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Alberta’s Business Person of the Year: ATB Financial’s Dave Mowat

He’s the face of the business, its biggest booster and its chief troubleshooter

by Michael Ganley

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Dave Mowat
Photograph Pedersen
“I put my email and number out there and told people if they had a problem, to call me and not get mad at the front office staff. Quite a few people took me up on that.”

Wednesday, October 1, 9:15 p.m. A private reception for ATB staff at the Radisson Calgary Airport. Dave Mowat, president and CEO of ATB Financial for the last seven years, has one hand in his pocket and the other clutching a half-empty beer. He’s standing, slightly slouched, in front of about 30 ATB staffers who have gathered for an evening of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. There are branch managers and loan specialists and a group of upper management from across the province. Mowat’s been going steadily since 7:00 a.m., when he boarded a flight from Edmonton to Lethbridge, but he’s still got a grin as he launches in.

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Dave Mowat wears a Rolex timepiece supplied by Gemoro Goldsmith, official watch supplier for Alberta’s Business Person of the Year
Photograph Pedersen / Stylist Leah Van Loon / Canali suit from Harry Rosen

“I can’t make it to the meetings tomorrow but I wanted to be here tonight,” he says. “Brian Kjenner has brought you all together, and I know it doesn’t take that much to get Brian excited, but the guy is excited.” Laughter and a smattering of applause. Kjenner, as vice-president of advisory services, organized the following day’s session. Mowat, rallying the troops, talks about finding ways to do things differently, about taking the bank to new heights. He thanks them for taking time away from their regular duties, acknowledging that the emails don’t stop and the work doesn’t stop just because they’re in a planning session. “I’m not going to say anything more than thanks for all being here tonight and have a great day tomorrow.”

The room returns to the pre-speech buzz and Mowat, who, by doing things differently, like engaging directly with customers, and listening to employees, and becoming the face of the organization, led ATB to its best financial results ever last year – with a net profit of $276 million – puts in another half-hour of mingling before heading up to bed, a solid day’s work behind him.

October 1, 7:20 a.m. ­Executive Flight Centre, Edmonton ­International Airport. Mowat sits in the departure lounge, sipping on a cup of pod ­coffee and talking about the puppy he and his wife, Sandy, are trying to adopt. Their golden retriever, Farley, died last year and now, with the three kids grown up, they’re taking a volunteer gig with an Edmonton-based training school for assistance dogs. “We’re going through an interview process right now as we’re going to raise a guide dog,” he says. “We’re not sure of the heartstrings part of it because you raise them from eight weeks to about 14 months. Then you hand them over to a professional trainer.”

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Disembarking in Lethbridge. “My best days are when I get out of the office.”
Photograph Pedersen

The lounge is filling up with passengers bound for Grande Prairie and Lloydminster and Medicine Hat. Mowat is heading to Lethbridge, where he’ll meet with the president of the University of Lethbridge, Michael Mahon, and give a lecture on leadership. Then it’s a drive to Calgary for an ATB function.

Mowat has changed the culture at ATB over his seven years, from a staid and safe bureaucracy – ATB is owned by the provincial government, after all – to an innovative, responsive and effective bank. “He will never not return a phone call,” says one ATB employee. “He listens to you and genuinely cares,” says another. Mowat, true to form, is loath to take too much credit: “There was always a culture to serve customers, but I don’t think it was enunciated very well,” he says. “We’ve worked hard at making the organization consistent.” Despite his humility, Mowat is the bank’s leader, its biggest cheerleader and its primary marketing tool. In 2011 and 2012, as the bank went through a painful conversion of its foundational banking system, he was even its first responder. “I put my email and number out there and told people if they had a problem, to call me and not get mad at front office staff,” he says. “Quite a few people took me up on that.”

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In the “SCALE-UP” room, Mowat starts a discussion of pedagogy and disruptive innovation
Photograph Pedersen

10:15 a.m. “SCALE-UP” room, University of Lethbridge. The ­university’s new “Student Centred Active ­Learning Environment with Upside-down ­Pedagogies” room features six oblong tables around the perimeter, each facing a large monitor mounted on the wall. The teacher’s desk is in the middle. It’s a first for the university, designed to encourage “problem-based” learning and group activities. Mowat, inspired, talks about Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, an advocate of disruptive innovation. “He says courses can be taught better from a distance using technology than they can in person,” Mowat says. “He has the technology nailed. It’s a big, crisp, full-sized picture of him – it’s not a crummy camera. It looks like you’re watching BNN.” To make his point, Christensen now refuses all in-person speaking engagements, but what Mowat particularly likes is the interactivity. Christensen uses software that allows students to lodge questions in one of two ways: “One where you can see every question anyone has put up and you start voting for them,” Mowat says. “The next question he answers is the one the most people in the room want an answer to. Perfect. Then the other one, if he’s having a debate and is trying to encourage opinion, there are three choices: ‘I agree with what you said and I’d like to expand on your point’; ‘I disagree and would like to rebut’; and ‘I have a new point and it’s time to move on.’ ”

“The guy who runs all of the really big deals that we do, the $20-$200 million deals, he’s a concert pianist. And I believe he problem-solves in a different way than I do. That’s what you need in an organization, different points of view.”

