How ATB FINANCIAL Is Leading Their Digital Transformation – Starting With Their Culture

Disruption and Transformation are regular topics in any discussion related to the Financial Services sector. From Banking to Insurance, the volume and

ATB Financial’s robot greeter PEPPER – now a fixture in their Retail locations in Canada

Disruption and Transformation are regular topics in any discussion related to the Financial Services sector. From Banking to Insurance, the volume and veracity of debate about Digital Transformation is at fever pitch. With the specter of giants like Apple, Google or even Amazon entering into the sector, the topic is unavoidable. How, and where, to transform is a topic keeping many in the sector awake at night. I recently spoke with Lorne and Shahzia, delighted to meet you both. For the benefit of readers either not from Canada or not familiar with ATB Financial, can you give us some context and background on your organization? Lorne Rubis, Chief Evangelist, and Shahzia Noorally, Senior Leader Talent Acquisition, from ATB Financial in beautiful Edmonton Canada. Their organization, which isn’t a chartered bank but rather a Crown Corporation, serves over 100,000 business customers, over 800,000 retail customers and has a full Wealth Management advisory services business too. In our wide-ranging conversation we talked FinTech, competing with the Big 5 Canadian banks and how Culture, not Technology, is at the core of their Digital Transformation.

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LR: Absolutely. We’re an 80-year old Crown Corporation, which means we’re owned and operated by the Province of Alberta, We offer a full range of financial services from over 150 agencies and 170 branches across Alberta and our Board of Directors is drawn from the smartest and most accomplished business leaders in our Province. I’m proud to say that Board is composed of 50% men and 50% women too. Over our 85 year history we have had our fair share of ups and downs but I’m delighted to say we’re coming off our strongest financial performance ever coupled with our strongest customer appreciation scores and the highest employee engagement and satisfaction scores in our history.

Under our CEO Dave Mowat, who has been at ATB Financial for 11 years, we began a significant transformation in how we operate and the results speak for themselves. It really is incredible to see what our amazing team of 5,300 has been able to achieve.

HB: Congratulations, any organization posting those results would be delighted. Talk to me about what sets ATB Financial apart from the other banks operating in Alberta or the rest of Canada?

That’s a fantastic delineation, thank you. Can you give me some examples of how ATB does that?

SN: Perhaps it starts with something we constantly remind ourselves every day here at ATB. That’s the idea that people need banking, they don’t needs banks. That, in many ways, the services we provide should be bringing people closer to things that really matter to them and the things that make them happy. While it may sound weird, we think we are in the Happiness business not the Financial Services business.

While other banks are built on a premise of risk management, regulatory tolerances and operational guides, we believe it is much more important to think about how we can make the most positive impact on people and build out from there.

That’s why Culture is such an incredibly powerful part of our organization. A Culture that starts with creating an incredibly unique environment for our colleagues so they can then create happiness for our customers and, in turn, our shareholders. The people we work with and the people we recruit genuinely want to make the lives of everyday Albertans better and they want to be in that (Happiness) business, not in the transaction business.

We’re fiercely protective of that.

Certainly that type of relationship is testimony to a fantastic customer experience you’ve created. Getting back to the Culture piece, and the employee experience, what are you guys doing to foster that?

LR: Certainly, the Culture orientation starts at the very top of ATB Financial. When I was being interviewed for this role, the Chairman of our Board asked me which group was most important to focus on between employees, customers and shareholders. I told him – employees, customers, stakeholders in that order – fully expecting the interview to end abruptly. He just smiled and the interview progressed – I knew then that this was an organization that had their priorities right.

In terms of affecting “everyday Albertans” we’ve numerous stories that highlight that commitment.

Our Four Directions initiative was started to help the most economically marginalized in our society – the homeless. These Albertans have never had access to traditional financial institutions but, by using biometric technology , we have now created a safe and secure way for them to save. We’ve also created Entrepreneur Centers across Alberta where solo entrepreneurs can come to do work, network with peers and even get financial advice if they wanted. We realized how lonely it can be working for yourself and wanted to provide some respite and community for those Albertans. We’re also working with the Artist community in Alberta because we realized that the fluctuating nature of their work and life often meant they were shunned by other banks who wanted more surety from their clients. Providing those services is entirely aligned with wanting to be about Happiness, not Transactions.

I’ve been fortunate to meet ATB clients in some of the smallest and remotest towns we have in this Province. When they tell me they call their local Branch Manager before they call 911 to report a strange noise outside their house or that they will shove a cheque into the hands of an ATB employee at the grocery store knowing it will get deposited without any fuss, then I know we’re building a genuine and remarkable bond with our fellow Albertans.

SN: In simple terms it starts with an expectation we have of our team members and an expectation we, as an organization, commit to as well.

Of our people, we ask them to be great but, and we say this explicitly, we don’t expect them to be perfect.

To be resourceful and to challenge, enquire, probe and push to make themselves and this company better. We want people who are driven by that. People who don’t just want a job but want a career or even, see this as a calling.

