Skip to main content

BMO chief Bill Downe insists the bank has long been ahead of the curve on technology, citing examples such as being the first bank to roll out automatic teller machines.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Don't count Bank of Montreal out in the retail banking technology race. The lender refuses to get left in the dust.

While rival banks such as Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Royal Bank of Canada have been vocal about their heavy spending on technology to keep up with evolving consumer tastes, BMO has been rather quiet, leading some to believe the bank wasn't focused on the revolution.

The reality is quite the opposite, chief executive officer Bill Downe said in an interview. BMO has been focused on rolling out products such as mobile apps, but "we hadn't talked about it simply because we didn't realize it was a topic of interest," he said.

To clarify matters, Mr. Downe devoted a good chunk of his speech at the bank's annual general meeting on Tuesday to technology, noting that spending in this area was one of the bank's key focal points over the next year.

"I wanted to be sure that I was clear about it so that I didn't get too many questions [such as]: Do you think your competitors are way ahead of you?" he said. "Because I don't."

Mr. Downe went on to argue that, if anything, BMO has been ahead of the curve, being the first bank to roll out automatic teller machines, launching electronic banking portal mbanx in 1996 (which later disappeared) and developing a mobile brokerage platform in 2003 and 2004, only to curb the plans because smartphone technology wasn't advanced enough yet.

Bank CEOs are starting to get questions about technology spending because there is a growing fear that the entire industry is about to be disrupted. Just as Skype spoiled upended the segment of long-distance charges for telcos, there are concerns that the likes of PayPal and Apple will start to take on more traditional roles in banking, considering they already process payments. PayPal's mobile payment technology is now available at 50 different locations in Toronto.

Canadian banks vary in their level of concern. Some, such as RBC, visit Silicon Valley to check up on the latest and greatest developments. Others aren't as fussed, developing more modest mobile banking and iPad apps.

But everybody has a vision of where they want to go. At BMO plans include app upgrades that let customers notify the bank they are going on vacation through their mobile app. As soon as the bank gets that alert, its system will turn around and offer the client travel insurance.

"When technology offers people experiences that are simpler or better tailored to their needs in one area of life, it influences their expectations in all areas," Mr. Downe said in his AGM speech.

"As customers increasingly embrace mobile communications and continuous access to information, they look for instant responses to all of their transactional needs. They have a growing appetite for personalized service, in the moment. And their preferences change frequently," he added.

The struggle for the banks is to reconcile "the requirement for agility and the need to maintain absolute reliability."

Follow Tim Kiladze on Twitter at @TimKiladze.