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ATB Financial’s incoming CEO Curtis Stange at the company’s offices in Edmonton on June 29, 2018.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

ATB Financial’s new chief executive has a tough act to follow.

Tuesday marks Curtis Stange’s first day of work at the helm after ATB Financial president and CEO Dave Mowat retired at the end of June.

Mowat helped drive technological innovation at the Alberta-based bank – Canada’s only bank that is also a Crown corporation – to keep up with, and sometimes outpace, Canada’s biggest Bay Street financial institutions.

Technology continues to reshape the financial services landscape, as Canadian consumers increasingly conduct their banking online or via smartphone rather than in physical branches.

Canada’s Big Five banks have ramped up spending on innovation, while also moving to streamline their banks to adjust to new face of banking in the digital realm.

With $51.9 billion in total assets, 5,000 employees and 750,000 customers across Alberta, ATB Financial is a fraction of the size of the Big Five banks – but its comparatively small footprint may be an advantage when it comes to deploying technological change.

ATB, for example, rolled out its Facebook Messenger chatbot that can facilitate payments last February, months ahead of many of its much larger competitors.

It was just one of the technological changes Mowat oversaw during his 11-years at the helm.

The bank – which is less than one-twentieth the size of the Royal Bank of Canada – has also rolled out humanoid robots at some branches, and the use of retina-scanning to offer banking access to the homeless without the need for a traditional card as identification.

Banks are going to see more change in the next decade than current bankers have in their entire careers, Mowat predicted.

“We might be exactly the right size... Larger banks will have trouble being nimble,” he said in an interview.

Last September, ATB began using biometric identification technology as part of a partnership with non-profit Boyle Street Community Services, which supports the homeless and other vulnerable people in Edmonton. At the resulting ATB agency called Four Directions Financial, using a retina scan or a fingerprint as identification allows people without official ID to bank.

Stange, who has been with ATB since 2009 and was most recently its chief customer officer, acknowledges he has some big shoes to fill, but says the bank still has some innovative projects in the pipeline – including the application of the distributed ledger technology behind Bitcoin to the province’s oil and gas industry.

“We’ve got a lot of things in play... We’re leveraging the blockchain technology and partnering with a couple of energy companies to help create a blockchain proof of concept, that will be much more efficient, much more transparent and reduce the risk for the companies involved in settling on oil settlement day every month,” Stange said.

ATB is developing a concept that will settle oil and gas industry transactions almost instantly on a secure and private blockchain system, instead of the current process used in the industry that takes weeks to complete.

For Stange, assuming the top job at ATB is “humbling.” He plans to take the time to learn by listening to customers and employee feedback.

But another launch is already imminent: the Alberta-based bank is gearing up to launch an online-only bank this fall.

“We looked at the landscape, and found with technology advancing, with changing consumer sentiment advancing, we would invest some money in technology and people, resources to develop a unique offer,” said Stange.

ATB itself has a unique structure, being a Crown corporation owned by the province of Alberta. Back in 1938, the province’s Social Credit government created a system of temporary financial institutions called Treasury Branches to give Albertans an alternative source of credit.

The bank grew along with the province’s economy and by the 1990s, the government began repositioning Alberta Treasury Branches as a competitive financial services provider. It became a provincial Crown corporation in October 1997, and rebranded as ATB Financial in 2002 as it broadened its investment offerings.

ATB has expanded its offerings to daily banking and wealth management, among other things, as well as a footprint of some 300 branches.

The crown-owned bank remains independent of the Alberta government, with governance rules such as a ban on government officials sitting on its board of directors to reinforce its independence, and it does not get any additional funding, he said.

“There’s lots of discussion, should government own a bank?” said Mowat. “And I think the uniqueness of Alberta... It’s not as established as the rest of Canada. It has very unique needs that benefit from that local knowledge.”

On that note, ATB has no intention of expanding its footprint beyond the province’s borders, said Stange.

“We still have work to do in Alberta,” he said.

“While we would be building technologies that would be ubiquitous and don’t recognize geographical borders, our focus is very much on Albertans and Alberta businesses.”

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