No More Tricks

As Alberta’s largest financial institution, 77-year-old ATB Financial has built itself on a commitment to better serving its community through a distinguished concept: ethical banking. Rob Bennett, the organization’s executive vice president of retail financial services, uses his more than 21 years of experience to create the strategic vision that has set ATB apart from the competition.

How ATB Financial’s Rob Bennett is transforming some of the banking industry’s sneakiest practices for the good of the company and the community

Rob Bennett describes himself as a quiet leader. He is not the face of the brand at ATB Financial, but as executive vice president of retail financial services, he is leading his frontline banking experts in making their own kind of noise.

“When we determine industry practices don’t serve the customers, who trust us, we make changes,” Bennett says. “There are a lot of petrified policies out there that don’t withstand the strength of a simple question. When we ask those questions, the past just kind of—poof—disappears, and things transform back to the way they should be.”

One of the first practices to get pierced was the inflated posted mortgage rate—the rate that typical bank customers see advertised on posters, windows, and websites; however, it is rarely, if ever, the rate that customers actually pay. The problem is, customers know it’s a bogus rate, but they get drawn into a humiliating negotiating dance with their banker.

“It’s like the limbo,” Bennett says. “Bankers make customers contort, customers don’t know exactly where the bar is, and while that might be fun at parties, it’s not the way to build a relationship.”

But there is a much deeper danger of the inflated mortgage rate. “That inflated number never really goes away, even if the negotiated rate is lower, and banks are counting on the fact that customers won’t figure this out,” Bennett says. “It’s in the contract, but it goes dark, and it’s never explained properly to customers. And it comes back in a big way because it’s used to inflate the fees and penalties consumers are forced to pay, especially if they break mortgages midterm.”

So, in August 2013, Bennett’s team ended the mortgage rate charade by introducing the Clear Mortgage Rate, in which the rates ATB customers see are the rates they can expect to pay. Another tactic one won’t see at ATB is big number nines painted on the windows. The advertisement of market-linked GICs, or principal-protected notes, leads consumers to believe they will get a nine-percent guaranteed return on investments, which in most cases isn’t actually possible to determine.

1938

Year founded

5,000+

Employees

676,000

Customers served in 242 Alberta communities

$37.7 billion

In assets

171

Branches

#10

Rank on Maclean’s magazine’s annual 50 best employers in Canada

“They simply do not perform as described to the consumer,” Bennett says. “It’s simply not fair—and not right to the consumer. I’m shocked that it has gone on this long. If market-linked GICs performed as they are described to the marketplace, every pension fund in Canada and every fund manager would carry them in their portfolio, wouldn’t they? There are many practices in the industry that are legal, but they are also kind of sneaky.”

At ATB, doing what’s right also means admitting when you’re wrong. When a customer alerted ATB to the fact that he had not, at age 59, been switched over to the no-fee-checking Freedom Account, ATB not only reimbursed his fees but also refunded the fees of another 20,000 customers as well. And, again, the language got clearer.

“We reevaluated how we communicate with those who trust us with their retirements so that they know when they qualify for the Freedom Account,” Bennett says.

Doing so has proved that what’s good for the customer is also good for business. “It has resulted in our being able to welcome a large group of new customers,” Bennett says, noting that the goodwill ATB has sown in the community has helped the bank grow at a faster rate than it has in more than a decade. “Albertans are banking with us in record numbers, and the pace is improving every day.”

That’s good news to Bennett, because he knows there’s more work to be done. He plans to keep driving changes that make banking work for people, whether it’s posting clear mortgage rates or working to avoid foreclosures. “I can tell you our strategy is not to throw the book at customers,” he says. “Challenging the industry practices that are working—I mean, working quite well for banks but not quite so well for the customers—has become a movement at ATB Financial.”