Banking in Canada is dominated by the big six banks, all based in Central Canada, and competing against them can be daunting. But Chris Fowler, President and CEO of Canadian Western Bank, has competed successfully by picking his spots, playing to his bank’s strengths in business banking and focusing on customer service.
"We’re not going to go and compete with them on every single product that businesses and consumers require," Chris tells The CEO Magazine.
"What we are able to do is pay more attention to clients and provide a differentiated level of service," he explains, "And provide an alternative in Canada to those very large banks."
Canadian Western Bank has built a reputation for business banking by serving the needs of small and medium-size businesses. The bank started with a single branch, but has grown steadily across Canada into a full-service financial institution, providing business and personal banking, specialized financing, comprehensive wealth management and trust services – all targeted to Canadian business owners and decision-makers. As of April 2022, its total assets had reached US$38.9 billion.
The bank has also been expanding beyond its western base into the populous province of Ontario — and opening two branches in suburban Toronto – in places where small and medium-size businesses are based. A branch for Bay Street – the heart of Canadian finance in central Toronto – is planned for 2023. But Chris says Canadian Western Bank won’t be confronting the big banks head-to-head.
Focused on commercial
"Where we want to make a real difference is in the commercial side, which has less involvement of many of the banks," Chris says.
"We can really do commercial banking well. We can have a very strong team that can meet with the clients and we have the expertise to provide financial solutions and respond with speed. The bank can respond very well to them, and then we can capture market share."
What we are able to do is pay more attention to clients and provide a differentiated level of service.
Canadian Western Bank’s commitment to business banking is reflected in its balance sheet. "We have 80 per cent of our balance sheet in commercial banking," Chris says. "That’s where we want to make the difference."
The bank aims to make a difference through innovative technology offerings, Chris says, such as cash management solutions using AI. It has also focused on its wealth management business, too, by targeting business owners – a customer base overlooked by the big banks.
Responsiveness as key
But underpinning it all is a commitment to customer service.
"We want to be in a position with clients where we have constant touch points, so that we understand what’s going on with them," Chris says. "We want to be responsive."
Being responsive is an ethos for Canadian Western Bank. And it goes beyond responding to customers. The company has a system through which any of the 2,600 employees can "ask an executive" – and receive written responses to their queries from a bank executive.
Where we want to make a real difference is in that commercial side, which has less involvement of many of the banks.
"We want to make sure that as we think about our staff, that we want to be very responsive to them so there’s not any mystery for why things are happening or what’s next," Chris says.
And this management approach is being recognized: Canadian Western Bank recently broke into the top 20 in the most recent Great Places to Work survey. "To achieve growth, everybody has to be on board and pulling together," he says. "And that’s the goal that we’ve always had."
Chris has experienced much of the growth at Canadian Western Bank. He started with the bank in 1991 shortly after graduating from the University of British Columbia with a Master’s degree in economics. He commenced at the account level, advanced to a credit risk management position before becoming Vice President, Banking in 2008. He was named President and CEO in 2013.
To achieve growth, everybody has to be on board and pulling together. And that’s the goal that we’ve always had.
To grow the company, Chris charted a course for central and eastern Canada – home to more than two-thirds of the Canadian population.
"Geographic diversification is an opportunity for us to grow," Chris says. "We’re really targeting clients that are already out there in the ecosystem, to win them from the big banks.
"We can cherry pick those businesses we think are great opportunities and we can provide banking solutions for them, those that we believe want premium service, and we can be very responsive and create a differentiated service level for that business owner. That’s how we grow our market share."