Susan Brown recently retired as senior vice-president of the Alberta and N.W.T. division at BMO Bank of Montreal.
Calgary’s Business: What’s your sense the Alberta economy right now?
Brown: It feels like the economy is slowly healing. We’re seeing business investment return in many sectors, which is an encouraging sign that business people are more optimistic than they were a couple of years ago, when investment in many sectors screeched to a halt.
Agriculture, which is always a very significant part of our provincial economy, has fared well over the last few years, and that buoyed up the economy in general through the recession.
In Calgary, we still see a glut of office downtown, which is having interesting repercussions. As landlords of the new office towers entice tenants to move, the vacancy bulge is moving downmarket to properties that are older and perhaps in need of updates.
CB: You recently announced the rollout of Smart Branch locations in Alberta. Can you explain the concept and why BMO launched this initiative?
Brown: We’ve opened these branches in response to changing customer needs and expectations. Our clients are increasingly doing their day-to-day transactions digitally, using their mobile devices, online banking tools or ATM’s. Their need for traditional teller service has diminished significantly over the years. When clients do come into branches, it’s often for more complex needs, and they value relationship-based banking and are usually seeking advice. Smart Branches allow customers to quickly and easily do their day-to-day banking digitally.
These branches, which feature free Wi-Fi, smaller square footage and open concept designs without service lineups or teller counters, create an environment where customers can have more relaxed and open conversations about their financial needs.
Self-Check-in Hubs alert branch staff via instant message when customers arrive for appointments, making the experience more convenient and less time consuming. Our ATMs offer the option of selecting money denominations when withdrawing funds, so clients who don’t want a wad of $20 bills don’t have to stand in line to get larger denomination bills. Bankers in Smart Branches are equipped with laptops and tablets to help customers with the new bank technology and provide assistance with their financial needs.
CB: How many of these branches do you see going forward in Alberta?
Brown: We haven’t set targets for branch conversions. We’re rolling these branches out with careful consideration, based on customer need and feedback. Not all branches will change, and in the foreseeable future, our largest locations, where there are significant levels of business clients, will look much like they do now. As leases expire and as we do renovations however, we will always consider whether our new Smart Branch format would be suitable for our branch network.
CB: What are some of the key trends you’re seeing in the banking industry these days?
Brown: Changing client needs and desires have led to significant changes in the way we do business. As I’ve mentioned, the move to digital banking for day-to-day transactions has been transformative in the financial services industry. Our customers want to pay bills, deposit cheques, move or send money, and make investments quickly and efficiently, and many don’t want to have to visit a branch to do it.
We have responded by developing robust and highly-secure online and mobile banking platforms, and have also completely overhauled our ATM network across the country.
One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that’s a desire for advice when clients are undertaking more complex financial transactions, such as buying their first home, setting up savings plans for their children’s education or their retirement, managing estates, financing their businesses, etc. For those events, clients want relationships with top-quality advisers, and this is where we have focused our staff development and training.
CB: What’s in store for you in the future?
Brown: I’m very happy to report that I retired on July 31. After a 32-year banking career, 25 of them with BMO, I’m moving on to new adventures. My husband and I will remain in Calgary, as it’s a city we love. I will continue to serve on a number of corporate and not-for-profit boards here in the city, including the Stampede Foundation and Heritage Park Society. My husband and I also have travel plans, and I want to get back to many hobbies and projects that I’ve deferred for years.
John MacAulay is my successor, and he and his wife Shawna are relocating from Winnipeg, where he served as senior vice president for the Prairies/Central Canada division.
John has been with BMO for 26 years and continues a family tradition of banking service, as both his father and grandfather were long-tenured BMO employees.
– Mario Toneguzzi
Respected business writer Mario Toneguzzi is a veteran Calgary-based journalist who worked for 35 years for the Calgary Herald in various capacities, including 12 years as a senior business writer.