In return we offer them an environment where they can actually have that kind of profound impact. We’re trying fanatically to remove the kinds of layers, oversight and bureaucracy that ordinarily stifle people like that at other banks or financial institutions. For example we have an 85, 10, 5 policy here where we want our colleagues to spend the 10% and the 5% on thinking beyond their current roles and projects but thinking about other ways we can make our clients lives better and working with us simpler. Our task is to provide an environment where they have that freedom.

No organization can promise their employees career security – certainly not in a sector transforming and evolving like ours – BUT, what we can say is that, if you’re prepared to commit yourselves to constantly pushing and striving to learn and get better here, you will leave this organization richer financially, richer intellectually and richer in terms of making an impact.

That’s remarkably attractive for the types of people who want to join ATB.

LR: We also have our 94 Word Story that articulates the core of ATB as an organization and a set of 10 Values that guide the actions and behaviours of our colleagues. Those are vitally important to nurturing the Culture here and setting up the expectation Shahzia referenced earlier. We genuinely believe in this notion of investing in the growth of people’s personal equity and, because we’re so transparent in that, we be believe we can attract the very best people in the world to work here.

Most recently we hired a new CFO who was formerly the CFO at Lloyds Bank in the UK. And our Head of Innovation formerly lead Yahoo Canada. Being able to attract talent like that to Edmonton speaks volumes to us about how our Culture really sets us apart.

We’re still small enough to be nimble and so committed to unlocking the potential in each team member to make a real impact, we’re finding great talent is seeking us out more and more.

We just don’t tell them about the Edmonton winters ( laughs)

HB: ATB Financial got on my radar screen when you installed a robot greeter called “Pepper” in your branches. That amazed me. Talk to me about the obvious Digital Transformation underway at the organization and how you reconcile that with such a deep commitment to Culture?

LR: Sure. The first point to make is that we see Culture and Digital Transformation as an AND, not an OR, proposition.

What an incredibly honest – and pragmatic – way of balancing those two elements. What else could I expect from an Albertan? In concluding our chat, is there any advice you’d both give to your colleagues in the FinTech sector, or any other sector, about how to do this? Anything you’ve learned along the way?

We have to ensure that every one of our colleagues, from our CEO Dave all the way down to our newest recruit, are digitally oriented. That’s non-negotiable.

It’s also about leveraging all the remarkable technology and technology partners available to ensure people can make the impact we’ve talked about. In real terms that has seen ATB transition entirely to Google’s G-Suite, a move that we completed in just six months, because we needed to operate with the very best and smartest partners we could find.

That has allowed us to collaborate in ways we couldn’t have five years ago but, more critically, engage in peer-to-peer problem solving which is so vital if we’re to remain ahead of the Disruption curve. If we’re going to ask our People – our Culture – to constantly be reimagining how can we blow this sector up and make it 10 times better, we have to ensure they have the tools to do that.

It is also because our clients are so much more digitally savvy and are as immersed in this as deeply as we are. For example I can appreciate their frustration with the banking sector when opening an account takes 45 minutes but getting up on the most sophisticated platforms available can be done in 45 seconds. I’d find that frustrating too and that’s the type of problems we intend solving with our Digital Transformation.

Without a doubt we’re making some big bets on technology and, in areas like AI, we’re going to see some of our strategic assumptions tested to the core. Can we ensure meaningful roles that make team members heroes and still implement AI at scale? How do we strike a balance between people and technology? These are some profound questions every organization is grappling with but, I think, by ensuring that we always ground our decisions in our Cultural tenets we’ll do a good job. And having partners like Google assisting and providing counsel to us is enormous.

SN: Talent and Culture are the winning combination but then, you’d expect me to say that ( laughs). Seriously though, you have to find a way – across the entire employee experience – to have your people show up in a way that genuinely represents them and the impact they want to have. That’s the only way you can truly get the very best out of your people.

We’ve thrown out many of the traditional approaches to recruitment because we don’t want to be one of a thousand places that recruits send a thousand resumes to, praying they get hired. There’s no humanity or personality in that approach – for the recruit or the organization.

Bringing humanity into the employee experience means being open and transparent about the organization you are and what they can expect if they want to thrive here. We’ve got something remarkable here at ATB but we’re definitely not perfect. Being that honest with ourselves – and the great talent we hope to attract – is crucial.

LR: Shahzia’s right about the transparency and humanity. That’s critical. You can’t build a Culture without it. In addition I’d say three things to anyone who asks what they should be doing.

Think Big, Start Small, Act Now.

I am a Toronto-based Consultant with a love for Marketing and a passion for Culture. In this Digital age, I truly believe that Culture either impedes or accelerates any organization’s efforts to grow. People, not Pixels, are the only sustainable competitive advantage you have.

You’ve gotta have a bold ambition that attracts top talent.

I would love to discuss your Culture with you and help you create a Culture that inspires and invigorates your people. Reach me at

You don’t have to boil the ocean but pilot a bunch of small things to get going. There’s no silver bullet but if you think in a linear fashion you’re going to get demolished.

Lastly don’t wait. Act now. Don’t wait for some mandate to get started. Go go go.

And, I suppose, lastly you can never rest on your laurels. Be relentless in getting better.



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