10:40 a.m. Centre for Financial Market Research and Teaching. Mowat is in the U of L’s new trading lab with manager Linda Thai. It’s a gleaming replica of a trading floor, complete with 48 computer stations and dozens of screens flashing data about stocks and currencies and commodity prices. “We use the Rotman interactive trader,” Thai says. Students trade against each other and against the market, she explains. The university even gives a group of students $100,000 each year – real money – to invest. Mowat loses himself in the data streaming by for a while. Then he gives Thai his business card and invites her to spend a couple of days at ATB’s trading floor in Calgary.

11:04 a.m. The office of university president Michael Mahon.The coulees of the Oldman River fill the broad window in the eastern wall of the small conference room. Mike Mahon’s executive assistant asks if anyone would like a coffee as he and Mowat settle into chairs. Suddenly, she recognizes him. “You’re the guy in the commercials,” she says, referring to any one of a number of ATB ads – print, radio, TV, YouTube – that have featured Mowat as the CEO-next-door type. “Are you?”

“Yes,” he says, laughing and asking if she’s seen the one with a young girl, Amanda, in it.

Mahon thanks Mowat for coming down and tells him a bit about plans for the upcoming 50th anniversary and about the university’s push to become a “learning commons.” “It’s about creating different physical spaces,” he says, “some for individual learning, some for small groups, and at the same time it’s tied into tech and the bells and whistles. We’re asking, ‘How do we take what we have and evolve it into a learning commons?’ ”

  • With Linda Thai in the Centre for Financial Market Research and Teaching With Linda Thai in the Centre for Financial Market Research and Teaching
  • Diagramming the relative importance of formal learning, informal learning and experience. Experience wins big Diagramming the relative importance of formal learning, informal learning and experience. Experience wins big
  • With University of Lethbridge president Michael Mahon With University of Lethbridge president Michael Mahon
  • With University of Lethbridge management professor Craig Milner, who invited Mowat after hearing him speak about “whole-brain learning” With University of Lethbridge management professor Craig Milner, who invited Mowat after hearing him speak about “whole-brain learning”
  •  Chatting with ATB personal banking specialist Katie Kriz before the lecture Chatting with ATB personal banking specialist Katie Kriz before the lecture
     
Photographs Pedersen

Mowat mentions a study by McKinsey & Co. that he came across recently. “They were trying to figure out why Europe is so much better with apprenticeship training. We stream kids. It’s almost criminal to stream a kid from Grade 9 on. Who knows at Grade 9?” Mowat says he’s a fan of a modern liberal education, where people are taught to be good communicators and to understand the world broadly. As for a specific academic focus? “The guy who runs all of the really big deals that we do, like the $20-200 million deals, he’s a concert pianist,” Mowat says. “And I believe he problem-solves in a different way than I do. That’s what you need in an organization. Different points of view and skills and ways of thinking. If somebody has a bachelor of music and went back and got an MBA or masters of science, we’re all over them. We don’t even know where they’re going to fit, but we’re going to hire them.’ ”

“Well, I really appreciate you being on campus,” Mahon says. “One of the greatest opportunities is for our students to have folks like yourself come to campus and spend some time with them. This is what creates a vibrant learning experience.”

“My best days are when I get out of the office,” Mowat says. “Last week I was reading books to a Grade 5 inner city school. And anybody who complains about teachers or the school system has to go and spend a day or two in a classroom. Parents get frazzled when one kid is saying, ‘How come this, how come that, why, why, why?’ and when you have 30 of them … And in this class, 70 per cent of the kids have English as their second language. We’re undervaluing teachers in our society, which is a poor thing to do.”

1:55 p.m. Lecture Hall Two employees from a local ATB branch are in the audience. They venture a couple of opinions on what Mowat has done to set himself apart. “You can be the littlest person on the front line,” says Katie Kriz, a personal banking specialist, “or you can be as high up with ATB as anything, and he’s amazing. He will respond to your email or call.”

“He has the ability to bring people together,” says MaryAnne Cristensen, a financial advisor. “Whether it’s our business side or the small communities, the larger centres, he has that ability to bring people together.”

