What does Back to the Future have to do with VersaBank in London? Nothing, really, but humour me for a moment.
In my Business London cover story this month, I draw a playful comparison between the classic movie trilogy and the niche bank that’s operated locally as Pacific & Western since it began 23 years ago. CEO David Taylor was one of the first to foresee a day when we’d do most of our banking remotely, rarely darkening the open-concept lobby of the local bank branch. In effect, he saw into the future, which was the only prompt I needed to invoke Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the story.
In 1993, Taylor and his partners bought the least expensive trust they could find – Pacific & Western in Saskatoon – to secure a financial institution with federally-backed savings insurance. He immediately closed its few branches in and around Saskatoon and launched his vision of a branchless bank. (There is still a Saskatoon office, which employs about 30 people and handles the deposit side of the bank. The lending is managed from London.)
There was no Internet to speak of at the time, so the bank created its own software to help users connect and manipulate their accounts. As the Internet arrived, they adapted, always managing to stay ahead of competitors by writing software that made it incredibly easy for customers to be customers.
Technology has been the bank’s driving force, and later this year it will make another move that serves to highlight its importance to its ongoing success. Having changed its name to VersaBank, it will move its technology people, some 25-30, from its downtown London office to an all-new tech centre near the airport.
Some folks believe the main reason for doing that is to allow Taylor, an avid pilot who built his own plane, to fly to work from his home north of London. That’s a secondary benefit. The primary reason is that VersaBank owns the building and had run out of room downtown. Inspired by a tour of Google’s New York presence, Taylor decided to create an “innovation hub” at the airport property, precisely the kind of tech office you might imagine, with open spaces, pods, foosball tables, bicycles -- all in an effort to spark creativity among code writers.
The bank will continue to be a niche player. And investors may continue to lament its sluggish stock price. But it turns a profit and never misses its dividend payments. With a new name and a sparkling new home that focuses more than ever on technology development, VersaBank is entering a new phase. Which, honestly, has nothing to do with Back to the Future.