Kicking off July’s Game Changers section is an interview with David Taylor, the Founder, President and CEO of VersaBank. Here he tells us all about the exciting journey that building Canada’s first virtual, branchless bank has been thus far.
You founded VersaBank in 1993 – could you tell us a bit about this 24-year journey and what it has taught you?
It certainly has been an exciting journey, filled with challenges and lessons. I thought that by applying emerging digital technology to banking, I could create a bank without branches with low overheads that could economically serve small niche markets that were not well-served by Canada’s large full-service banks. Considering this ‘branchless model’ didn’t exist at the time, I expected that I would have to educate regulators, the banking industry, customers and partners about how it would work and what the benefits would be.
I think the most discouraging lesson I learned was that banking regulators like the status quo and do not welcome new ideas, even if it means that some Canadians in niche markets would continue to suffer with only limited access to economical banking.
On converse, I think one of the most encouraging lessons I learned was that some large Canadian full-service banks recognized the important role that VersaBank could play in serving niche markets, which are perhaps too small or obscure for them, and have aided VersaBank in fulfilling its mission to serve these markets.
Developing and improving the software and systems to deliver ideally suited products to our niche markets is always an ongoing challenge, but as Terence Mann said in ‘Field of Dreams’, “If you build it he will come”. I found to my great satisfaction that if you truly endeavor to deliver ideally suited products, you will never have to look for customers. They will ‘come’.
Our niche markets are diverse and include: financing hospitals and schools in the remote Canadian arctic, developing customized web-based banking packages for the insolvency industry, providing back-end funding for the Fintech industry and point-of-sale financiers so that people can lease their hot water heaters, have cosmetic surgery, or lease equipment for their retail or business operations.
In many respects, we are the original FinTech, continuing to leverage the power of new technologies to reach our customers and serve their needs, but unlike the FinTechs of today, we’re also a Schedule 1 chartered bank with access to a huge source of funds, through an expansive network of more than 120 financial advisory and brokerage firms who deliver deposits to us digitally.
Finally, we have proven that you don’t need lax credit standards to attract borrowers. Convenient access, reasonably pricing and flexible terms will attract good quality borrowers. VersaBank has had no need for a collections department and has established one of the lowest loan loss histories in the industry. My hope was that by applying new technologies to banking, we could really make a difference to our customers’ lives. I think we have been able to do this and I look forward to continuing to grow our bank and to finding more innovative ways to serve my fellow Canadians.
Could you tell us a bit about your background prior to founding VersaBank?
I was fortunate to be provided with a solid foundation in banking by working at two leading, but very different, banks. I started my banking career at a large full service Canadian bank, the Bank of Montreal, where I discovered a passion for the business. It was a terrific opportunity to learn the basics of banking and I spent eight years there, before moving to Barclays Bank of Canada. In Canada Barclays PLC employed a niche strategy. However, when, amidst a downturn Barclays decided that the country was a non-strategic market, I saw an opportunity to create a Canadian niche bank, which ultimately led to the formation of VersaBank.
What have been your biggest achievements to date?
A couple of things immediately come to mind, which are at opposite ends of the VersaBank journey. They being: getting the digital bank started back in 1993 and successfully completing a very complex amalgamation transaction earlier this year. Both of these achievements were ‘firsts’.
I soon discovered that the banking regulators had no appetite to grant a bank license for a brand new bank with an untested model. So I decided to acquire an existing financial institution and transform it into my new model. I looked for the smallest financial institution I could find and discovered Pacific & Western Trust in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I met with the owner – Bill MacNeill at a restaurant and sketched out a plan on how I could transform Pacific & Western Trust on a napkin. When he asked if I was there to buy his trust company, I surprised him by suggesting instead that he ‘buys’ me to run and transform his trust company. I had extensive experience in the industry and was a banker and he was, in fact, a miner. He agreed to my suggestion and that opened the door for me to build Canada’s first virtual, branchless bank.
I also believe that the completion of our amalgamation in January 2017 was a key accomplishment. It was the first successful merger under the Canadian Bank Act and enabled us to significantly simplify the structure of the bank, while also realizing some significant financial benefits. It was a very complex transaction that required approvals from the shareholders of VersaBank, PWC Capital, the regulators and even the Canadian Minister of Finance. We secured an overwhelming approval from shareholders of the two companies and the other required approvals. It was a great accomplishment and was vitally important to the positioning of VersaBank for the future. We’ve created a unique state-of-the-art bank that is profitably providing banking services in niche markets throughout Canada.
Could you please tell us a bit more about the merger with PWC Capital and what it means for the future of VersaBank?
This transaction was historic in the sense that it was the first merger to be successfully completed by a Schedule 1 bank (a domestic bank that accepts deposits) under the Canadian Bank Act. Previous attempts by other banks had been unsuccessful.
While that’s a fun fact, the merger for us was critical to our future success, as it ultimately was about creating a simplified structure for VersaBank and eliminating confusion that existed with its parent company, PWC Capital. Previously, there had been two publicly traded companies, VersaBank and its parent a financial holding company, PWC Capital. This created duplication and PWC Capital had been highly leveraged. In addition, potential investors often were confused about the differences between PWC Capital and the banking entity, Pacific & Western Bank of Canada (now VersaBank). This structure was inefficient and it impeded our ability to grow. We needed to change it.
What emerged out of this complex transaction is a growing, standalone, publicly traded, high-margin, branchless chartered bank that uses its software to reach key niche markets, traditionally underserved by the big Canadian banks. We have enormous growth potential.
You’ve also recently opened a new digital facility, which provides the infrastructure for VersaBank’s branchless model and complements Canada’s FinTech industry – how did the idea about the platform come about? What is your outlook for its future?
Right from the founding of VersaBank, we believed that we would have a significant competitive advantage by designing, developing and maintaining state-of-the-art, custom banking software that helps to address customers’ specific and unique needs, while also minimizing the required investment in physical infrastructure and human resources. We’ve tended to focus on niche markets that are traditionally underserved by Canada’s big banks.
By following this approach, for example, we’ve become the bank of choice for Canada’s national consumer insolvency firms, by creating a banking package ideally tailored specifically to the unique needs of insolvency professionals. It’s highly efficient and very economical both for us and for our clients and has become a win-win for ourselves and our customers.
We recognized that there could be tremendous synergies if we brought some of our in-house teams under one roof, which has led to the establishment of our new digital facility, the VersaBank Innovation Centre of Excellence – the modern, new home of our in-house software development division and its eCommerce division. By bringing them together, we have enabled these teams to work side-by-side to encourage collaboration to improve our existing banking solutions and create new solutions for tomorrow.
The team already is working on some innovative new solutions that likely will hit the market in the next couple of years.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Arguably, when first conceived, VersaBank was a little ahead of the times, but the times have now caught up and VersaBank is finally able to take full advantage of its systems and model to serve people across Canada without branches. Its products are in high demand and its margins lead the industry without the usual loan losses. Twenty years ago this would have been a dream, but today, the dream has become a reality.