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More Than a Bank

Curtis Stange picks up the torch and continues to lead the charge in banking innovation

Curtis Stange, president and CEO of ATB Financial. Photo by Epic Photography Inc.

Curtis Stange is a prairie boy. He moved to Regina in the late 70s a teen and always had a lifelong love for agriculture. After he graduated from university, he headed to the world of finance because, as he explains, “Banking was a way I could work and stay connected to prairie roots and help out farmers with financial services. That sentiment grew into how financial services and banking can make people’s lives better and happier. I know that sounds cliché, but banking can be very personal and a real accelerator for personal lives and entrepreneurs to live the lives they want.”

Stange’s 30+ year banking career took him to various opportunities in Canada, but it was when he was working in Calgary for a national bank that his life took an unexpected turn.

“I had a phone call from Dave Mowat. He wanted to have dinner and talk about ATB.”

At the time, Mowat was president and CEO of ATB, a position he held and excelled in for more than 10 years. A banker getting a call from Mowat is akin to a recording artist getting a call from a major record label.

Stange says, “I enjoyed my job and loved what I was doing, but after having dinner with Dave and meeting the board, there was no doubt that I wanted to be part of ATB. It’s a purpose-driven organization that focuses on team members first. That is very much what ATB is all about.”

On July 1, 2018, Stange became the president and CEO of ATB Financial.

“If you were to ask me as a teen or young adult, ‘would you envision yourself as the CEO of ATB Financial?’ I would not have even known what ATB was! But I always had high aspirations to lead, inspire, and enable people to be the best they can be. I was always keen to take on more responsibility and always wanted to progress.” His aspirations and experience made him a natural fit for the job.

Stange has been married for 30 years, has two grown boys, is a grandfather, and loves the great outdoors. And he came very near to not being any of that, thanks to an incident that completely ruined his first possible career path.

“I don’t think anybody knows this, but when I was five or six, I wanted to be a stunt man!” Stange divulges. “But I fell out of a car in Thunder Bay.”

His mother was driving and the young Stange felt like getting some fresh air. Instead of rolling down the window, he accidently opened the door.

“I went tumbling out of the car!” he remembers. “I was just lying on the highway. Mom was frantic. She picked me up, dusted me off, and we kept on going. That was the end of me wanting to be a stuntman!”

Stange isn’t taking giant leaps off tall buildings in the name of entertainment, and he’s a lot more careful about differentiating between window rollers and door handles. However, the feats he performs daily for ATB are equally daring; he and his team take banking to a place it’s never been before.

For example, a new banking model initiated at NorQuest College has shaken up the industry – this is not how banks usually behave. NorQuest College now has a full-service ATB location on its Edmonton campus. It’s operated by college staff and is for the students, college employees, and general public.

“What makes this more than just another banking location, what makes it innovative and bold, is that it not only caters to students, but it also gives back,” said Dr. Jodi L. Abbott, president and CEO of NorQuest College. “Profits support scholarships, awards and bursaries, or the growth of the college’s programming and infrastructure.”

You did not misread that line. The profits from the ATB at NorQuest College go to the college to support the college and its students’ education.

Another ground-breaking initiative is in force at Boyle Street Community Services. The branch, called Four Directions Financial, uses biometric identification to make banking more accessible, and it’s the first institution in Canada to do so.

Thanks to biometrics, the city’s most vulnerable clients do not have to have carry ID or a credit or debit card to access their money.

“This unprecedented partnership with ATB has resulted in removing a significant barrier to banking, which has enabled our clients to take control of and protect their financial resources,” said Julian Daly, executive director, Boyle Street Community Services.

“We heard community members say they needed access to money every day; they needed it in small amounts every day; they wanted direct deposit for cheques, whether from the government or not; they wanted people who didn’t judge them; and they wanted all of this in a professional-looking, community-first, tradition-honouring place,” said Dave Mowat in a press release.

For Stange, these initiatives are all about ATB’s drive to stay ahead of the industry’s disruptors while focusing relentlessly on removing barriers to banking for all.

“People believe banking is all about profit and money, but it’s actually a people business,” smiles Stange.

