Best Employers

How Equitable Bank reshaped its culture for a future of mobile-first finance

This traditional trust company had to rethink its processes—and its culture—in order to rethink its business for a younger, all-digital clientele

Canada’s Best Employers 2018
EQ Bank employees

EQ Bank, a digital offshoot of the more traditional Equitable Bank, has created an open culture for its employees that blends fun and seriousness. (Michelle Siu)

It’s late on a Monday afternoon, and most employees at Equitable Bank’s headquarters in midtown Toronto are winding down for the day. But in the lounge area on the first floor of the eight-storey office space, two men in their 30s are embroiled in a Ping-Pong match that appears to be getting heated.

“Is this for the competitive pool?” Andrew Moor, the company’s CEO, interjects as he spectates. (“We have ongoing tournaments,” he explains.) Without looking up from the match, one competitor replies: “It’s fun, but serious.”

Moor is the first to tell you that Ping-Pong and foosball are hardly the secret ingredients for an engaged and productive workforce. That sentiment, however—a blend of fun and seriousness—is, and Equitable has it in spades.

“It’s a hard-working culture,” says Moor. “But it’s a fun and open culture, too.”

In many ways, it’s those values, put into action, that have made the company’s foray into the “robo-banking” space a wild success. And won it a spot on the Platinum list of large enterprises on Aon’s Best Employers in Canada 2018. It’s been less than two years since Equitable launched a purely digital offshoot called EQ Bank. EQ has no chequebooks, no tellers, no branches or ATMs: not even bank cards. It offers one service, called Savings Plus—a hybrid, high-interest chequing-savings account—and customers are signing up in droves. The service already has 43,000 active customers in Canada and well over $1 billion in deposits.

The appeal of EQ is in its simple, streamlined service. “We started by asking the question: Is this something the customer wants, or is it something banks have just always done to them?” says Dan Dickinson, Equitable’s chief digital officer.

Any feature that was solely in the bank’s interest was cut. Along with stripping away the physical properties of banking, EQ allowed customers to move money in and out of their account whenever they like, without paying fees or sacrificing their interest on savings. “We tried to take away the noise that makes it complex for people,” says Dickinson.

For four decades before there was EQ, Equitable was a trust company, providing residential and commercial real estate lending services. It officially became a Schedule I bank in 2013, and added savings accounts to its list of offerings. That same year, Dickinson was brought aboard to helm the conception and rollout of EQ, a process that took 18 months. “I honestly believe this is the only financial institution in Canada where I could have done this,” says Dickinson, who credits the company’s modest size and culture of agility with driving EQ’s success.

Today, Equitable and EQ exist as two separate entities—a B2B and a customer-facing service, respectively. Their differences are reflected in distinct branding, with the former maintaining the buttoned-up aesthetic of a traditional banking institution and the latter adopting the modern, minimalist look of a start-up.

Launching a new brand alongside a legacy one is always a gamble, but with EQ, the process was nearly seamless. That’s in part because EQ is their only product for consumer clients, and in part because that start-up spirit is a natural fit for Equitable.

In developing the new brand, Dickinson hired a diverse team of marketers from all over the retail sector, led by a former head marketer for Loblaws. “I wanted them to come at this not like bank marketers,” he says.

The company also hired Environics, a marketing analytics company, to help identify their target market: folks who spend lots of time on their mobile devices, are open to trying new things and have a high degree of control over their finances. “It’s not necessarily for every Canadian,” says Dickinson, “but it certainly found a home for more Canadians than we expected.”

According to Moor, moving into the “pure, hard-core, digital banking” space was the natural next step for Equitable. “Today, people would rather deal with banks online, so it just made sense,” he says. It isn’t news that there’s an appetite for digital banking. A recent survey from the Canadian Bankers Association found that nearly 70 per cent of Canadians do most of their banking on their computer or mobile device—up almost 15 percentage points since 2015. And nearly all signs point to a cashless society in the not-too-distant future.

Equitable Bank CEO Andrew Moor

Equitable Bank CEO Andrew Moor: “We’re deliberately trying to nurture new ideas and changes here.” (Michelle Siu)

But unlike the taxi or hotel business, disrupting the banking industry has proven easier said than done. Customers want the security and reliability of a big bank, but institutions able to provide that peace of mind struggle to turn their lumbering ships swiftly, and in the right direction.

Equitable, though, benefits from occupying the Goldilocks zone of financial institutions: It’s not too big; it’s not too small; it’s just right. “We have the safety and security of a Schedule I bank and being CDIC-eligible,” says Dickinson, noting that those were the main concerns of early prospective customers.

“At a small bank, you have limited resources [and] … it’s tough to convince people to put their money with you.” Meanwhile, with 600 employees, most of whom are in the same building, Equitable isn’t so big that “the corporate antibodies kill off any change,” he adds.

Getting a sign-off on new ideas, for instance, is uncomplicated and relatively free of bureaucracy. “People are very willing to come chat with me about any idea they might have,” says Moor, whose office fronts onto a spiral staircase that gives employees easy access to the top executive. “That idea can surface and bubble and be executed that much more quickly than at other banks.” Certainly, the company’s size helps, but it’s by design, too.

Moor will attest that Equitable wasn’t always such a great place to work. When he arrived 10 years ago, the company had a basic benefits offering and didn’t offer RRSPs. That’s changed, and so has employee engagement and motivation.

“Ten years ago, we couldn’t even think about how to compete for that retail consumer.” When they did take the plunge in 2015, the only hitch was having too many customers trying to sign up at once.

It’s a fool’s errand to guess where the financial industry will be in five, 10 or 20 years—whether we’ll be banking on Facebook or with bitcoins—but we can expect rapid change, and Equitable Bank hopes to be moving in step. “We’re deliberately trying to nurture new ideas and changes here,” says Moor, “and to move the place forward.”

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