ATB’s next CEO will need to be part marketer

Outgoing boss Dave Mowat explains what his successor will need to succeed in modern banking.
Dave Mowat ATB - 1

Dave Mowat remembers with a laugh the time he was presented with a business card that said “Dave Mowat: chief marketing officer.” It should be noted that he was president and CEO of ATB Financial at the time.

“It was a very polite way to say ‘keep your mitts out of our business,’” he says.

Mowat is set to retire in June from ATB Financial after 11 years in charge. Despite the fact that he’s occasionally stepped on someone else’s turf, he told strategy that his role was that of “chief storyteller,” and whoever takes over as CEO had better think the same way. There are big changes coming to ATB and its industry that will need to be communicated to a consumer group who “put banks between bottled water and soap” when it comes to differentiation.

“Banking might change more in the next 10 years than it has in my entire career,” he says. “What will bring that about is the digitization of our operations.”

During his tenure, Mowat’s seen ATB’s assets grow to $49.6 billion from $20.3 billion, its revenue double to $1.5 billion from $751 million and its branch footprint grow by 9% in Western Canada. But he knows that despite that success, there is much to do to win customers over in a world where digital media has created the expectation that every service can customize its offering.

“People love to hate banks, mostly because we’re rather condescending,” he says. Banks have traditionally dictated the terms for just about every financial product out there, from credit cards to loans. This leads Mowat to recite the adage that if the signs on Canada’s banks weren’t different colours, people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

“The end result is that banking is something that’s done to you rather than for you,” he said. “We’re driving to change that feeling to make banking work for people.”

The opportunity for ATB’s next CEO, he says, is in building not only a customer-friendly company that uses digital tools to add convenience, but to leverage banks’ reputation for security in an ecosystem where digital data breaches have spooked many Canadians.

“Security will become paramount, and breaches, if they continue to occur, will rock people’s confidence. Banking might be less about products and more about authentication in the future.”

Mowat sees business opportunities in positioning ATB as a secure hub for all online commerce for consumers to deal with other  institutions and reatilers. Much like Apple Pay acts as a secure go-between for online transactions, ATB could easily help connect its clients across banking brands to get the best mortgage or credit card for them, even if it comes from a competitor.

But in the meantime, while banks race to maintain a digital edge with tech labs and growing in-house innovation teams, the CEO’s role remains in large part a marketing job.

“You’re the chief storyteller, both inside the organization – because if people inside don’t get it then you’ll never sell it outside – and telling your story to customers.”