But sometimes those people aren’t very happy.

Last year, shocking allegations were leveled at several major banks as service representatives admitted to shady tactics that allowed them to meet huge, imposed, and rigorously enforced product quotas.

“We watched that very closely,” says Stange soberly. “ATB was not implicated, but we took it very seriously. Our difference is that we have always focused more on the experience of the customer than on the number of products we sell them. We did some deep reviews of our practices and were confident that our approach was the right one for us.”

As the new president and CEO of ATB Financial, Stange is proud to carry on the institution’s traditions of putting its team members first, all while helping to innovate new practices and remove barriers to banking.

“I’m inspired by hard work. I’m inspired by bold, courageous leaders who take a stand and think differently – people who live with a purpose of abundance to help others and inspire others to be the best they can be.

“The most rewarding aspect of my career is the people: the 5,000 team members, 100,000 businesses and the 650,000+ customers that push us to be better and that let us know when we need to improve.

“This position is very exciting. It’s very humbling. We, as a team, can have such a great impact on the province. We believe we have a responsibility as an organization to be a catalyst that can drive innovation, be it tech, social, or corporate responsibility.”

Social responsibility is vitally important to Stange and the ATB Team. Along with ATB’s support of numerous non-profit organizations, Stange is very excited about a new partnership between ATB Financial and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

“About 100 team members on any given day miss work because they, or a friend, or relative is, impacted with mental illness,” says Stange. “What I’m really advocating for is to reduce the stigma and create a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Then, how do we take that and translate it into a healthier province? There are far too many people taking their lives. Too many of our young kids, especially from grades 6 – 12, are struggling with mental health and don’t feel comfortable talking about it. We believe at ATB that we can help the province and all Albertans understand mental health, and we are keenly interested in defining a way to help the province reduce the stigma so we can have a healthier, happier province.”

To this end, ATB and CMHA have partnered to provide tools and resources to help the ATB team recognize, deal with, and recover from mental health issues.

As his time as the president and CEO of ATB begins, Stange looks back to those who helped him achieve the honour.

“It’s hard to mention them all,” he reflects. “When I was going through the process of becoming the CEO, I leaned on a bunch of mentors and leaders that I interacted with over the years. My family is beyond supportive, especially my wife, Shannon, who, over the last 30 years, has moved the family with me across the country. I’m very grateful for the entire team and for different leaders across my 30-year career who have, at times, told me things I didn’t want to hear about–things I did wrong–but who also supported what I did right. I’m thankful for the groups that helped me think differently, and to Singularity University, which taught me to think outside the box about the abundance of access to technology for all.”

Stange is very proud to have received the Order of Athabasca. “I graduated with an MBA from Athabasca University in 2000, and that was just a really cool time in my career and my life. To receive the Order of Athabasca award was very rewarding for me.”

He and ATB Financial have also been highly recognized for innovative banking, such as being among the first financial institutions to lean into blockchain, Apple Pay, and Facebook Messenger banking.

From wanting to stay connected to his prairie roots to heading up the bank in Alberta that focuses on agriculture and beyond, what’s left to do for the energetic Stange? He’s just getting started.

“The plan is to listen!” he says with excitement about his next ATB adventure. “I’m going on a tour from the top to the bottom of Alberta to hear what’s on the minds of each team member, and to learn and really know where ATB is at and how we are doing in our purpose of transforming banking and making it accessible. I won’t take anything for granted. I will open my mind, listen, and understand before I act.

“To be given this opportunity is very humbling – to work alongside our team members, rich with a culture that has been created over the past decades, and to service our customers – I really believe we have a chance to transform banking and become more than a bank for Albertans.

“We demonstrate every day that we are here for customers in good times and in troubled times. We stand next to Alberta and Albertans. ATB demonstrated this in both the 2008 and the 2014 recessions. We understand Alberta. We know Alberta. We are right here with you making your time richer and your aspirations closer, and we are focused on your happiness. We really focus on the dedication we have to Alberta and to ATB being more than a bank.

“When I think of our team and our tech, I cannot wait to see what the future holds for ATB.”