifying things in Bosnia."

After leaving Bosnia, Peter and Glynyss lived in Italy for seven years with their adopted Bosnian daughter Lily, with Peter travelling frequently as adviser to central banks in a variety of countries, including Kosovo, Kenya, Moldova, and Paraguay—a role he still does today from his base in Tauranga.

"I enjoy it, I get involved in all sorts of interesting issues but I'm not responsible for them," he says.

And Peter shows no signs of slowing down. "One of my old school friends asked me when I'm going to retire. In the sense of stopping and doing nothing I hope never to retire, maybe just gradually do less. I get involved in interesting things that keep me alert."