Mowat launches into his speech on leadership to a class of about 60 people. “I guess I am a leader of sorts,” he begins, “but I don’t ever remember studying to be one or doing anything consciously to be one.” But he reckons he does have a few things to say on the topic. “First, we have to believe that leadership skills are important,” he says. “Too often we get seduced by a person’s skills or education, and we get talked into moving them to a leadership position. But really, how well they did in school has no correlation to how good a leader they will be. In business, we tend to take our best salespeople and make them sales manager. We take our best teachers and make them deans. We take our best tech people and make them CIOs. And in banking we take our best bankers and ask them to be branch managers. And lots of times, they’re just awful at that. Maybe they’re great at being a teacher, but awful at being a dean. It’s a completely different thing. It’s running a great big business and hiring people and doing public relations.”

During the question-and-answer period after the speech, Mowat is asked if people should volunteer as a way to demonstrate their leadership skills. “Yes and no,” he says. “I’m going through a very stressful time in my life. I’m part of an interview process because my wife and I are going to become dog trainers for the seeing eye dogs, where you raise it from a puppy to 14 months. They’re relentless. Interview on top of interview; they’re going to see my house today. And I think we’re going to do a good job of that because both Sandy and I are really passionate about this. We’ve had dogs all the time. So the answer is ‘yes’ but only do stuff that you’re ­interested in. If you’re just building your resumé, stay home and play games. You’ll have more fun and it will be more worthwhile.”

3:45 p.m. Highway 23, south of Vulcan Mowat makes the convincing case that, since ATB is legislatively bound to operate only in Alberta, as goes the province, so goes the bank. His answer is that ATB must help to build communities. As one small but poignant example, he highlights ATBs work with marginalized women. “They’re often coming out of jail, or out of an abusive relationship, or a divorce that has resulted in bad debt,” he says. “There are all kinds of things that ultimately marginalize women, and usually they ­culminate in a bunch of bad financial things.” So ATB has developed a one-year financial literacy program which has been taken by about 300 women. ATB (and its corporate partners, including the United Way of Alberta, Capital Region) also match any savings the women make two to one. “It’s a small philanthropic thing, but the real deal is to create that behaviour of saving.”

He says one woman in the program had been jailed for defrauding ATB, but that the bank has not had trouble with the accounts of women in the program. “Lots of times they see this as a way to ­rebuild their credit,” he says. “And the things they’re saving for aren’t like a new house or something like that. It’s a washer and dryer so they’re not tied to the laundromat down the block.”

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Mowat unwinds with ATB’s vice-president of innovation, Don Good, and other senior staff at the Radisson Calgary Airport
Photograph Pedersen

4:50 p.m. Highway 1, east of Calgary Mowat talks about his recent ­volunteer work as one of the primary movers behind Edmonton’s Light the Bridge initiative, which saw 60,000 LED lights strung from Edmonton’s High Level bridge. Again, he deflects any spotlight pointed at him. He credits Tegan Martin-Drysdale, the former community co-chair of Edmonton’s NextGen. “She got us to connect with a whole different genre of people than I could connect with, the younger set,” Mowat says. “They provided a lot of the groundswell of support.”

He credits Barry James, a retired partner from PricewaterhouseCoopers. “He’s lived in Edmonton forever and knows everybody. He spent hundreds of hours pulling it off.” He credits Edmonton Chamber of Commerce chair Lindsay Dodd for getting the chamber on board, and Brad Ferguson, president and CEO of Edmonton Economic Development, for seconding an employee to the project, giving it someone to organize and drive it along. He credits the corporations and wealthy families who donated $25,000 each, and the smaller companies that gave $25 per employee, and the 13,000 individuals who bought an average of 2.5 lights each. And he credits timing. “It really was a convergence of technology, too,” he says. “The lights got a lot better, a lot more reliable, the cost came way down and the energy usage of them. I don’t think if any one of those things hadn’t been there, it would have been feasible.”

In the end the project raised $2.5 million, and the lit bridge had grand openings on Canada Day and the Labour Day weekend. It has since been used, and displayed the red, white and blue of our southern neighbours on July 4 while the “Star-Spangled Banner” played. There are two boards to run it, Mowat explains, an architectural board that turns lights on and off and can remember patterns, and a creative board that allows an artist to manipulate the lights in real time. “It’s like a DJ with turntables; you’re doing it live as an artist and it’s spectacular,” he says. “I think it will become an artistic competency in this city.”

10:00 a.m. Thursday, ­October 2, Edmonton International ­Airport I’m beat after a day following ­Mowat around and an early-morning flight back to ­Edmonton. Mowat has to head downtown for an 11 a.m. meeting. “I feel like we really didn’t talk about ATB much, about the company,” he says. “Call me anytime if you have questions.”

WATCH: Dave Mowat’s Business Person of the Year keynote address (pt. 1)