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Financial technology or fintech firms are turning their sights on the banking industry, but Canada’s big banks aren’t going to give up their dominant position without a fight.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Technology firms have turned several industries on their head. The way people buy books, hail a ride home from the bar or find a room for the night while on vacation have all changed.

And now financial technology or fintech firms are turning their sights on the banking industry, but Canada's big banks aren't going to give up their dominant position without a fight.

Joanna Rotenberg, head of personal wealth management at BMO Financial Group, says the needs of customers are shifting and clients are seeking out digital tools to access and manage their money.

In response, earlier this year the Bank of Montreal launched its SmartFolio investment service, which offers a professionally managed portfolio online for a low fee.

"It's for clients who want support from human professionals," Rotenberg said. "It's not a robot behind the scenes, but people who want to be able to access that digitally versus needing the hand-holding and face-to-face support."

The BMO offering comes as companies like Wealthsimple, Nest Wealth and ModernAdvisor look to take a bite out of the big players by making easy-to-open accounts online and cheaper by using exchange-traded funds.

Rotenberg says it has been more than just digital-savvy millennials opening accounts with the new BMO service, adding that it has attracted the attention of a wide range of clients in both age and amount of savings they have to invest.

"You can't stereotype people in terms of who is interested. It really is about people who are looking for something that they can use on their smartphone, but they are going to get the money management support that they need," she said.

And it isn't just investing where the big banks are fighting off new competitors. Retail banking, long the bedrock of the big banks, is seeing new challengers offering basic banking services to Canadians who have long complained about the fees they pay.

Online banks like EQ Bank, which is backed by Equitable Bank, and Zag Bank, which is supported by Desjardins Group, have launched with promises of lower fees and high interest rates on deposits as well as apps to help people manage their money.

Among the big banks, Scotiabank and its Tangerine brand is the largest player in the online banking business. The former ING Bank of Canada operations, which Scotiabank acquired in 2012, was one of the first online banks in the country.

But the other big banks have also been upping their game in a bid to remain competitive by cutting fees and making it easier to open accounts and manage money online.

The Royal Bank has started offering unlimited free Interac e-transfer payments for personal chequing accounts, while CIBC is offering an account with a flexible fee that varies depending on how many transactions customers make. TD Bank has launched a real-time money management app to track spending habits from eligible TD accounts and credit cards.

Linda Mantia, executive vice-president, digital, payments and cards at RBC, said mobile applications have been a key focus.

"There's very few things that allow you to be more relevant to the client, more convenient to the client, more secure than other channels and obviously incredibly cost-effective," she said.

Royal Bank has recently launched a new version of its RBC Mobile and RBC Wallet apps and revamped the look of its online banking website. A redesign of its online brokerage site is on the way.

Mantia said RBC both works with and competes against fintech companies.

"We're pretty lucky in a lot of ways that we're able to work with some of the smaller players," she said.

"It is a bit win-win for us – to be scared of them, to meet with them, to visit them – because the last thing you want is for people who have always been in banking trying to reimagine banking. You need the stimulus of outsiders."

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